Mentorship and Memory: An Interview With Dr. Wendy Suzuki

“For me, she was science, and I frankly didn’t notice how few other women there were, because she was such a big figure.”

To Dr. Wendy Suzuki, Marian Diamond was larger-than-life since that very first day she stood in front of her seminar class at UC Berkeley and pulled a human brain out of a hat-box. “It was really that freshman class with her,” she reflects, “called The Brain and Its Potential, that made me not only want to become a neuroscientist, but to become a neuroscientist like her.”

Today, Dr. Suzuki is a renowned neuroscientist and professor in the NYU Department of Neural Science. But sitting down with me, Dr. Suzuki recalls a time when she was influenced more than she was an influencer. Marian Diamond, she tells me, “defined what my image was of a successful scientist, and a successful teacher.” She refers to her with a casual certainty as “the best teacher I had, through all of UC Berkeley, for all of those four years.”

“How did you develop that relationship?” I ask Dr. Suzuki. “I took all the courses that I could with her,” she replies, and recounts ultimately joining her lab as a senior.

Dr. Suzuki acknowledges the multitude of mentors in her early career, each of whom held a different role. “For example, one of my PhD mentors always made sure that I got to go to different meetings, and recommended that I apply for this, apply for that.” In her junior year she studied abroad in France, where she discovered her passions for learning and memory. “That was where I really learned to love lab research,” she recalls. “The lectures that I enjoyed the most were about Patient H.M., were about Mort Mishkin and his study of memory, and Larry Squire and Stuart Zola.” Back in Berkeley, she would one day find herself conducting research alongside these great scientists. But reflecting on the inception of this path, she expresses gratitude, with a humble nod to the role of fate in her opportunities. “I happened to be very lucky,” she remarks, “the particular researcher I worked with was a great scientist but he didn’t speak English well — but I was very fortunate to speak French, because he was a fabulous researcher and that is what brought me into the learning and memory track.”

Dr. Suzuki invokes that same recognition of luck whenever she recalls her early career — acknowledging the unique arrangement of time, people, and events that yielded the opportunities she had. “She was there at this very formative time,” Dr. Suzuki remarks on Marian Diamond, “and it was just luck that I was there.” She recounts her experience entering the field of neurophysiology, in which she found few female peers, many of whom were disconcerted by the dearth of female colleagues and mentors. But Dr. Diamond “inoculated me against the fears — the real fears — that maybe I wouldn’t be able to make it as a woman in science,” she explains. “And… I was the one that was lucky. Because I had that model. I didn’t have that fear. And that was part of what was so valuable.”

Source: UC Research “One of Our Favorites: Anatomy Professor Marian Diamond”

But alongside that gratitude — or perhaps, in light of it — Dr. Suzuki can also recognize the drawbacks of her early career course. When I ask what she would change — if she could go back and choose one thing — she reflects on the relationships she could have developed more:

“My choice was — I’m just going to put my head down, and work as hard as I can, and only do one thing. Because I’m good at that. And it was a great learning experience to throw yourself into something so deeply, but I gave up a lot of things which I only realized the downside of much later. I didn’t spend a lot of time on socializing and developing a network of very close friends. I always put work first. And I didn’t build up the broader relationships that I might have.”

Our conversation turns to the culture of sacrifice in scientific research — and its consequences. “The belief was,” Dr. Suzuki recalls, “that this was the only way I was going to make it — that there was no other way. And that’s not the case.”

A key principle of neural plasticity, the area which Marian Diamond famously pioneered, is the brain’s ability to re-route itself — to achieve the same ends by different means — to effortlessly adapt and adjust itself. There are many neural pathways to the same function, and perhaps it is the neuroscientist and the Diamond protégé in Dr. Suzuki that is able to look back and envision an alternative way of being. “It might have made me a broader thinker, and certainly a more relaxed person,” she laughs. “That ability to relax and think about more than the next assignment that’s due is very important for your brain,” Dr. Suzuki notes, “and it took me another 20-30 years to figure that out.”

