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IRP Podcast: The View of the NIMH Intramural Program From the Top: An Interview with Dr. Susan Amara


Listen to this episode: Dr. Susan Amara: The View of the NIMH Intramural Research Program (IRP) From the Top. Dr. Susan Amara, Scientific Director of the IRP at NIMH, discusses how advantages of the IRP such as flexibility, diversity, and collaboration have led to major discoveries in mental health research. A blue brain graphic on a red background. HHS NIMH logo.


Dr. Peter Bandettini and Dr. Susan Amara discuss how advantages of the Intramural Research Program such as flexibility, diversity, and collaboration have led to major discoveries in mental health research.


Peter Bandettini: Welcome to the Brain Experts podcast, where I meet neuroscience experts and talk about their work and delve into their area of study and expertise. My name is Peter Bandettini and I am a scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health. I aim, through this podcast, to engage, educate, and inspire.

In this episode, I have a discussion with Dr. Susan Amara, the Scientific Director of NIMH, who also happens to be my boss. Since 2013, Dr. Amara has been the Scientific Director of the Intramural Research Program at the National Institute of Mental Health and Chief of the Laboratory of Molecular and Cellular Neurobiology (LMCN). She balances both directing the IRP with running her lab. Her lab has examined the impact of psychostimulant and antidepressant drugs on the signaling properties, physiology, and acute regulation of biogenic amine transporters.

Dr. Amara received a BS from Stanford University, a PhD in Physiology and Pharmacology from the University of California, San Diego and has previously held faculty positions at Yale University School of Medicine, at the Vollum Institute in Portland Oregon and as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator at Yale and in Oregon. Prior to moving to NIH she served as the Thomas Detre Chair of Neurobiology and Distinguished Professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences (2004), and a past-President of the Society for Neuroscience (2011). She is currently the president of the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Let's chat.

Peter Bandettini: There are 27 institutes at the NIMH, and NIMH is one of them. It has intramural and extramural programs, uh, and most are familiar with the extramural program, which funds research around the US and the world. The NIMH Intramural Program accounts for about 11% of the total NIMH budget and consists of about 700 staff working in 40 research sections, each associated with a PI more or less. Uh, it has 10 core facilities, and it's situated, uh, for the most part in the intra-- on the intramural research campus in Bethesda, Maryland. So I've been here over 20 years, and I can say firsthand that, uh, at NIMH IP is, is a truly vibrant and special place, especially since Susan arrived. Uh, the, the intramural program as we'll learn is unique in how the research is supported and carried out.

So welcome, welcome, Susan. Uh, thanks for doing this. And, uh, I just like to start off by just talking-- asking you, uh, you know, how you got started, uh, what motivated you in-- uh, to get into neuroscience and, and what drives you now.

Susan Amara: Wow, that's, that's a lot. [laughter] No. I'm, I'm delighted to talk about it. I, I actually started in science very early. I, I was always interested in it from, you know, the time I was actually quite small. Um, I can remember it kind of aspiring to be a scientist and doing lots of-- I always did experiments in the backyard. I did all things in, in the kitchen. Um, and, and so I really, really wanted, um, to, to become a scientist and, and all kinds of science. I was interested in anthropology and archeology. I was interested in, um, chemistry and all kinds of things, biology. But, um, but it was, uh, in eighth grade, I think, when I first realized that you could do science and actually have a job. And, um, I, I was sent by the LA City Schools to a summer program for people interested in science. And we did experiments, and I just-- it was mostly doing experiments, but we also went on field trips, and one of the field trips was to a drug company. And I saw them doing, um, experiments, and it turns out they were studying blood pressure-- medications to regulate blood pressure. And I found it so interesting.

