Dr. Alex DiFeliceantonio is an Assistant Professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Tech Carilion School as well as Associate Director of the Center for Health Behaviors Research. She received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Sweet Briar College and her PhD in biospsychology from the University of Michigan. Afterwards, she worked as a Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Translational Neurocircuitry Group at the Max Planck Institute for Metabolism Research in Cologne, Germany. She also conducted postdoctoral research in the Department of Neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and served as an Associate Research Scientist in the Department of Psychiatry at Yale University before accepting her current position. In our interview, Alex shares more about her life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:35)
In her free time, Alex enjoys going to parks, shopping at the local farmer’s market, and watching garbage collection trucks with her young son. She is also an avid reader, and she particularly loves science fiction and fantasy novels.
The Scientific Side (5:10)
Alex’s research examines why we eat what we eat in terms of the underlying neuroscience and physiological factors that influence food choice. Diet and food choice have tremendous impacts on health, and these can be targets for interventions to improve health and people’s lives.
A Dose of Motivation (7:09)
In science, the most interesting findings and the ones that have the most potential to drive the field forward are the findings you weren’t expecting. These discoveries are really exciting and motivating, and you can learn so much from them.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (9:42)
As a kid, Alex excelled in language, reading, and writing in school, while subjects like math and science didn’t come as naturally to her. She wasn’t really encouraged to pursue science and math, so she decided she wanted to become a writer. Alex enrolled in college planning to major in creative writing and English, but as she completed her coursework, she realized that what she was really interested in was understanding people. She was fascinated by the characters in stories, why they behaved the way they did, and the motivations of the authors. It didn’t occur to her that there was a whole field dedicated to studying people and behavior until she took her first psychology course in college. Alex had a great opportunity to work with her professors in a research lab, run her own experiments, and participate in a research-intensive summer program. Through these experiences, she realized she wanted to go to graduate school and have a career doing research.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (8:04)
Like most graduate students, Alex ran into some major roadblocks in graduate school. One experiment in animal models involved training the animals for 20 days before they could run one full day of tests. Each experiment was really time-intensive, and she had to repeat the same experiment six times because they kept getting unexpected results. It just wasn’t working. However, Alex was determined to figure out the problem, and after a lot of trouble-shooting and persistence, she finally figured it out.
A Shining Success! (22:58)
Failures and unexpected results are common in science, so it can be really exciting when an experiment does work, and your results turn out to be exactly what you were anticipating. In one of her postdoctoral studies, Alex was interested in understanding the neural mechanisms underlying the motivation to eat foods that combine fat and carbohydrates. Through separate pathways, both fat and carbohydrates increase dopamine in a part of the brain called the striatum, and this signal is important for learning and motivation. In this study, she hypothesized that modern foods that combine fats and carbohydrates (e.g. pizza, donuts), may be over-valued by people because these two separate neural pathways to the dopamine reward signal were combining in a supra-additive way. They designed an experiment based on a well-established behavioral economics task, collected the data, and ran the initial analyses. When she ran the statistics, Alex was shocked. She ran down the hall to check her work with a colleague who was an expert in statistics. He provided a few suggestions for even more rigorous analyses that could be conducted, and when Alex ran those analyses, the results were still statistically significant, and the data supported her hypothesis.
Book Recommendations (3:27)
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
Most Treasured Travel (28:07)
Visiting Cologne, Germany as a postdoc was a fantastic experience. Living in a different place and experiencing a new culture helped her grow as a person, and Alex learned a lot being surrounded by people with different academic backgrounds. It was fun to ride a bicycle through the city’s abundant green spaces, and the trains made it really easy to explore during her time off. In addition, Alex has really enjoyed traveling to Porto, Portugal. She is a member of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior and had a chance to travel to Porto for the society’s annual conference. The researchers in the group are passionate about ingestive behavior, so they love getting together to eat and talk about food. These conferences are really interesting scientifically because there are opportunities to talk to people who study eating from a variety of different perspectives, including the neural, behavioral, and physiological angles. On one of these trips, Alex and a colleague stumbled upon a new restaurant that had just opened that day, and they chose the most unusual-sounding dishes based on the Google translation of the Portuguese menu. The food did not disappoint!
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (35:15)
When people think about scientists, they may envision white coats and drab professional attire, but not all labs have the same boring dress code. Alex wears a lot of colorful, goofy sweaters. The lab’s manager had been corresponding with a new student that they were recruiting to work in the lab, and the student asked about the dress code for work. On that particular day, Alex was wearing a pair of jeans and an oversized cardigan patterned with cats, so they joked about just sending a photo of her to the students to emphasize that the dress code was definitely relaxed. In Alex’s lab, they also have adopted the tradition of celebrating special occasions with Indian food and banana desserts. This tradition came from her graduate school mentor who always served Indian food and banana splits at every lab gathering.
Advice For Us All (41:36)
Doing hard things is more rewarding, more interesting, and more likely to get you to where you want to go than doing easy things. Do things that you are afraid of or that push you out of your comfort zone.
Alex’s lab tries to answer the question: why do we eat what we eat? The modern diet is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality. We know what we should be eating, but lack the ability to promote change. Her lab seeks to understand the basic mechanisms of food choice. The lab approaches this issue in two ways. One, we seek to isolate properties of foods in our modern food environment to evaluate their effect on physiology, brain function, and brain-physiology interaction. Second, we seek to understand how individual differences in response to these food properties can confer risk or benefit for disease outcomes. When she’s not thinking about food in the lab, she’s probably thinking about food in the kitchen. She enjoys baking with her toddler, reading science fiction, and going on hikes.
Support for this episode of People Behind the Science was provided by LAMPIRE Biological Laboratories.