Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience
What would you say to aspiring scientists?
“Anything is possible if you have the talent, passion and drive and discipline. Develop thick skin, work hard, pair yourself with a mentor. Don’t think things will happen overnight cause it doesn’t.”
During her high school years, Dr. Matia Solomon excelled in every subject. She loved the process of learning, which led her to think about pursuing different career paths. However, a career in science was not on her radar – she had never seen a real life scientist as a kid, and could not envision herself as one.
Matia started her undergraduate degree at Georgia State University with a burning desire to help people suffering from mental illness, which led her to consider a career in clinical psychology. Shortly after beginning her coursework at the university, she began to ask herself questions about depression and how it affected men and women differently. Knowing that stress can worsen depression symptoms to a greater extent in women compared to men, Matia wondered how stress and biological sex interacted to exacerbate depression symptomatology . She expressed her interests to her psychology professor, Dr. Kim Huhman. To her surprise, Dr. Huhman studied the same question Matia was intrigued by! Matia became interested in joining Dr. Huhman’s lab. Little did she know, she’d have to face one of her biggest fears in the lab: rodents.
When Matia joined Dr. Huhman’s lab, she expected to evaluate depression and stress in a clinical setting, with humans as subjects. However, she found herself studying stress in Syrian hamsters. These hamsters were used in the lab as animal models to study the role of stress hormones on depression-related and social behaviors. Matia ran experiments where she exposed naive hamsters to aggressive hamsters. This task, called conditioned defeat, makes the naive hamsters stressed and allows researchers to assess how stress affects the animals. Matia also wanted to understand how hormones were involved in the behavioral manifestation of stress. To answer this, she manipulated various hormones, including testosterone and estadiol in naive male and female hamsters and measured the behavioral and hormonal responses following exposure to an aggressive hamster during conditioned defeat. She uncovered a potential role sex hormones in the development of conditioned defeat after exposure to a stressful encounter (i.e., aggressive hamsters). For two years, Matia’s undergraduate research laboratory provided her with a wonderful environment for her scientific development. This research lab became her second home. She stayed there for five additional years to continue her research and complete her doctorate degree in behavioral neuroscience.
Matia grew personally and intellectually in Georgia, but eventually the day came to leave the nest and begin her postdoctoral training at the University of Cincinnati. This was the first time Matia left her hometown in Georgia, which brought tears to her eyes for many months as she faced new adventures away from her loved ones. Her science was what kept her going. During her postdoctoral research, Matia gained significant experience using neuroanatomical and genetic tools to answer questions regarding the neurobiology of stress and depression-like behaviors. Here, she began to look into a group of hormones crucial for the modulation of stress responses, called glucocorticoids. Matia sought to understand the role of glucocorticoids in symptoms linked to depression, with the goal of uncovering sex differences in the disease. The genetic tools she used allowed her to delete receptors that respond to glucocorticoids in different brain areas. She could then assess how those brain areas were responsible for making depression symptoms better or worse.
Matia recalls enjoying her interactions with her mentors in the past, and her postdoctoral mentor, Dr. James Herman, was not an exception to the trend. Matia felt lucky to have Dr. Herman as mentor, as he encouraged her to follow her passion and curiosity. He also coached Matia to recognize her impact on the field at times when she doubted the value of her own work. It should be noted that Matia only planned to remain in Cincinnati for two years for her postdoctoral research. But, upon receiving a faculty position offer at the university, she ended up staying for much longer. Today, Matia is the first African American neuroscience professor at the University of Cincinnati. A trailblazer in her field, Matia uses genetic tools and neuroendocrine and behavioral assays to comprehend why women are more likely to have certain physical and mental problems than men, that involve alterations in brain function. Additionally, she has been working on a new line of research focused on the role of a protein important for the health of cells in the brain, called DEK, and how its dysregulation might be causing Alzheimer’s disease.
For a long time, Matia has been guided by her mentors and now she is one to the next generation of scientists. On her quest to unravel sex differences in the neurobiology of stress-related disorders, she still relies on her mentors and colleagues to help guide the way. Whether it be an article revision, edition of a book, attendance to a conference or even advice and reminders to Matia of her belonging in science, no major move is ever done without consulting them first. This inspires her to be a better role model and to encourage her students to be like a family and to collaborate and consult amongst themselves and with her. Matia strives to treat her students as people rather than production machines. “I care about them as students because someone cared about me as a whole person,” she affirms. “There was a time when I got burned out in my field and wanted to walk away. People don’t talk about that.” At times, she recognizes her students at the edge of a burnout. When she sees this, she encourages and helps students engage in self-care and family time so that they could continue to be healthy and happy in the lab.
“I care about them as students because someone cared about me as a whole person”
Her lab has been key in demonstrating the importance of having both sexes in experiments. Due to science being focused on males for many years, Matia has advocated for considering females in the questions being asked, a task that has taken many years to achieve. In fact, Matia’s work has uncovered hormonal fluctuations during the estrous cycle as a mediator of stress responses in females. Yet to Matia, her greatest contribution is providing resources and mentorship for students interested in research. She notes that the labor of increasing accessibility encompasses different aspects of her career, from her laboratory to her work surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
Matia hopes to show the world who she is. Matia hopes to share her truth through her blog, which can be found within her research laboratory page. Here, Matia highlights her fears, her worries, and details how her personal life has influenced the science she does today, which spans the field of Alzheimer’s disease and sex differences. With this outlet, she aims to communicate the significance of professors showing students their vulnerable side as well as their strong side. She adds stories of impactful life events, including enduring the stay-at-home mandate in 2020 which pushed Matia to slow down. She was reminded to enjoy other things in her life, such as hobbies and time with her loved ones, making her fall in love with science all over again.
Matia B. Solomon, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at University of Cincinnati. Faculty profile
by Amanda Anqueira-González