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Brain Waves And Rough Waves

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Austin Coley was told he was not “PhD worthy” while getting his masters. That didn’t stop him from getting his doctorate and continuing to research a mental illness that affected his uncle.

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Episode Music:
Rad Scientist Theme Motif - Grant Fisher
Golden Bunny - Daniel Birch
crystal life - Ketsa
Dontletthemin - Ketsa
Kitty In The Window - Podington Bear
Splash In The Ocean - Daniel Birch
Bossa Nova - Podington Bear
Gentle Sea Swell - Daniel Birch
On A Wing - Podington Bear
Keith in 1987 - Ketsa

BRAIN WAVES AND ROUGH WAVES TRANSCRIPT || AUSTIN COLEY

Margot: Hello Ikran.
Ikran: Heyo Margot.
Margot: So, National Mental Health Day passed a couple of weeks ago - October 10th and I was thinking about how lucky I was to get the help I needed as a young adult to deal with depression I was experiencing. At the time I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew it wasn’t good.
Ikran: I’m truly happy that you got the help you needed. Getting treatment for most folks is already pretty difficult. For Black folks black they’re about half as likely to be in treatment for mental health issues.
Margot: Half. Why do you think that is?
Ikran: I mean, I think it’s a combination of lack of access to adequate healthcare and stigma within the Black community.
Margot: Well, today’s rad scientist was motivated to go into science because of the mental illness of a relative who he lived with as a child. And there was stigma around the subject in his family - but in a way, that made him more curious about it.

Austin: And that's when I started to like research more and more about it and figured out that there's still a lot of research to be done to figure out like what's going on within these patients?

Margot: Dr. Austin Coley studies what is going on in the brain that can lead to symptoms of mental illness.

Margot: Stay with us because...

Austin: This is Rad Scientist.

Margot: Austin Coley came into science knowing exactly what he wanted to study.

Austin: I wanted to like do something and I was really, really passionate about, and that was schizophrenia.

Margot: It was a disease that he grew up witnessing but wouldn’t come to know by name until later.

Austin: Growing up, we lived, we all lived in my grandma's house and in Rockaway, New Jersey, um, my uncle and my grandma, my mom, my brother and we all lived in one household. And you could tell that my uncle was different to say the least, but it wasn't really discussed at all.

Margot: So Austin mostly avoided bringing it up until he was older.

Austin: Finally. Uh, asked my mom about it. She told me she was not comfortable talking about it.

Margot: But she did tell him that his uncle was experiencing schizophrenia so he looked into it himself.

Austin: And that's when I started to like research more and more about it and figured out that there's still a lot of research to be done to figure out like what's going on within these patients?

Margot: From then on, Austin knew that he wanted to help do that research to understand the root causes of this mental illness.

Austin: And that just like helped carry me through my PhD because I felt like I was like, filling like a, a real purpose.

Margot: Austin would need to cling onto that purpose throughout his scientific career because it wasn’t exactly an easy experience for him.

Austin: Yeah, no, it was, it was not smooth, uh, tons of, uh, Rocky roads there. So there's, there's like hurdle after hurdle after hurdle. You're not even just getting, you're not even getting to the science part yet.

Margot: Like when he got a masters - a step that some students take before making the big PhD leap.

Austin: I was told by, uh, a committee that I was not PhD worthy. And this was right around the time when my, paper, my first paper was coming out. They made me feel like I could not become a scientist, that I was not a scientist just because I did not look like them and I did not talk like them. And the problem is that once someone makes you feel that way, Then you start to feel that way. It really discouraged me, um, at that point to even think about, um, PhD. Um, and I ended up going, uh, back home to New Jersey.

Margot: Austin applied for jobs when he got home - in industry, as a lab tech, as a teacher.

Austin: I got three offers within like two, a two week period.

Margot: One of the jobs was as a lab tech at Upenn. He attributes this experience with giving him the confidence to disregard the voices of his committee members.

Austin: So that's when I decided to like, apply for, for PhD programs.

[PAUSE]

Margot: Austin went to Drexel University in Philly. He already knew what he wanted to study - schizophrenia- but there are lots of levels that you can study a disease at: from human behavior down to like the molecular scale. But there was something about how the cells of the brain work that called to him.

Austin: I loved, uh, cell physiology. I could not figure out why. I just, I don't know. Maybe I just love like molecules and how this cells work.

Margot: I feel you Austin. Brain cells are truly magical - the way they can convert chemical signals into electricity that pulses through intricate pathways set up by genetics and development. And the functioning of these cells along with how they are connected with other cells in the brain can go awry, causing various disorders.
So Austin’s focus was on this protein PSD 95 which is involved in helping chemical receptors go to the right places within maturing brain cells. And he was interested in this protein because of what was found in the brains of people who had schizophrenia and had passed away.

Austin: So within schizophrenia patients there's a thirty percent reduction of this molecule.

Margot: That reduction was specific to a region in the brain called the prefrontal cortex, right behind your forehead.

Austin: Oh, the prefrontal cortex is amazing. So it's, it's involved in so much.

Margot: This is a really important part of our brains. Do you remember the tale of Phineas Gage? The railway foreman who got an iron rod blown through his head and somehow survived. Well, his left frontal lobe, where the half of the prefrontal cortex lives, was shredded. Afterwards it was reported that he had personality changes. Whether or not the changes were dramatic as reported, we do know the prefrontal cortex is important for planning, sociability, decision making, attention. That’s why it was so intriguing that there would be change in this PSD-95 protein specifically in this brain region. What happens when there is less of this protein in the brain? That’s what Austin wanted to know. So he tested it in mice.