And the realization that you could actually be em-- gainfully employed, which was in my family important, um, that, that you be able to not just, um-- you know, that you actually be able to have, have a career. And, and I, I, um, I just decided-- at that point, I thought drugs were so fascinating and interesting, and that ultimately led to my doing-- I worked in the pharmacology department as an undergraduate at Stanford and, um, ended up deciding to go, um, and get a PhD in physiology and pharmacology. But it was really this sort of early formative moment. And it's, it's the reason why I always tell people that getting started in science has the-- you can have a-- an absolutely, uh, um, complete epiphany by a very small event that really sticks with you and carries you on and develops into something that, um, is much, much more than just that one event. And so I-- that's why I think exposing kids to science early is so crucial.

With, with-- the light bulb goes on, and you realize you can-- you can-- this can be done. And, um, you know, I, I, I have to say, um, it's been-- everything in my career in terms of what I wanted to do has been everything that I could have imagined and much more. So, um, it's, it's just been, uh, been a true pleasure to have found something that I care so much about and enjoy so much [inaudible], and, and still always intrigued by. So, um, neuroscience, I became interested in drugs in the brain, and, and it was actually because I took a course in college, um, in neuro-neuropharmacology I decided drugs in the brain were even more interesting, so off, off I went, but, um, yeah.

Peter Bandettini: That's great.

Susan Amara: So.

Peter Bandettini: That's-- yeah. That's-- okay. All right. Well, that's, that's actually, um-- that's inspiring in, in, in that sense to, you know, to have a sense of-- right, it's, uh-- you know, having this interest and being aware of your interest in-- and actually you're right. I mean, there's so many people that I know in science who are so fulfilled, and it is a very fulfilling, uh, uh, job. Uh, people think it's all just research and toilets. It's really fulfilling to ask questions in, in a good way and, and, and actually have-- be supported in figuring things out.

Susan Amara: Yeah.

Peter Bandettini: So--

Susan Amara: And, and I, I-I'll say one thing. One of the things that I also love about science is that you never solve the problem. There's always the next one. And so there's never a-- it, it-- it's, it's never over. It's-- there's another question to be answered in another question. So I, I-- that for me has been a really wonderful part of it. And you never know, like, where you'll end up or in which fields you'll end up or what technologies you'll bring in. Um, so it's-- it-- that for me has been really rewarding.

Peter Bandettini: Yeah, yeah, no, you're right. I mean, it opens up-- you're right. It opens up questions, and, and that's-- the fun part is sort of asking-- the skill of, of asking the right questions and, and figuring out and, and learning to, to ask the right questions. So, so, yeah. So, so I'm gonna shift gears a little bit, um, and sort of skip over your, your whole, uh, uh, you know, kind of illustrious career and just go to right when you arrived at the NIH. Um, um, so when you first arrived, um, you know, what was-- I mean, was it a dramatic adjustment? Uh, uh, you know, I can imagine-- uh, you know, things are done differently, extramurally versus intramurally. And, and the job itself was, was different, uh, in that regard. I'm just kind of curious about your experiences with a regard to that.

Susan Amara: Yeah. Well, I mean, I, I think I do have to kind of make a, a connection between the, the early phase and the later phase. O-over time, I realized that there are also ways to contribute to science that are not, um, necessarily simply running a laboratory. And you, you realize that you have certain skills and that, um, you can make a difference in, in other ways, besides just your research. And I think for me, as a woman in science, I felt particularly committed to do so because, um, the more-- the higher up I got in my career, the fewer women there were at, at my level. And I-- and I really felt like it was important to step up and shape, you know, um, you know, shape the future. And, um, and so that was one of my motivations initially to becoming a chair. Um, and, and I learned a lot, you know, of skill-- set of skills there that I felt, um-- I felt very comfortable with, but I felt as though I'd hit sort of, uh, uh, the, the limit of what I could do there.

Um, and where-- when I came to NIMH I thought there are lots of things that can be done. And one of the things in particular that appealed to me about, um, about NIMH was the idea, um, of being able to pursue questions, um, as, a-a-as the results drive you. Uh, there's a great deal, more flexibility within the intramural program to tackle important problems without necessarily having, um, gotten a grant, gotten all the things, and done a lot of the work initially. You could have an idea and take that idea and move it forward. And you could see holes in where research had not, you know, not, not really, um, developed in the directions that would be good directions to develop. But they might be precluded by, um, having to go through the, the, the whole extramural process.

