Huda Akil (1945- )


“Genes are not destiny. Such discoveries and studies offer hope that depression is not just a fate into which you’re born.”

~Huda Akil

Mood is an ephemeral experience that is difficult to define and capture, yet it is a phenomenon we all experience. Through the perspective of a scientist, mood may be defined as an adaptive tool and biological mechanism we use to tell us how we are doing in the world. However, some individuals are predisposed due to an intricate relationship between genes, neuronal wiring, and environment to suffer from a painful and hard to define mood disorder called depression.

Depression is a disease that plagues more individuals in our community than many of us are aware of. According to the World Health Organization, there are an estimated 350 million individuals of all ages who suffer from depression. Those with depression suffer from various degrees of psychological and physical pain that has resounding and variable influence on cognition, behavior, and movement. It is an illness that can happen early in life and be long lasting if not treated early or if it is underdiagnosed. Currently, treatment for depression commonly involves talk therapy or prescription antidepressants. However, these two treatment options together may not be enough, take too long to have a significant effect, or simply not work depending on the individual. To this day it is not clear to what extent depression is due to genes, the ways in which neurons wire, or environment and how each contribute to depression. There are many dimensions to approach and unravel depression, and Dr. Akil offers a perspective to help.

The mission of the Hope for Depression Research Foundation (HDRF) is to fund cutting-edge, scientific research into the origins, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of depression and its related mood and other emotional disorders – bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome, anxiety disorder and suicide.

The mission of the Hope for Depression Research Foundation (HDRF) is to fund cutting-edge, scientific research into the origins, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of depression and its related mood and other emotional disorders – bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome, anxiety disorder and suicide.

This week’s Wonder Woman is Dr. Huda Akil, a neuroscientist whose research has contributed to understanding the neurobiology of emotions. As a young girl, Dr. Akil was inspired by the work of Marie Curie—a famous Nobel Laureate who moved from Poland to Paris to pursue her dream of becoming a scientist. Following Marie Curie’s lead in relocating to pursue her dreams, Akil moved from Damascus to America in order to pursue her dream of becoming a scientist. Dr. Akil received her BA and MA at the American University of Beirut and then went on to earn her PhD at UCLA and to become a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University. She is currently a faculty member of The Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute at the University of Michigan. Dr. Akil is former president of the Society for Neuroscience—the “world’s largest organization of scientists and physicians devoted to understanding the brain and nervous system” and is an elected member of the National Academy of Science. Additionally, she is 1 of the 7 scientists who are members of the Hope for Depression Research Foundation Task Force.

Dr. Akil’s research is focused on understanding the neurobiology of emotions, including pain, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Her major contribution to the field of neuroscience is the first functional evidence that our body activates endorphins (a type of “pain relieving” chemical our body makes naturally) when we are faced with stressful situations in order to block pain. Furthermore, she investigated the molecular and neural mechanisms underlying stress and how this relates to anxiety and depression. She used hamster models to discover new molecules and genes that are related to mood and addiction. Additionally, she is the author of over 500 original scientific papers, and has been recognized as one of the most highly cited neuroscientists for her work.

Dr. Akil was the keynote speaker at Brain Awareness Series sponsored by Vanderbilt Brain Institute (2002)

Dr. Akil was the keynote speaker at Brain Awareness Series sponsored by Vanderbilt Brain Institute (2002)

Dr. Akil’s research sheds some light through the dark clouds that depression casts over millions of people. Ultimately, studying depression through the lens of neuroscience can further our understanding of the causes and perpetuation of depression that has evaded us for decades.

Below you can find a video of Dr. Akil’s lecture at the NIH titled “The depressed brain: sobering and hopeful lessons.” If you have the time, you should definitely check it out!

Article written by: Alexandra McHale


Terrie Williams


“My philosophy is to trust the Great River that is in your heart. I like to think of our life’s journey as a river that we travel. We begin as a trickle and get progressively larger as we grow. Along the way we encounter difficult times that are rapids to navigate, as well as easy times when we can simply slip along happily. Every once in a while there are big boulders that are like the professor who said I could not be a scientist. These boulders try to steer us off course. It is best to ignore them and go around. Sometimes we get caught in eddies, but recognize that eventually you can swim out if you try. Rather than spending your days trying to fight the current in the wrong direction, trust that your instincts and your internal river will deliver you to where you need to go, allowing you to be the person you are destined to be. Learn to GLIDE and be willing to live the adventure—dolphins do and they are always smiling.”

