Associate Professor of Neurology, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
What would you say to aspiring scientists?
“Always celebrate your wins and focus on your accomplishments, since these will give you the motivation to move through more difficult times.”
Dr. Uraina Clark, an associate professor of Neurology at Mount Sinai, knows a thing or two about stress. Perhaps this is why she prioritizes balancing her life as a scientist with leisure activities like listening to live jazz, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and shopping at her local farmer’s market. Uraina knows better than most how stress and life circumstances can impact our health – her research focuses on how severe stress during childhood affects people who acquire HIV later in life. Her path to this line of research has been far from direct, but no matter her research topic or career stage, Uraina has maintained an emphasis on using her scientific curiosity to help the most vulnerable among us.
Uraina’s interest in science began with something that most scientists try to avoid – an erroneous assumption based on one’s own experiences. “I was a curious kid…I’ve always been very curious about people’s behaviors. I think I just assumed that everybody had this innate tendency to wonder about what drives other people, but apparently it’s not universal.” In this case, however, the assumption worked in her favor, as she let her curiosity run free and guide her into neuroscience and psychology. At her high school in Rhode Island, she enrolled in a new class about the biological and genetic underpinnings of human behavior, which caught her imagination. Her interest in these topics was reinforced when she got to college at Temple University, where she majored in Biology and minored in Cognitive Neuroscience. At Temple, Uraina worked with Dr. Donald Overton in a lab that studied how alcohol use affected spatial learning in rodents. Uraina felt at home in the laboratory setting. She saw that scientists aren’t stereotypical mad geniuses, but are simply everyday people who are bursting with fun and curiosity, just like she was. This realization helped remove what she calls a “perceived barrier” to her becoming a scientist– being around scientists made Uraina realize that she could become one.
“I was a curious kid…I’ve always been very curious about people’s behaviors.”
After college, Uraina continued her scientific journey at Boston University, where she earned a PhD in Clinical Psychology working with Drs. Alice Cronin-Golomb and Marlene Oscar-Berman. Graduate school is where Uraina began her research on how the brain and behavior are impacted by physical health; she studied how facial recognition and emotion recognition abilities are altered in Parkinson’s Disease. This was a unique line of research, as many people think of Parkinson’s Disease as purely a movement disorder. She found that impairments in cognitive control in Parkinson’s Disease patients led to abnormalities in how they looked at faces, which was also associated with emotion recognition difficulties.
“mentorship [is] not a four-year commitment, but one that lasts an entire career.”
Graduate school is also where Uraina discovered the power of mentorship. She is still in touch with her PhD mentor, Dr. Cronin-Golomb, whose mentorship style she greatly admires. Rather than view her advisees as subordinates, Dr. Cronin-Golomb treated the people she mentored as her equals and peers. Uraina sees hierarchy in academia as another barrier that can prevent people from staying in science, and she credits her advisor’s advising style as important in her development as a scientist and an independent person. In addition, Uraina says that Dr. Cronin-Golomb “sees mentorship as not a four-year commitment, but one that lasts an entire career. And this is really helpful for those who want to stay in science, because you do need mentorship at every point in your career.” Indeed, Dr. Cronin-Golomb has helped Uraina in a number of ways since she finished her PhD, including guiding her through promotions and joining professional organizations, as well as nominating her for awards and fellowships.
Uraina’s research focus shifted from Parkinson’s to HIV once she began her postdoc at Brown University, under the mentorship of Drs. Ronald Cohen, Lawrence Sweet, and Tara White. Similar to Parkinson’s Disease, many people are unfamiliar with the psychological and neurological effects of HIV, such as impairments in emotion recognition due to HIV-related brain changes. Uraina was uniquely qualified to take this work on, given her work as a PhD student in a different patient population with a similar neuropathology. Uraina says that studying HIV opened up tons of new questions. For example, due to cultural and societal dynamics, many people who acquire HIV as adults also experienced adverse experiences in early childhood, which itself can have huge neurological effects later in life. In addition, the disease pathology of HIV affects similar brain areas to that of excess stress. These overlaps allow for a unique opportunity to investigate the interlacing effects on the brain of childhood experience, exposure to adverse events, and poor brain health.
Uraina continues to study HIV to this day as the head of the Neuropsychology and Neuroimaging Lab at Mount Sinai. Since starting her own lab, her research program has expanded to other types of stressors as well, such as discrimination and race-related stressors, and how they may impact brain function. As a Black woman in science, Uraina has first-hand experience with this type of stress, in which people have pigeon-holed her because of their biases about her race or gender. “It’s really too bad that we live in a culture that rather than see people’s innate abilities, it would prefer to shunt individuals away from opportunities based on characteristics that have nothing to do with their actual capacity – things like race and gender.” Uraina notes that there is never a singular event that allows you to overcome the biases of others; rather, it’s a continual process that requires you to know the value of your own work, even when others refuse to recognize it. She cites her family and a support network of friends and colleagues as critical in helping her rise above these barriers. Today, aside from being the head of her own lab, Uraina is also the associate director of Mount Sinai’s MD/PhD program. As someone who holds multiple leadership roles, Uraina practices mentorship in a variety of ways. She says that mentors “have a lot of wisdom, and sharing that is a type of responsibility to bring up the next generation of scientists.” Uraina notes how impactful it is to help build up the careers of others, just like her own mentors did for her.
“Always follow your passions… Sometimes there are hard choices you have to make. But if you align your choices with your values, that can really help guide you.”
If stress is a river, Uraina likes to build bridges. In her research, she makes connections between disease pathologies and real-life experiences, and in her mentorship, she guides students and mentees from one career stage to the next, helping them navigate the various barriers one might face in academia. Uraina has demonstrated throughout her career that our identities cannot be siphoned into neat boxes with separate problems to solve, but rather, are filled with inextricable connections. A person with HIV may also be someone who has suffered from developmental adversity. A director of an MD/PhD program may also be someone who has faced discrimination. Our overlapping identities reinforce the idea that no stressor should be considered in isolation from others. Through it all, Uraina says that we must trust that we can be guided by our curiosity. “Always follow your passions. There will be times in your career that are challenging, and these will pass. Sometimes there are hard choices you have to make. But if you align your choices with your values, that can really help guide you.”
Uraina Clark, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Neurology at Mount Sinai. Check out her lab’s website.
Uraina wrote about ways to address racism and bias in the biomedical sciences in Nature Human Behaviour in 2020.
Uraina is also working on a collaborative project with a team of scientists at Mount Sinai and across the nation aimed at removing these barriers for young scientists and increasing diversity. You can learn more about it here, and see Mount Sinai’s write-up on it here.
by Benjamin Silver