Peter Bandettini: Yeah.

Susan Amara: And so I liked the flexibility. I, um, I, I myself started on, um-- about one year into my first faculty position, I, I joined the Hughes Institute. And it allowed me the flexibility to change fields. I, I worked on a totally different area. I worked on, on neuropeptide genes, and I, I worked on RNA processing regulation. And, um, and it allowed me to see a problem. Along with-- actually one of my, um, terrific postdocs, Randy Blakely. Um, we decided that there was an important problem out there to begin to study neurotransmitter uptake-- reuptake systems and see how-- you know, what, what, um, what the transporters look like, whether they were single subunit proteins, multi-subunit. Um, and, and we just could do that because of Hughes funding. And it allowed, I think, us a huge amount of flexibility. We-- I went and presented it at, at the Hughes meeting, and they said, "Yeah, no, one's working on this. You should do this." And, um, it, it was-- it was an example where seeing holes in areas, um, you can really take off and, and, and add something to the field. Whereas I felt like in some of the other areas I was in, I wasn't gonna add any more.

Peter Bandettini: Yeah.

Susan Amara: Because there were plenty of people working on them. So, um, it, it really-- um, having started out that way, that sort of something that-- so it appeals to me, and it appeals to me, particularly with junior investigators to allow them flexibility to explore and, and really direct themselves towards the important problem or a problem that's unsolved or one that's been intractable in the past and--

Peter Bandettini: Yeah.

Susan Amara: --use-- bring to-- new technologies, apply it to a new area that will push things forward. So I, I felt like, um, coming to NIMH would really facilitate that because I think that's part of the culture here. And I have to say it's really proven to be true. I feel as though our investigators, um, can take risks and can do research that really does have the potential to fail, but if it-- but if it doesn't fail, um, it has the potential to really add in, in ways that, that maybe weren't as anticipated. So I love the idea of high risk. Um, it's, it's just-- it puts you-- it just-- it, it, it makes it just such an exciting, um, career to have and to-- um, and, and also to be able to facilitate that. At a certain point, you realize, um, you know, you-- especially, if you're a bench scientist, you no longer have the, the, the skillset to do bench science in the same way. And certainly your, your, your, um, trainees and, and your colleagues really take that on. But, um, but the idea of taking a step back and facilitating research broadly to allow people to take risks was extraordinary a-a-appealing to me. And I think, um, has, has panned out in terms of what I've experienced since coming here.

Peter Bandettini: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it's certainly-- I think it's, it's worth cla-clarifying that-- right, the, the, the huge advantage of the intramural program. I mean, certainly, the extramural program has, has many advantages as well, but, um--

Susan Amara: Mm-hmm.

Peter Bandettini: --uh, the intramural program is nice in, in that researchers get a budget and, you know, they have a rough agenda, but they can-- but, like you said, they can be so much more flexible and focus on the science Uh, and, you know, the past we had, you know, this strictly hierarchical structure of labs and branches and then PIs underneath them and sections. And now it's a little bit more, uh, modular in that regard. So I don't know if you want to talk a little bit about that, that the-- how you sort of envision the structure and, and to, to encourage this sort of collaboration.

Susan Amara: Yeah. So, so this-- the structure, certainly-- um, the classic lab structure is hierarchical at N-NIH. Um, although some institutes have really done away with it. What, what I, I did-- and, and again, I think as a scientist, you're always an observer also. So when I came in, you, you look at what, what works, um, what's working, what's not working, what could be better. Um, and I, I did see-- at first, I thought, you know, might be better to have more of a flat structure. It sort of seemed like a more modern way of doing it. And then you can have more nimble interactions coming together. But then I realized some of the strengths of the hierarchical structure and certain groups in particular benefited from that. And I think, Peter, your, your group, um, uh, the Laboratory of Brain and Cognition is an example of that. Um, but there are some groups that have common themes that, that kind of tie them together in ways that allow them to support each other, interact. They often use similar, um, animal models for, um, for studies, um, or they use similar approaches. Um, and, and that has some advantages in a practical sense.