As I was growing up, two of my favorite past times were watching Animal Planet religiously and taking care of pet birds and rabbits at home. Because of this, I thought I would become a veterinarian when I “grew up” (spoiler: I didn’t). However, once I learned more about Dr. Terrie Williams’ work, this “little kid” in me lit up. Dr. Terrie Williams work focuses on large marine and terrestrial mammals. Her macroscale research on animals like seals, dolphins, cheetahs, and whales is a nice contrast to research endeavors that mostly focus on mice, monkeys, and flies that are much more common today in the research world.

Like a few of the scientists mentioned on this blog in previous weeks, Dr. Williams grew up in New Jersey. She notes that even as a young girl she had always loved mammals. What provoked this love further was when she saw pictures of cheetahs in a special issue of Time magazine covering big cats.

Dr. William’s background was originally in medicine at Rutgers University, where she earned both her M.S. and PhD. She switched to comparative exercise physiology from human physiology when she realized that animals were capable of “extraordinary feats of athleticism and disease resistance” compared to humans.

Dr. Williams cleaning a sea otter during the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Dr. Williams cleaning a sea otter during the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

A common theme in Dr. Williams’ research is getting to the heart of “how do animals survive?” Her “big picture” question is asking how do large animals—marine and terrestrial—survive in a world with increased pollution, habitat destruction, rates of disease, and competition with humans. In her life, she studied why steller sea lions are disappearing in Alaska, determined how dolphins and seals are hurt by man-made sounds, studied diseases in cheetahs when she traveled to Africa, and saved hundreds of sea otters during the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Her main areas of research are studying thermoregulation during exercise, plasticity of mammalian skeletal muscle, and swimming energetics. She believes that researching the limitations of animals allows us to understand their limitations in the face of global warming.

Her most cited paper: “Sink or swim: Strategies for cost-efficient diving by marine mammals” has 272 citations and is published in Science, which is certainly a very prestigious accomplishment in the science research world. In this study, she observed swimming behavior in Weddell seals, elephant seals, bottlenose dolphins, and blue whales. She did so because she was curious as to how these animals are able to spend such a long time underwater—sometimes a whole hour or more—without rising to the surface for air. In order to accomplish this, Dr. Williams and a team of scientists placed submersible cameras that faced backwards or forwards on the aforementioned marine mammals. They did this in order to reveal what behavioral strategy these animals use for energy efficiency. They discovered that every one of these marine mammals use the same “gliding” technique in order to conserve energy.

Photo of a Weddell seal with a submersible camera that was used in Williams' Science paper.

Photo of a Weddell seal with a submersible camera that was used in Williams’ Science paper.

A lot of the public though, especially in politics, sees research as a “waste of taxpayer’s dollars” and tends to misrepresent the research that they are speaking out against. This unfortunate reality interferes with funding for the scientists who are in fact contributing a lot to our communities. Williams wrote an Op-Ed column in the LA Times to discuss this issue that happened to her personally. In this article, Williams speaks about how a senator’s misrepresentation of her research “has the potential to affect wildlife conservation for years to come.” He “judged without reading the study” and “condemned without contacting us.” This speaks to a wider issue of the importance of science literacy in the general population so that situations like the one Dr. Williams faced do not continue as a common theme in research.

Hopefully, more of our society will recognize the importance of studying animals. The presence of large animals on this Earth may inspire the next generation of children to become interested in science. I know for a fact that learning about animals was the start of my long-term love for science and fueled my desire to pursue a career in it. At the end of the day, the more we learn about animals, the more we learn about ourselves and the beautiful biodiversity that our Earth has to offer.


Below you can watch an inspiring video discussing some of the work that Dr. Williams has done. In this video, we learn about Williams’ role in studying how exercise and diving affect the heart in dolphins, and the causes of declining rates of sea otters in the Bay Area and monk seals in Hawaii. Happy Wednesday!

Article written by: Alexandra McHale


Susan Solomon (1956- )


“We have a beautiful planet, and I feel very privileged to have the chance to work as a public servant in helping the public understand that planet.”

~Susan Solomon

Every year on April 22nd since 1970, the world has celebrated Earth Day to honor our one and only home on the outer edge of the Milky Way Galaxy. This day marks a shift in spreading public awareness to take necessary actions in protecting our environment. Rachel Carson’s powerful novel “Silent Spring” contained content that certainly prompted our need to recognize how our actions and byproducts are (mis)shaping our global landscape. Yet, we still need scientists and communicators today to discover and spread more evidence showing why environmental protection should be a priority.

