Dr. Amanda Therrien is an Institute Scientist and Director of the Sensorimotor Learning Laboratory at Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute (MRRI). Amanda received her B.Sc. in Human Kinetics from the University of Ottawa and her Ph.D. in Kinesiology, specializing in sensorimotor neuroscience, from McMaster University. Before accepting her current position at MRRI, Amanda conducted postdoctoral research at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In our interview, Amanda shares more about her life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (1:56)
Running, knitting, gardening, reading, and cooking are some of Amanda’s favorite ways to spend her time when she’s not doing science. She loves exploring new places through running, and she’s often knitting her way through her next hat or sweater during TV time.
The Scientific Side (5:30)
As a sensorimotor neuroscientist, Amanda studies how the brain integrates incoming sensory information with motor commands to control body movements. Her research examines how damage to particular areas of the brain may disrupt our control of movement, and what interventions may help improve movement control in clinical populations.
A Dose of Motivation (6:55)
“Essentially, all models are wrong, but some models are useful.” – George Box
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein
What Got You Hooked on Science? (10:33)
Looking back, it never occurred to Amanda that she would become a scientist. None of her family members were scientists, and she didn’t have a sense of what a career as a researcher would entail. However, as part of her undergraduate honors thesis, she completed a study on cerebellar ataxia in the Motor Control Lab at the University of Ottawa, and she really enjoyed it. At that time, Amanda’s plan was to either go to medical school or teacher’s college after graduation. With the major recession in 2008, these kinds of professional programs substantially reduced admissions, and Amanda wasn’t sure if trying to apply at that time was the best choice. An opportunity arose to become a master’s degree student working with her honor’s thesis advisor, and Amanda accepted. After the first year of her master’s degree, Amanda transferred into a PhD program. As the end of her doctoral training approached, Amanda knew she liked doing research and had many more questions she wanted to answer as an independent investigator.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (19:52)
Amanda started her position at MRRI towards the end of 2019, just a few months before the pandemic spread across the United States and around the world. Navigating the transition from a postdoc to an independent investigator is difficult, but doing this during a pandemic has added even more challenges to navigate. In particular, submitting grant applications is key for early career scientists, but collecting pilot data for grant applications has been hindered by the pandemic. It’s been difficult both personally and professionally, but Amanda has found it helpful to reflect on why she does research and to remember that she has accomplished many things along her journey to get to this point.
A Shining Success! (23:12)
When starting a new research lab, there is a steep learning curve. There was a short period after launching her lab where Amanda felt like her flow of creative ideas had stopped, and this was tough. Recently, she has noticed that her creativity has been coming back. Amanda has been able to develop new collaborations and lines of research that she is really excited about. In particular, Amanda is beginning work on a new line of research in collaboration with Aaron Wong at MRRI to investigate proprioception (our sense of where parts of our body are in space). Proprioception is critical for motor learning, and their work will focus specifically on dynamic proprioception (how we sense where parts of our body are in space while they are moving).
Book Recommendations (3:31)
Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould, Conversations with Myself by Nelson Mandela
Most Treasured Travel (26:14)
In 2019, Amanda was co-chair for a pre-meeting of the Gordon Research Conference on the cerebellum. Gordon Research Conferences are small meetings that bring together scientists from all over the world who are all focused on a very specific research topic. Attendees are together non-stop for about a week, and all of the presenters share their newest data and freshest ideas. It is an intense but thrilling experience. That year, the conference was held in the picturesque town of Les Diablerets in Switzerland, and the experience was surreal. From the conference venue, there were incredible views of the Swiss Alps. Amanda was also able to visit friends and colleagues in Lausanne, Zurich, and Belgium during this trip which made it particularly memorable. In Zurich, they did a float trip down the river in the middle of the city, stopping at pubs and restaurants along the way.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (30:36)
In the lab where Amanda was a postdoc, they had a fantastic tradition called “Park Day”. They picked a day in spring or early summer where everyone in the lab took the day off, met in a nearby park, and had fun. Each year, they played games, made a barbecue lunch, and competed in teams in an obstacle course race. It was a great way to bond as a group outside of work.
Advice For Us All (37:28)
The data is the data. After spending so much time doing background reading, coming up with meaningful research questions, developing hypotheses, and designing valid experiments to test the hypotheses, it can be difficult not to let emotions or subjectivity work their way into data collection or analyses. However, it is important to remain agnostic. Keep an open mind, and don’t be afraid or upset if the result is unexpected. Unexpected results are often the most fascinating and fruitful. Also, it’s important to study something you fundamentally find interesting. Your passion is key to getting you through the tough times, so stick with it.
Amanda’s research aims to understand how ascending sensory information is combined with descending motor commands to generate accurate, coordinated movement. Her work primarily focuses on understanding how a brain structure, called the cerebellum, participates in this process. Her work strives to leverage precise knowledge of mechanisms of cerebellar control of movement to optimize rehabilitation interventions for individuals with cerebellar damage. Outside of work, Amanda loves to clear her head with a long run or by getting her hands dirty in her little city vegetable garden. She’s also an avid knitter and always has a new sweater, hat, or blanket on the go.