Dr. Abby Polter is an Assistant Professor of Pharmacology and Physiology at George Washington University. She received her bachelor’s degree in Microbiology from Ohio Wesleyan University and her PhD in Neurobiology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Before joining the faculty at George Washington University, Abby was a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University. Abby joined us for an interview to talk about some of her experiences in life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:02)
Abby enjoys spending her free time curled up with a great book, conducting complicated cooking experiments in the kitchen, and visiting the many wonderful museums where she lives in Washington D.C.
The Scientific Side (4:55)
Research in the Polter lab focuses on how cells in the brain called neurons talk to each other and how information can be stored in the strength of the connections between neurons (synapses). In particular, Abby is interested in these neural connections in the context of stress in animal models. She wants to know how synapses on neurons producing neurotransmitters like serotonin are affected by adversity or stress during development, how neurons that produce dopamine are differentially affected in males compared to females, and why individuals respond differently to stress. These research questions are relevant for depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse disorders.
A Dose of Motivation (6:32)
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.” by Mary Oliver in “The Summer Day”
What Got You Hooked on Science? (10:07)
All the way back in elementary school, Abby read an inset box in her health textbook that talked about how a career in healthcare research involved working to cure diseases. She thought this was awesome, and it piqued her interest in research. Throughout school Abby was fascinated by science, and she made copious iterations of Punnett squares and elaborate drawings of transcription and translation after learning more about genetics. At that point though, she wasn’t sure how to make science into a career. She went to a small liberal arts school for college and really struggled with her science classes the first few years. Despite her parents’ gentle suggestions to explore other areas, Abby persisted in science. She knew she had to do research to be competitive for graduate schools, so she met with her professors to talk about working in their labs. In addition to genetics, Abby was interested in mental illness and the brain. She was not particularly interested in plants. However, her plant biology teacher convinced her that ion channel signalling in plants had relevance to neuroscience, and Abby began working in his lab that summer. It was a life-changing experience. Abby loved coming to the lab to do research, and the moment they discovered something new about the world that no one had known before was the coolest feeling.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (20:43)
Studying stress in animal models involves a number of challenges, including the fact that you need to ensure that you have a group of non-stressed animals that you can use for comparisons in your experiments. When Abby was a postdoc, she studied a phenomenon that was blocked by stress. Everything was going great until they stopped seeing the phenomenon in their control mice that were not supposed to be under stress. After about four months of systematic evaluation and in-depth sleuthing, Abby and her mentor finally discovered that there had been construction going on early in the mornings in their building, and the construction noise was what caused stress in the control mice. In addition to this incident, the process of starting a new lab is both exciting and a struggle. In many ways, starting a lab is like starting a business, and most scientists aren’t really trained how to do this so there is a lot of learning on the job. It’s scary for Abby knowing that other people’s livelihoods and careers depend on her success.
A Shining Success! (25:13)
It has been about one year since Abby started her new lab, and she is excited that they finally have enough data for a figure in a research paper. Much of the work has been done by a fantastic research assistant that Abby hired. It has been rewarding for Abby to teach this research assistant new techniques and see her use these techniques to set up and run experiments in the lab. Abby is so proud of her research assistant, and having real results has reassured Abby that she can get things working and be successful in her position.
Book Recommendations (3:52)
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Most Treasured Travel (27:13)
Abby attended a small, specialized conference a few years ago at a secluded ski resort in Maine. The location was beautiful and lush, and she was delighted to spend each day talking about science with wonderful people. On the last night, they had dinner at a lodge on top of the mountain, so they rode the ski lift up to dinner and the gondola down afterwards. On the way down, she was surrounded by friends, and together they marveled at the breathtaking stars and meteor showers overhead.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (29:07)
During her postdoctoral fellowship, Abby’s lab held a Pi Day party each year on March 14th where they would bring in and snack on various pies. They even tried to convince a new postdoc in the lab that Pie Day was a major holiday in the United States that people took very seriously. They began preparations months in advance, hung decorations, and brought in fifteen pies to feed the nine people in lab. Though Abby is pretty sure they didn’t succeed in fooling the new postdoc, it was still a lot of fun.
Advice For Us All (33:34)
It is great to have a strong network of peers and people in your field who can help you. Finding this group of people is really important. You’ll do better science and be happier if you are working together with other people rather than trying to defeat the competition. Also, take care of yourself, and take care of your life. The work you are doing is important, but it’s not everything.
Abby’s research is focused on understanding the effects of stress and adversity on the brain. Her group uses a variety of neuroscience methods to understand how stressful experiences change electrical connections between neurons and how those changes lead to adaptive and maladaptive behavioral responses to stress. When she isn’t in the lab, Abby enjoys cooking and baking, exploring DC’s restaurants and museums, and reading anything she can get her hands on.