Susan Solomon—an atmospheric chemist—is playing a part in finding the answers we need for this journey. Born in Chicago, Dr. Solomon has had a lifelong interest in science that began with watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Who could blame her for loving this beautifully done documentary revealing the wonder beneath our waters? Her interest in learning about the atmosphere then became apparent when she won 3rd place in a high school science competition for her project that measured the percentage of oxygen in a gas mixture.


Dr. Solomon’s Books

Dr. Solomon moved on to her undergraduate career at Illinois Institute of Technology and then to University of California, Berkeley to gain her PhD. Dr. Solomon is currently an Ellen Swallow Richards Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate Science at MIT and has numerous publications on her research in climate science. From this point, she continues her role as an international leader in atmospheric science. Dr. Solomon has authored 2 books: The Coldest March: Scott’s Fatal Antarctic Expedition and Aeronomy of the Middle Atmosphere: Chemistry and Physics of the Stratosphere and Mesosphere. 

She made discoveries regarding the Arctic and Antarctic ozone chemistry, and her claim to fame is in explaining the cause of the Antarctic ozone hole. Both her theoretical and field research has shown us that the cause of the Antarctic ozone hole is due to man-made chlorine compounds that react with ozone to form chlorine dioxide.

Here is Dr. Solomon hanging out with some penguins in the Antarctic.

Here is Dr. Solomon hanging out with some penguins in the Antarctic.

For a bit a background information, ozone is composed of 3 oxygen molecules bonded together, but this type of bond is not a very stable one. Although not the most stable compound, ozone does a great job of filtering out harmful UV rays from the sun. But, when humans release byproducts that contain chlorine into the air, chlorine then bumps off one of the oxygen molecules because chlorine forms a much stronger bond to 2 oxygen molecules than 3 oxygen molecules do to one another. Now, thanks to our chemical waste, we are depleting the ozone in the sky because ozone has now been converted into chlorine dioxide—a compound that does not filter out UV rays.

Dr. Solomon believes that scientists should interact with politicians as much as they can to prevent the spread of misinformation. She also states that once we all reach a common understanding, we can then bring scientific issues into discussion with everyone. She believes the best way to move forward is to monitor how we engineer and innovate by finding ways to recapture carbon dioxide from our atmosphere and return it back into the ground. Her work deals with things that transcend any one country or society, and as a result we can learn about the world as a whole.

What Earth Day stands for is a step in the right direction to lessen our negative impact on the environment. Dr. Solomon’s work exemplifies the perpetuation of this important tradition that will hopefully make our world a better cared-for place for future generations.


Below you can watch some videos of Dr. Solomon and a link to a paper she has published in the National Academy of Sciences:

Dr. Solomon’s paper:

Big ideas for Busy people:

Interview with Dr. Solomon:

Article written by: Alexandra McHale


Ruby Hirose (1904-1960)


Although it is a part of history we do not like to admit, the United States did—and still does—have internment camps to isolate individuals that the government deems “suspect.” Native Americans were sent to live on reservations so colonists could access more desireable land. In more recent events, detainment camps were established at Guantanamo Bay to interrogate and Japanese Internmenttorture those suspected of terrorism. One instance that tends to go under the radar in history class and current news is the Japanese internment camps that appeared on the West Coast after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Dr. Ruby Hirose, a researcher in the Midwest for William S. Merrell Laboratories during World War II, luckily escaped this fate by simply not living on a coast. As such, Dr. Hirose did not leave Ohio and was able to conduct her research without the constraints of living in an internment camp. Unfortunately, her siblings and father were not as lucky as her because they were Japanese-American residents of Washington State.

Article about Hirose’s research in The Chicago Tribune

Article about Hirose’s research in The Chicago Tribune

A graduate from University of Cincinnati, Dr. Ruby Hirose was a Japanese-American biochemist and bacteriologist who conducted vaccine research in infantile paralysis. A sufferer herself, Hirose also conducted research in hay fever—which is basically another way of saying “pollen allergies”. She researched a way to improve pollen extracts to desensitize hay fever sufferers.

In addition to her valuable research on the polio vaccine and on hay fever, she also published a paper titled “A Pharaceutical Study of Hydrastis Canadensis” which can be found in full here. In this paper, she chronicles the history of a native North American plant called Hydrastis Canadensis, also known as Goldenseal, and the history of its use. She chronicles how Native Americans first used this plant for dyes and as a way to treat sores and how Lewis and Clark documented this plant during their journey to the west coast. She also tried to find the best conditions in which Hydrastis would grow.

