Neuroscientist at Rockefeller University
What would you say to aspiring scientists?
“Ask questions to your advisors about what they do everyday.”
Dr. Constantina Theofanopoulou didn’t always want to be a neuroscientist. Growing up in Athens, Greece, her first passion was, in fact, language. She asked herself: “how is it possible that we can build things as complex as poetry, or even communicate complex thoughts, with some minimal building blocks?” In search of answers, she pursued a degree in Linguistics at the National Kapodistrian University of Athens.
During her undergraduate schooling, Constantina had the opportunity to do an internship at the University of Seville on an Erasmus Scholarship–an exchange program for students in the European Union. In contrast to her education at the University of Athens, which focused mainly on the features of language itself (such as syntax), at Seville she began to view language through the lens of cognitive processes. From this eye-opening experience, she realized that “what [she] was trying to find out [about language] probably is to be found in the brain, and not in what we say!” With this in mind, she decided to pursue a Master’s degree in Cognitive Science and Language at the University of Barcelona, in order to gain a better understanding of the biology of the brain. She continued her work on the role of the brain in speech production, as well as on comparative genomics, as a PhD student internationally advised at the University of Barcelona, Duke University, and Rockefeller University. She is currently finishing her postdoctoral research at Rockefeller University, with exciting prospective steps she hopes she will be able to share soon.
It was around the beginning of her graduate studies that Constantina happened to watch a documentary on the science of pleasure. In one segment of the documentary, subjects’ brains were being imaged with fMRI during orgasm. Due to her training as a language neuroscientist, she noticed that some of the brain regions being activated during these episodes were the same as those that were activated by complex language (for example, Broca’s Area)! Inspired by this realization, she looked more into the scientific literature on the neurobiology of pleasure and developed a hypothesis on the role of oxytocin (often colloquially called the “love” or “pleasure” hormone) in vocal production and learning.
From her initial experiments in zebra finches, the most widely used animal model for studying vocalizations and speech, she discovered that removing oxytocin affected the way males sang when trying to attract females. In oxytocin-deficient males, songs were noticeably simpler–less “erotic,” as she puts it. In ongoing work, Constantina is investigating how oxytocin affects song learning in juvenile songbirds, as well as collaborating with human researchers to better understand how these discoveries in birds translate to the human brain. She sees this as a potential way to develop treatments for neurological disorders in humans that lead to difficulty with language learning.
Along her research trajectory, Constantina says she has definitely had many hiccups that might be considered failures, but she thinks that how we conceive of failure has more to do with how we conceive of ourselves. She considers “failures” as just a part of the job–just another day of work–and doesn’t let it stop her from continuing forward. She has a similar viewpoint on “successes” in that it’s always nice to have the reassurance that she is on the right track, but doesn’t let it distract her from the work ahead.
Constantina also finds that maintaining work-life balance and hobbies outside of her work are critical for her success. Besides being a scientist, Constantina identifies as a flamenco dancer, an activity she has been doing since she was seven years old. Being a dancer, as a matter of fact, has had a tremendous impact on her journey as a scientist. Part of the reason she chose to do her Master’s degree in Seville was because she wanted to be next to the source of the art. Even more fundamentally, she credits much of her self-discipline and focus on her studies throughout her life to her love of flamenco. She has a clear memory of telling herself, at eight years old, “you’re not going to your flamenco class unless you finish your homework.” Having something to look forward to that she loved really motivated her to work hard in school. “I very much respect it and it has really developed what I am today. And it’s still doing it, because I still dance.”
“You’re not going to your flamenco class unless you finish your homework.” Having something to look forward to that she loved really motivated her to work hard in school. “I very much respect it and it has really developed what I am today. And it’s still doing it, because I still dance.”
Fittingly with her interests in language and dance, Constantina also identifies as a poet. “I think poetry is the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life. Even more difficult than science.” She finds the act–of pouring your soul into a piece that, ninety-five percent of the time, you won’t be happy with–inherently masochistic, but hypothesizes that ultimately the process of writing is so rewarding that you are drawn back into it again and again. She shares her poems on her Instagram account and also publishes her work in various poetry journals.
Being a woman in STEM, Constantina is no stranger to both implicit and explicit biases in the workplace, both from her own experiences and from confessions of other women and underrepresented minorities she has worked with. In order to change this unhealthy culture, Constantina tries to make personal connections with underrepresented students–giving them feedback or even just listening to their concerns. While she believes larger initiatives like Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committees are important, and is involved in a few such programs, she finds these smaller interactions to be the place where she makes the greatest difference. Ultimately, she says both top-down and bottom-up initiatives should be implemented together to be most effective.
“We very often go to specialists when we have a problem. We need to take care of our mental health daily.”
As a message to prospective scientists, she strongly suggests that those interested in academia as a career path take the time to understand what that truly entails ahead of time. Especially in the modern world, there is much better access to information of what your life will look like as an academic out there that you should take advantage of. “Ask questions to your advisors about what they do everyday.” More importantly, Constantina stresses the importance of actively taking care of your mental health. “We very often go to specialists when we have a problem. We need to take care of our mental health daily.” She says meditation and psychotherapy have been very helpful in this regard for her, but every person will have their own methods. The most important thing is that when you are caring for your mental health, you are doing so mindfully.
by Arnav Raha