Um, on the other hand, you don't want that to turn into a silo where they, they don't explore outside 'cause I actually think there are connections. And some of the most interesting connections and leaps that get made in science are when somebody's in one area completely bring something absolutely different. You know, I, I think the examples of seeing how physicists have had an impact or engineers have had an impact on the way we think about biological problems and the way we analyze them. And now, you know, there's sort of an area related to computation, which also causes us to think differently about our problems and, and test them in different ways. So, um-- and, and I find that to be incredibly healthy for science. So I didn't want-- I wanted to preserve the good aspects. So there are good aspects of the hierarchical structure because you've got great mentoring. Um, you have a group that meets together regularly, um, and they talk to each other, and they know their, their-- the trainees in one group, know the trainees in the other group. And, and so-- and mentoring tends to be as-- and particularly for junior faculty, just a given in that kind of a setting.

Peter Bandettini: Yeah.

Susan Amara: --a [inaudible] system. But superimposed on that, what I wanted to incentivize were collaborations across and particularly collaborations from basic to clinical because in the e-- in the extramural-- in the extramural departments, you don't have this luxury of having wonderful clinical researchers often in the same department as basic scientists. And so the idea that you wouldn't take advantage of this in some way, um, and, and also begin to think of problems not, not just as, "I do this. I do that. They do-- I work at this level," but really kind of have a continuum of, of research across all of those areas. And I think that's something we can do here really uniquely. And so incentivizing, having people talk to each other more-- because usually, it's-- people engaged, uh, at all levels once they're exposed to it. I-- and I think just setting it up, not enforcing it in a-- in the sense of not saying, "We need one, one of this flavor, one of that flavor," but really having more of an organic, um, meeting. And, and then from that, building a program based on creating more connections like that--

And, and I think-- I think we-- we're doing it and, um, have done it to some extent, um, and we-- we'll probably do it more in, in the future to kind of create those, uh, connections. And a-- I mean, a nice example of a way of creating connections has been, um, your multimodal imaging center, which has really connected a lot of the different kinds of imaging or analysis of brain function, um, and connected those groups together to where they talk to each other. And now, you start to see, you know, combinations that you hadn't thought, you know, doing, um, you know, both imaging and neuromodulation and combining the two. Now you get much more refined kinds of technologies.

Peter Bandettini: Yeah.

Susan Amara: So I kind of see how that builds and, and, um, really improves things. And you also see that-- um, how much are basic scientists becoming engaged with the idea that, um, that they can actually take something and link it to human-- all the way to humans. [crosstalk]--

Peter Bandettini: Yes.

Susan Amara: --really basic science to symporter. And that I think probably nicely illustrated by the groups we have that are interested in circadian rhythm, bipolar disorder, and kind of linking lots of different, um, aspects of, um, basic physiology, which ultimately really do, um, drive how our brains work in both health and disease.

Peter Bandettini: Yeah.

Susan Amara: So making those connections and encouraging people has been a big goal of mine. Um, and, and I think it's one of the real strengths of the intramural program to have, um, the ability to have all these groups in one place. And, and the, the collaborations are much easier because what I found hard was I would try to do this when I had, uh, an, an extramural department, and it was really challenging for people to do it-- do it because they, they had grants, and their grants were expected to achieve these aims. And as soon as they strayed from that, it was distracting.

Peter Bandettini: Yeah.

Susan Amara: And it, it was taking resources, and they were always in this kind of managing resources. But the flexibility that you all have in the intramural program is really, uh, a gift, um--

Peter Bandettini: Yeah.