Hydrastis Canadensis

Hydrastis Canadensis

This research is oddly symbolic of her experience during World War II. She was an American born-and-raised just like Hydrastis Canadensis. She found her “best condition for growth” in research in Ohio as this was a place that allowed her to utilize and embrace her gift as a researcher.

Hirose’s talent and work flourished and ultimately made her one of the 10 women who was recognized by the American Chemical Society for her accomplishments in chemistry in 1940. She gave back to America even though fear mongering during wartime did hold back many of her relatives.

She was buried in the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery in Washington state—the very state that sent her family away to an internment camp during the war. In the end, the research she conducted to improve the quality of life for others will live beyond the confines of wartime limitations. Her efforts will continue to inspire others to discover their passion for science.

Article written by: Alexandra McHale


Mae Jemison (1956- )


“When I’m asked about the relevance to Black people of what I do, I take that as an affront. It presupposes that Black people have never been involved in exploring the heavens, but this is not so. Ancient African empires — Mali, Songhai, Egypt — had scientists, astronomers. The fact is that space and its resources belong to all of us, not to any one group.” ~ Mae Jemison

For many of us, our first—and only—experiences with space are looking up to point out the Big Dipper, Orion’s belt, or to say that tonight’s moon is a waxing crescent. Perhaps some of us have been lucky enough to spot the quick, silver streak of a shooting star, visit a planetarium, or take a bite out of some space ice cream. Gazing at the vast and silent night sky has been an integral part of the human experience since the dawn of recorded history. We have created mythological tales of love and betrayal that happen in the heavens, calculated constellation rotations in the sky, and used outer space as a source of inspiration for science fiction novels and for creating theories of modern physics.

Dr. Mae Jemison is an individual with the intelligence, talent, and will power to see the Earth from the perspective of the night sky on the Space mission Endeavour. From this height, she was able to spot the golden veins of light that define Chicago’s skeleton along the shore of Lake Michigan, her hometown. She couldn’t gaze for too long though because she had to conduct research on bone cells. With her on the mission were a team of scientists, and a few things she brought that are usually excluded: a poster of Judith Jameson, a bundu statue, and a flag for the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.


Items Dr. Jemison brought with her (left to right): a poster of Judith Jameson performing “Cry”, a bundu statue from the women’s society in West Africa, and a flag for the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority—the oldest African American women’s sorority in the United States.

Dr. Mae Jemison’s credentials can go on for pages. In short, she was accepted to Stanford when she was 16 and received a degree in chemical engineering and African Studies, worked for the Peace Corps, became a physician, was the first African American woman to travel in space, was a professor at Cornell and Dartmouth, appeared as an actress in Star Trek, founded The Dorothy Jemison Foundation (in honor of her mother), AND is the leader of the 100 Year Starship organization. Along with these aforementioned achievements, she is also an accomplished dancer.

Dr. Jemison100_Year_Starship’s current mission is known as the 100 Year Starship. Funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), 100 Year Starship is an initiative conducting cutting-edge research to ensure that humanity has the ability to send humans to another star system within the next 100 years. It is a multifaceted project that allows us to reconnect with the incredible wealth of innovation derived from our past success in space exploration. The initiatives of this program are to address issues concerning energy, the ecosystem, reproduction, and asteroid mining. She admits that this undertaking will not be easy, but if it were easy, we wouldn’t grow. She also hopes that this initiative will ultimately allow for more sustainable living on our planet as well.

Dr. Jemison’s ability to foresee the importance of the 100 Year Starship is, in a way, a culmination of her love for the sciences and the arts. This initiative is a step towards taking what we know from our world and propelling it billions of miles into the unknown. In a world today where there is so much emphasis on STEM, Dr. Jemison believes that we need to recognize that the arts and sciences are not that different, and the only way to address this issue is to reconcile them. She acknowledges that people tend to say that science is not creative, and that art is not analytical, but if this thought process underlies how we view the world, we will not have a bright future ahead of us. She recognizes her love for both in her own personal journey through being a physician, astronaut, and dancer. You can see a video of Dr. Jemison’s thoughts on this issue here.

Dr. Mae Jemison exemplifies the notion that thinking about the future and recognizing the past is what progress is all about. There is a big picture beyond the scope of our galaxy, and it is a concept that transcends and humbles us as we physically and theoretically travel in our prodigious universe. values_Jemison

Article written by: Alexandra McHale


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Lisa Randall (1962- )

Lisa Randall

Creativity is essential to particle physics, cosmology, and to mathematics, and to other fields of science, just as it is to its more widely acknowledged beneficiaries – the arts and humanities.

