Barnard College student
Aspiring pediatric neurologist
What would you say to aspiring scientists?
“Be open to exploring different forms of science that are out there so that you can find your passion… you never know what you might find along the way.”
Agie Neneh Sissoho, a senior at Barnard College majoring in Neuroscience and minoring in Dance, did not know she wanted to be a neuroscientist until well into her first year of college. As a first-year in 2017, she planned to follow the pre-med track to pursue her high school dream of becoming a pediatrician and working in child medicine. She says “the high school that I went to was not very big on science… it wasn’t until I came to Barnard that I realized science is actually very cool.” While she worked through the pre-med introductory labs in biology and chemistry, her fascination with science, particularly experimental laboratory research, grew. She believes that “learning something [in lecture] is different from actually seeing it in action… and once I got to see [science] first hand and got to do it for myself, I thought… now I’m understanding it.”
She started exploring science outside the classroom by volunteering as a research assistant at multiple medical research labs and visiting science museums like the American Museum of Natural History. One trip to the museum really impacted her scientific career. At an exhibit on the human brain, she was utterly captivated by the brains’ complexity and the idea that there is a whole field dedicated to understanding how the nervous system plays a role both in daily life as well as in mental illness. Even after she made the decision to shift her focus from biochemistry to neuroscience, Agie didn’t know if research was right for her until she participated in a summer research program hosted at Barnard. The Summer Research Institute, or SRI, supports undergraduates to find and complete research with labs in NYC and hosts a conference at the end of the summer for students to present the results of their research projects. In 2019, Agie participated in SRI through Lawerence Kegeles’s lab at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center and has continued working with the Kegeles’s lab ever since.
“learning something [in lecture] is different from actually seeing it in action… and once I got to see [science] first hand and got to do it for myself, I thought… now I’m understanding it.”
Her research investigates questions about the role of dopamine, a chemical in the brain called a neurotransmitter, in causing the experiences and development of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. The brain uses neurotransmitters like dopamine to send messages throughout the brain. In order to better understand dopamine levels in patients with schizophrenia, the lab uses a neuroimaging technique called Positron Emission Tomography (PET) to visualize the binding of dopamine to receptors in the brain. In the Kegeles Lab, the scientists gave participants injections of tiny chemicals — called radiotracers — that light up in the PET scanning machine creating a picture of where different chemicals bind in the brain. The researchers designed the experiment so that patients have PET scans taken before and after administration of a drug that depletes their dopamine levels. The scientists could then compare patterns of dopamine binding between schizophrenic patients and healthy control subjects. This is a major first step in increasing our general understanding of schizophrenia as a psychopathology and can inform future research into possible treatments. Agie is looking forward to continuing with this project as she writes her thesis, a capstone research paper for her Neuroscience major. Agie reflects that “the dopamine project sparked my interest, prior to that I had no interest in schizophrenia and didn’t know anything about [schizophrenia]… now even after I [leave the lab] this is something I would like to explore more.”
“I’m used to either being the only person of color (POC) or being the only Black person in the room.”
Agie’s journey navigating neuroscience in college and in research settings has not been perfect or easy. She has had to make tough decisions about her career path and about finding a setting where she felt like she was truly part of a research team. As a Black woman, Agie explains, “I’m used to either being the only person of color (POC) or being the only Black person in the room.” As a result, she experiences challenges related to self-confidence and questioning social interactions. “I feel like I’ve become very conscious of myself,” she explains, “and because of this my brain thinks everyone else is [also] very conscious that I’m the only [Black person] in the room. I can never really tell if that’s true or if my brain is making it up.” Science and scientists are not free from implicit bias, leaving Agie wondering “is this a normal thing or is this actually a form of implicit bias?” Although Agie shares that it is very inspiring for her to be surrounded by passionate female scientist role models among the faculty and undergraduates at Barnard, especially increasingly more POC women scientists, there is still much room for improvement in reducing bias and barriers in the scientific community.
As she enters her senior year, Agie looks forward to taking the next steps in her research and career planning. Over the summer, she reflected on what directions she wants to take her thesis research. While Agie has always had an interest in the arts, from dance to photography, and has even declared a Dance minor, she has recently “been looking for ways where [she] can transcend [her] creativity from arts to science.” She believes that it is important for scientists to be creative as well as logical and quantitative. After all, it is often creativity and innovation that leads to the most exciting discoveries and most impactful human connections. Along her winding journey through college, Agie explored and developed her own professional interests by trying new things, stepping out of her comfort zone, and consistently reflecting on what felt important to her. Regarding her career path after graduation, she plans to become a pediatric neurologist, a doctor that specializes in treatment of children with a variety of neurological disorders such as seizures or neurogenetic diseases. Agie has come full circle in finding a way to combine her initial passion of caring for children with her new interests in the brain.
by Elizabeth Hodgson