Susan Amara: --that you-- you know, if you don't appreciate it-- or having seen both sides, I think, um, it's really quite wonderful.

Peter Bandettini: And so-- and actually that just leads me to our, our next question here, just along the, the lines of, of, of clinical imp-implementation. it's really a hard problem to convert, uh, basic understanding to things that are used to help people. Uh, you know, there's clinical trials. There's things like that. Um, I don't know if you could talk about how you envision maybe helping to catalyze that process, um, maybe to speed it up a little bit or, or, or somehow-- 'cause it seems like there's a lot of findings, a lot of research and-- uh, that seems like it's ready for clinical use. Of course, it has to be tested and not-- and everything like that. But is there any other avenues, uh, or anything to further make that connection to clinical translation, um, in that regard?

Susan Amara: it is challenging because we don't know-- there's so much detail about how the brain works and how the brain, you know, go-- you know, what goes awry. Um, and, and we don't yet have all the high-resolution tools to be able to go there. So I think we are still in this phase of really still exploring. Uh, you know, yeah, we can look at circuits, but we still don't understand fundamental mechanismsWe really haven't-- um, un-understood that. And so, um, so I think we're still in this much more exploratory phase. We're probably a, a number of years. In fact, I, I don't even wanna speculate on the number of years. But behind what they are in, in, for example, in cancer research, which is much-- you know, getting much more to a mechanistic level, and, and you can start to target things in it. But behavior is, is a challenge. It's-- and the brain has not been the most tractable this far.

So some of it's gonna involve the development of new technologies. Um, some of it is actually going to be, um, making choices about what's most likely to be useful.

--so I think we are gonna be in this phase, and we sort of have to just keep at it and make prudent choices as to some of the directions. And, and it might mean that we have to-- you know, some things will be dropped quickly and, and then others will be, be pursued. But I, I think, um, sort of evaluating what we're doing, um, on a regular basis and saying, "Is this really gonna get us where we want?"

Peter Bandettini: Yeah, yeah.

Susan Amara: Or, you know, "Should we be making more D2 receptor antagonists for schizophrenia?" Maybe not. Maybe we should look at other things and-- I, I was actually encouraged a couple of weeks ago after, you know, y-y-years of watching the different com-compounds come out, um, to treat various neuropsychiatric diseases. There, there seems to be finally new targets and new medications that have been FDA approved even coming up--

Peter Bandettini: Yeah.

Susan Amara: --just in the past, you know, three or four years including, including ketamine and brexanolone, which, which had their origins in the intramural program. Um, but these are, are looking at, at n-n-newer targets and different ways of, of doing it. So I think it is encouraging, and, and you can kind of just begin to see that efforts that were made several years back are now beginning to, to kind of come through. And there--

Peter Bandettini: Yeah.

Susan Amara: --are a number of, you know, new, new kinds of, um, targets emerging. And then, you know, i-i-in terms of understanding disease, we spent a lot of effort on genetics, and it-- you know, ge-- it's, it's beginning to, to tell us something about systems rather than, um, tell us about specific disease-causing genes. But that-- um, but that we really are, um, a whole-- uh, you know, wha-what determines the output of, of our brain and our behavior and all that is really a, a systems-level kind of question. And--

Peter Bandettini: Yeah.

Susan Amara: --so beginning to use tools that allow us to address systems-level questions, I think is a great idea. And some of our-- hopefully, we'll, we'll do this with some of the computational approaches, um, and, and with big data analyses and, you know, going back to some of the genomic kinds of things, but perhaps thinking about it in, in somewhat different ways.

Peter Bandettini: Yeah, yeah. I tota-- I completely agree. I think that, um-- yeah, I mean, you summed it up really well

Susan Amara: And--

Peter Bandettini: --and I think--

Susan Amara: --and--

Peter Bandettini: Yeah.