Gravity: the very force that keeps us from floating into space, allowed an apple to fall on Newton’s head, and—to science students and professionals—equals G(m1xm2)/r². Maybe we even announce to others that we’re checking gravity to make sure it “still works” when we trip over something in public as a form of social recovery (or maybe that’s just me because I am a bit uncoordinated at times).

Theoretical physicist Dr. Lisa Randall, who is an expert in cosmology and particle physics, asks in her research why gravity is the weakest of the four fundamental forces on Earth, and if this reason implies the presence of another universe outside of our own. This particular question is her best-known contribution to theoretical physics and goes by the name of the Randall—Sundrum model: a model that questions our commonplace assumption that we live in a 3-dimensional world.


In the Randall-Sundrum model above, Our Universe is represented as a four-dimensional space with an additional 5th dimension represented by the red line. The “Hidden Sector” is a hidden world that exists at the end of the 5th dimension projected from Our Universe. In the “Hidden Sector,” gravitational force is much stronger than what is found in Our Universe, and is what causes significant warping of spacetime in the “Hidden Sector.” This is in part Randall’s theory as to why gravity is so weak in our Universe: it is because gravity is much stronger in a hidden sector and originates here, and our Universe is only receiving a fraction of this gravitational force. Pretty heady stuff! Image and description adapted from

Dr. Lisa Randall’s aptitude for science began at a young age and became apparent when in high school she placed first in the prestigious Westinghouse Science Talent Search competition—now commonly know as the Intel competition. For Dr. Randall though, all disciplines of study intrigued her while growing up, but she reflects on how she loved that math and science seemed to hold all of the answers while everything else seemed subjective. However, with quite a bit more expertise now than when she was in high school, she recognizes that science to this day still does not hold all of the answers to our questions. This very reason though is what makes science all the more intriguing.

Dr. Randall is currently a physics professor at Harvard University, a member of the National Academy of Science, American Philosophical Society, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is also the author of two books: Warped Passages and Knocking on Heaven’s Door (the same title as the wonderful song by Bob Dylan, which can be found here:

Now if you didn’t think Dr. Randall’s scientific work was impressive enough on its own, she also offers society her ability to dabble in the arts. Dr. Randall has also written a libretto that premiered in the Pompidou Center in Paris and co-curated an art exhibit called “Measure for Measure” that featured a merge between artistic and scientific theory of scale and echo. In other words, Dr. Randall’s name is the definition of a modern Renaissance Women.

Knocking on Heaven's DoorI hope you all enjoy Dr. Randall’s hilarious, entertaining, and insightful interview with the one and only Jon Stewart. Here they discuss her book “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” the beauty of uncertainty in science, and why people are so resistant to listening to what science has to say. I hope that you all have a wonderful rest of your Wednesday!

Lisa Randall Interview on The Daily Show

Article written by: Alexandra McHale


Ada Lovelace (1815—1852)


“It may be desirable to explain, that by the word operation, we mean any process which alters the mutual relation of two or more things, be this relation of what kind it may. This is the most general definition, and would include all subjects in the universe.”
~Ada Lovelace

In honor of Valentine’s Day—and the fact that you can even use a computer to read this blog—NYU’s Women in Science is going to show some love for Ada Lovelace.

Ada created the first published computer algorithm and effectively communicated the widespread implications computing systems would theoretically have—deeming her titles like “The World’s First Computer Programmer” and “The Enchantress of Numbers.” Ada created an algorithm to compute Bernoulli numbers that could be run by Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine—a proposed multi-purpose computer. She also had tremendous say into the design and application of said Analytical Engine.


Ada’s famous algorithm

Ada was the daughter of the English poet Lord Bryon, with whom she had no contact. Although her mother’s goal was to have her avoid all inklings of Lord Bryon’s craft, Ada viewed her computational codes as a “poetical science.” Trained in mathematics and music as per her mother’s insistence, Ada had an unusual educational background for women of this time. Her apparent genius in these subjects emerged early on when at age 12 she methodically studied the anatomy of birds, wrote a book called “flyology” (not published though), and created her own pair of anatomically correct wings. All of this is pretty compelling evidence that she would have put all other middle school science fair projects to shame, and it of course indicated her potential to achieve greatness in the sciences.

Unfortunately her life was cut short at the now young age of 36 due to uterine cancer. However, Ada Lovelace’s legacy as a prominent figure in the history of Computer Science lives on. A computer program named “Ada” was created on behalf of United States Department of Defense in honor of her contributions, and October 13th is Ada Lovelace Day. So, mark your calendars for this powerful, and historical, women in science.

Article written by: Alexandra McHale