Austin: We had this PSD 95 deficient mouse model. These mice acted abnormal. So we ran behavioral tests, working memory tests, and also sociability tests.

Margot: The mice were really bad at remembering which side of a maze to run to for a treat, even when they were prompted just 40 seconds prior to the test.

Austin: They also had a dramatic reduction in, in, in sociability when interacting with like a newer mouse slowly, they had sort of like social withdrawal-type symptoms.

Margot: It appeared that without the protein around, mice had changes in behavior that could have some similarity to schizophrenia symptoms. So next, Austin got to do his favorite thing - look at the physiology of cells in the prefrontal cortex and see how they had changed without this protein around. And what he found is that the cells weren’t receiving and sending out as much electricity as before to each because certain receptors that PSD-95 usually helps get situated, weren’t there and others had taken their spot!

Margot: So what Austin had done was take a phenomenon observed in humans, and figure out the changes at the brain cell level that might happen because of this phenomenon. And of course the hope is that his findings could one day be translated into some sort of therapeutic.

Margot: Austin finished his PhD, and decided to continue studying schizophrenia as a postdoc in San Diego at a center where a very famous author also studied.

Austin: I was like, what? He did his postdoc here? It's just insane.

Margot: To find out who, stick around after the break.

Margot: San Diego was a big change from Philly, but Austin embraced it. As soon as he arrived in California, he was determined to learn to surf.

Austin: The first time I was out there, I was just like super naive and the waves. Let me know that I was not ready for this. I got blasted by these waves. Unforgiving unforgiving waves out here. Wiping out is not cool. I have not gotten like, beat up like that in a while.

Margot: Austin says he’s not going to give up, no matter how many times he gets bested by the waves. And he’s doing research at the perfect spot for surfing, right above Blacks Beach, at the Salk Institute where you can see wetsuits hanging to dry all around the building. Another fun thing about the Salk was when Austin learned that one of his heroes was a postdoc there, just like him.

Austin: My favorite author of all time is Michael Creighton. He's the author of like many books that turned into movies, one of ‘em was Jurassic Park.

Margot: Turns out Michael Crighton was a postdoc at Salk, look it up.

Austin: I was like, what? He did his postdoc here? It's just insane.

[Pause]

Margot: In his new lab, run by Dr. Kay Tye, Austin decided to study a part of schizophrenia that is often neglected.

Austin: I'm more so focusing on the negative symptoms of schizophrenia, which is also, seen and major depressive disorders and that condition is anhedonia. Anhedonia, this is the inability to experience pleasure. And it's often overlooked in schizophrenia patients which is sad because it's considered a vulnerability marker before patients start experiencing psychotic symptoms.

Margot: That means that anhedonia is something that can alert physicians of an increased risk of developing psychosis AND major depressive disorder so it is really important to understand why it happens. Austin was excited to get started with his new research. He was just getting his project through approvals in March, something you have to do when using research animals, when - well you know what happened.

Austin: I mean, the pandemic definitely changed a lot, uh, being at home for three months.

Margot: Restrictions were put in place for the amount of people allowed in the lab at one time so he had to put his project on hold for a while. That was tough.

Austin: it's been very difficult. Um, uh, it's been, um, emotional and, um, it was already difficult enough during the pandemic. Um, and then you see, um, the death of George Floyd everywhere. And then you start to also hear like insensitive comments. So it made me angry. I was also depressed, anxious and they came in waves.

Margot: Austin took to the streets, participating in the caravan car protest that started right by the Salk and went throughout the city.

Austin: I think the protests are great. I think they made the biggest difference. These protests like force people to not ignore, not ignore us anymore. I think this is a rare time, um, that we'll never forget. Um, but we also have to like, make sure that we like keep this same energy going.

Margot: Austin hopes that this energy will lead to lasting changes in science as well.

Austin: There needs to be major culture changes.

Margot: One thing that Austin thinks will help change academic culture is diversity training.

Austin: This needs to be mandatory, because a lot of people, especially in the academic field, don't care about racial issues and they're going to continue to be ignorant.

Margot: Another positive step institutions can take, Austin says, is to hire more black professors.

Austin: Seeing other black professors that definitely, it makes a huge impact. The problem is there's not that many. So, it sort of perpetuates the stereotype of the great white professor.

Margot: That lack of representation is a big motivator for Austin to stay in academia.

Austin: One of the major reasons why I'm still continuing this process is to become a professor and show other students of color, more so African Americans, that they can do this.

Margot: And Austin knows that it won’t be easy - that there will be more hurdles along his path to professor.

Austin: You will run into sort of certain faculty members or even colleagues who don't want you to succeed. They don't want you to be that beacon.

Margot: So, Austin is still paddling out into the rough waves of the pacific, trying to learn how to surf. In the same way, he refuses to be discouraged by the rough seas of academia and he wants to help others navigate it too."

Austin: There is a need for more young black scientists. Because there are plenty of us who are capable, but they need the encouragement, they need the nourishment. And they can be just as successful. So this is my mission: not just to try to cure depression or schizophrenia, but also to try to make more black scientists.

Margot: Here are the words you need to know today, with Ikran Ibrahim.

Ikran: Today’s words are “Imposter syndrome”. It’s when you don’t feel like you belong where you are - like somehow people might find out that you aren’t smart enough, aren’t good enough to be in your position. A lot of people experience this at some point in their life, but microaggressions and a lack of representation can make this harder on marginalized groups.

Margot: Thanks for that Ikran.

[Credits]

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Rad Scientist

A KPBS Explore series taking listeners on a journey through the lives and discoveries of San Diego's raddest scientists — researchers pushing the frontiers of human knowledge. Hosted and produced by Margot Wohl.