Susan Amara: --and intramural program really does have the potential to grow-- take new things and i-implement them more quickly because they're-- you know, it-it's one of the things that I, I think, again, is one of our great strengths. And so, um--

Peter Bandettini: Yes.

Susan Amara: --as much as we can do that, as much as we can push the envelope in terms of technology, um, I think that-that's important, um, for us.

Peter Bandettini: Yeah. I think the intramural program-- right, I mean, it's-- I mean, like you said, with, with [inaudible] with ketamine, I mean, that was sort of starting up quickly, and, and, and that seems to be, uh, finally, uh, making an impact in that regard, but-- and, right, there's-- it's-- it-- you know, an intramural program allows you to be nimble, uh, uh, but also, you have to take risks, but also-- and also, there's longitudinal studies though that require a huge amount of stability that you just don't get in the extramural program as well that you can make a study that is long and, you know, it's gonna be around 10 years later. [laughter]

Susan Amara Yeah. And I, I, I missed saying that that's another advantage, which is, you know-- that, that you can create databases of information that allow others to also work on it. And it--

Peter Bandettini: Yes.

Susan Amara: --you know, uh, that really, um-- and that's, that's why we've put in a-as you know, and I think you were, like-- one of the catalyst for this was, um, data sharing, uh, for, for a lot of the imaging data that's been generated.

Peter Bandettini: Yeah, yeah. So-- okay. you're constantly making new hires, and, and, you know, there are new people you're, you're bringing in., how do you actually decide who comes in? are there certain, uh, gaps or, or opportunities that you're looking to, to fill?

Susan Amara: So I, I think-- you know, there, there are always gaps, and there are always So, I, I mean, I really have tried to, um, make sure that we don't just recruit someone because they do this. And you recruit people who one, um, are collaborative, um, to fit in an area that, that-- it-it-it's like tiling. I always think of it kind of this idea of, um, they're not totally the same as someone else, but they really kind of fill in those gaps between, um, spaces and allow for continuity of, of approaches, ideas, um, and, and the kinds of experiments they do, um, be-- uh, because nobody-- I mean, nobody does well in a vacuum or being isolated alone, and again, um, creating, uh, uh, an org-- you know, a st-- an organization and a structure that allows for a lot of interaction has been an important goal. Um, we've tried to fill in particular areas. , I listened to all of you. Um, and I really try to think of-- and, and when I talk to people, I try to imagine how they'll fit in, who they'll talk to, um, who they might mentor, who they might, um, be mentored by. Um, and so it's, it's-- uh, there are a lot of factors, and I can't say I, I have, uh, a series of checkboxes because we're all-- we all are unique individuals--

Peter Bandettini: Yeah.

Susan Amara: --and, and do things differently. Um--

Peter Bandettini: Yes.

Susan Amara: --but, you know, we've tried to emphasize areas that, um, that I think are likely to produce important results. I think there has been an empha-emphasis on looking at earlier stages in development. Um, a lot of the clinical research has an element that focuses on children, um, to see early stages, particularly when you're, um, interested in longitudinal studies to understand how, how diseases emerge and how they're-- you know, what their progression is like.

Peter Bandettini: Yes.

Susan Amara: Um, so, so really, um, it's, it's kind of a, uh, uh, uh, very complicated and, um, uh, and make perhaps more intuitive sense of how, how, uh, parts of the program will fit in. Um, you know, there are areas I've kind of wanted to-- um, my own research, uh, in my lab has taken us to work on a target that I think is-- um, and that has now been shown to probably be very relevant to, um, psychosis and, um, schizophrenia. And so I would love to have more strength in that, and I, I did have a mission when I came in to build in those areas. We're currently recruiting in those areas. So hopefully something, um, will begin to develop and take hold in those areas.

Peter Bandettini: Yeah.

Susan Amara: Um, but I don't think that it's our goal to really cover every disease. I want to cover-- again, I want it-- us to be a cohesive, interactive, um, you know, organism--

Peter Bandettini: Yes.