She also remembers the natural beauty of her surroundings as a graduate student at UCSD, and how rewarding it may have been if she turned to the beauty around her as a restorative and enjoyable element in her days. “Given that I was in San Diego, and my office faced the ocean — I could have done a lot more to enjoy San Diego. UCSD is a beautiful place to live, and I lived there for six years,” she recalls.

Dr. Suzuki sees her early career days through a different lens in retrospect. Aspects of her academics and community that shaped her appear more salient, and she is also more aware of what she may have done differently. In her early career, Dr. Suzuki pursued extensive research in memory — exploring the associative, predictive, and temporal factors that impact memory retention. Long-term memory, although anchored in a first formative event, is a mental representation imbued with emotional, psychological, and deeply subjective components. Over time, recollection is not only retrieval, but also interpretation. The emotional significance of memories lies not in the basic encoding of the event, but in the associations and interpretations we construct around it. Sometimes the import of a memory in our lives is not the event itself, but the meaning we draw from it later, enriched by the passage of time.

Dr. Suzuki’s mentor Marian Diamond is, in some ways, an even more active influence on her now than when she was an undergraduate working in Dr. Diamond’s lab.

“If you talk to a lot of people,” Dr. Suzuki remarks, “I think you’ll hear, ‘I didn’t know how much she influenced me at the time — only later did I realize it,’ and I did have this realization — it was when I was a postdoc at the National Institute of Mental Health. I remember getting The Californian, the UC Berkeley alumni magazine. She had been chosen as Alumnus of the Year and there was this big feature of her on the cover — and I started to think, I ended up writing her a letter just acknowledging directly to her — with a little more perspective than I had when I graduated as an undergrad — what she did for me as a role model.”

Today, Dr. Suzuki remembers Dr. Marian Diamond as the woman who “defined what my image was of a successful scientist, and a successful teacher.” The beauty of human memory is our own active involvement with it — our freedom to honor a memory, consciously reflect, and learn from it. When we allow our memories to influence our course, our life is no longer purely determined by luck, but by our own engagement and development in response to external factors. Thus memory is, in some sense, a bridge from environment to self — a personalization of events.

Source: NYU | Arts and Sciences

It’s not difficult to find students at NYU who report Dr. Suzuki as their own role model. “She has certainly inspired me to be both a better scientist and a better person,” NYU Neural Science graduate Wesley Leong tells me. And when Dr. Suzuki ponders what made Marian Diamond a successful teacher, she notes how “a good teacher engages you — really makes you think and get excited about the topic, irrespective of whether you think of yourself as a science or an arts person.” But as the recipient of NYU’s coveted Golden Dozen Teaching Award, it is clear to see her exemplification of that metric for herself.

In mentorship as in teaching, Dr. Suzuki is conscious of the ways in which her own memories motivate her direction. Even today as a published and award-winning author, she remembers — and willingly recounts to me — her own difficulties developing academic writing skills during graduate school, and her sense of failure in that domain.

“Being a mentor is a great opportunity  to self-reflect about what has been most successful for you, but also, what has not been successful for you — and I think it’s useful to share both the wild successes and the failures. Because everybody has that — and I think we’re perhaps too focused on success… the fact is that we all learn more from failures than successes. And a lot of the successes come on the back of failures.”

Neural plasticity allows the brain to respond to injury with large-scale remapping — redesigning its allocation of cortical areas so that it can function despite injury.

Dr. Suzuki still remembers the day, in early graduate school, when she thought, panicked, “I’m going to fail as a scientist because I can’t put two words together.” But she persisted. “I remember my first year as a faculty member I had a desk drawer to my right. Every grant that I wrote I put in there… by the end of the year there was this huge set of grants I had written. That shows my work — that I’m committed to this. I knew I had to be a good writer, and a clear writer.”

Memories — those both inspiring and difficult — may permanently affect our brain, but we can choose what they mean to us. “The lesson is,” Dr. Suzuki concludes, “the more you write, the better you get at it.”

Interview with Dr. Wendy Suzuki by Alexandra Lang, 20th March 2019 at NYU Department of Neural Science.

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