Susan Amara: --than, uh, um, than a bunch of isolated, you know, entities here and there. So a lot of it comes into how, how comfortable everyone else is as well. Um, w-whether there's excitement about that person's project, even if it isn't in their field, whether they're captivated by it 'cause they'll take things from it and--

Peter Bandettini: Yeah.

Susan Amara:  --all-- and all that.

Peter Bandettini: Yeah, yeah. Okay. Right. No, no, I think-- I think you-- yeah. And, and, and what keeps on coming through is this idea of collaborating and, uh, this idea of setting up an environment that, that not only helps the science but, but it helps each individual become a better scientist, uh, in this regard. I mean, I'm-- I feel like I'm constantly improved when I see talks outside my comfort zone and try to figure out how to-- how to make connections, so. And yeah, I think you're right. I mean, the intramural program is, is bigger than any university, you know, department typically. Uh, it's smaller than, you know, university. So it's kind of like this big-- this size that is, is just, uh, small enough though to still maintain the sense of cohesion across the PIs, so.

Susan Amara: And it's, it's, uh, it's a little bit more akin to a center extramurally 'cause, you know, there, there are centers that focus on particular areas and whatnot. But, um, it's a little more akin to that. But again, because of the clinical center and having, you know, this, this very clearly defined clinical, um, research role that, um-- I think it makes it, um, even, uh, significantly different from-- you know, you often have a basic science department or you have a clinical department extramurally. And the clinical department will do a bit of both, and sometimes it can do both successfully, but, um, but it, it usually leans one way or another, I think. Um--

Peter Bandettini: If you, uh, can imagine how the, you know, the intramural program evolves where do you see it going in the next, um, you know, 10 to 20 

Susan Amara: I, I think-- you know, technology is the driver often, um, more than-- uh, more than anything. 

Susan Amara: It's often just technology that emerges that suddenly-- and, and actually, I think some of the new, um, genetic, uh, approaches for transcriptomics, the ability to do sequencing and understand what populations of cells with their-- um, with their-- expression changes are, um, really getting a handle on. And, and I think, you know, you know, that i-in fact, um, being able t-to, to do some of that on our post-mortem brain samples, I think is, is, um, important because I think we, we can-- there's now technology that you couldn't have imagined a few years back that can be applied to those, um, tissues, uh, in ways that allow us to look at populations of cells and different cell types, different, um, changes in, in expression during disease, during early phases, during late phases. So some of those things are going to, one, allow us to, um, uh, uh, to probe our models in, in more-- much higher res-- at much higher resolution. But they're also going to allow us to, to look at, at human brain and, and at, at-- in similar ways, particularly those who have suffered from diseases. And again, there are challenges with that. It's never-- you know, moving from an animal model to humans is, is, is a huge stretch and often really reveals many different things. But the ability to use some of the newer technologies to do that, I think is gonna give us a lot of information--

Peter Bandettini: Yeah.

Susan Amara: We didn't have before. We can look at what happens to a brain-- a brain that now has been given a drug or that ha-has, you know, been put under stress and given-- and, and, and-- or that's improved or not improved by, uh, by testing. So there are many-- I think there's a ton of information we'll be able to get out even with the current technologies. But I've always been amazed at how fast the things-- I always s-smile because when I started my career, my-- I was working on sequencing a gene. That was really one of the things that I did for my PhD. Sequencing a gene took my entire PhD, and it, it takes about two picoseconds now with a machine, and, and, and we have computers. I, I had to write out all the-- all the basis because we didn't-- we actually didn't have PCs then. And so I just wanna say how dramatic it can be, um, over time. And so my feeling is if, if I've seen that in my lifetime, we're gonna see a lot more in the next few years. So I think being nimble with respect to technology is, is absolutely crucial.

Peter Bandettini: Yeah.

Susan Amara: We're, um--

Peter Bandettini: Yeah.

Susan Amara: We're getting at these problems and moving faster. So things-- in my-- in my view, things always move faster than you think they're going to, which is a good thing.

Susan Amara: You know, now, now we have all these tools for looking at beha-- you know, um, probing single cells in, in so many ways that I could never have imagined. That, that, that really is instrumental to understanding the complexity of cell types within the brain.

Peter Bandettini: Yes.

Susan Amara: You know, the brain initiative has really moved things along as well. So I, I, I actually I'm optimistic, but I do think it's gonna be-- it's gonna take time. It's not as simple. So--

Peter Bandettini: Yeah.

Susan Amara: --you've got [inaudible] today.

Peter Bandettini: Is there any advice you'd like to give, uh, you know, younger scientists starting out, uh, uh, um, you know, directions to go, questions to ask, uh, you know, some, some, uh, inspiring thoughts?

Susan Amara: Having gone through a pandemic and all the career challenges that people have faced, I would give you the same advice I usually give, which I give everyone, which is, if you really love it, um, keep doing it. You know, if, if you look-- if you can look at this and say, "This is what I really love to do--" because I think there is room. There, there are a diversity of careers in, in this area. Um, and, uh, actually at NIH, we're exposed to many of them, um, many of the different avenues for careers that you can take. And I just think, um, if you love it and you-- and this is really what you can see yourself doing, um, to keep at it. I, I actually think that's-- so you didn't ask me one question, which was what, um-- what was the most rewarding thing about being an SD?

Peter Bandettini: Oh, yeah. Okay. Yeah. Sorry about that. Yes. I didn't-- [laughter]

Susan Amara: [inaudible]. I, I, I thought that was one that you were gonna ask. But, um, but I did-- I did wanna say there are two things. And one of them, it has been to watch our junior. I, I have to say it just makes me so happy to see our young investigators, like, doing so well. They've really-- and, and, and really thriving. And, and to me, that-- you know, I look towards them as being the future. Um, I, I really enjoy seeing, um, all, all of their successes and-- um, of which I have to say there've been many more than there have been on any-anything to worry about. But, um, so I've enjoyed that. It has been really rewarding. Um, and then I also enjoy watching our faculty interact now because they-- uh, if we have a faculty meeting, even on zoom, they are-- they're chatting with each other when, when they come to the faculty meeting. And to me, that's like the little indicator that something's working and that they're, you know, they're, they're talking about science, and, um, talking about things they can do rather than about, you know, uh, negative stuff. So I, I really have appreciated how much our faculty has responded and how, how engaged they are now and-- you know, in the program overall. So that's, that's the thing that makes me happy.

Peter Bandettini: That's-- yeah. No, that's-- so it's the human element, right? Definitely. Um, yeah, I, I do also feel like-- you're right. It's, it's-- we-- and that actually reflects a lot of yourself-- of you. I think that, uh, you've-- I, I have to say you've done a-- uh, an amazing job at sort of setting this atmosphere of collegiality and openness and, and feeling of support. And so that, that fosters this, this sort of sense of family. Um--

Susan Amara: It takes everyone to do that. So it, it isn't-- you know, I just have been so delighted to, um, have so many people who kind of come together and, and really engage, so.

Peter Bandettini: Yeah.

Susan Amara: It's been--

Peter Bandettini: Yeah.

Susan Amara: I am very happy here, so.

Peter Bandettini: And yeah, doing the sciences is-- it's not only the science, it's not only the questions, but there's a human element that's a-- it's a social activity. I mean, scientists are-- great scientists are very social, and they have-- they can communicate well, and they listen well, and that's a-- that's an often overlooked aspect, so, yeah. And yeah.

Susan Amara: Okay.

Peter Bandettini: All right. Well, thank you very much. Uh, this is great. And, uh, I really-- once again, I appreciate you taking the time, uh, to, to, to spend a little time talking about, uh, uh, the intramural program. So thank you.

Susan Amara: Thanks. Thanks for doing this, Peter. That's great.

Peter Bandettini: Oh, you're welcome.