Marking the International Day of Women and Girls in Science: A Q&A with Arts & Science Dean Melanie Woodin

February 8, 2024 by Alisa Kim - A&S News

February 11th is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. In light of this year’s theme “Women and Girls in Science Leadership: a New Era of Sustainability,” we are featuring our dean, Melanie Woodin, who is a neuroscientist and professor in the Department of Cell & Systems Biology, head of the Woodin Lab, and president-elect of the Canadian Association for Neuroscience.

As a youth, Woodin enjoyed science and was curious about the natural world, but did not know what a career in science could look like. It was a summer trip near the northern shores of Georgian Bay during her teenage years that inspired her. “I came across some biologists collecting water samples from a stream. They told me they were graduate student scientists conducting field work, and I was amazed that this was an opportunity and was inspired to follow their path. It was at that point that I knew I wanted to be a scientist. And that made the choice to come to the University of Toronto — a global powerhouse in the sciences — fairly easy,” she says.

Since her days as an undergraduate student at U of T’s Victoria College, Woodin has had an illustrious career. Here, she speaks about her research, how being a scientist helps her to lead the faculty, and why learning about how diving ducks forage for food led her to study the brain.

What is your research focus?

The focus of my lab is to understand how the brain functions by studying the neuronal circuits that process information. We use principles learned from the study of the healthy brain to uncover the mechanisms that lead to neurological disorders. In 2023, I was awarded a grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to study the biological basis of Huntington’s disease, a genetic, progressive brain condition that leads to involuntary movement, emotional disturbances, and a decline in cognitive ability. We are investigating the biological basis of motor impairment in a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, specifically impairments in inhibitory synaptic transmission. The goal is to identify cellular targets that can be treated with therapeutics to delay the onset of disease, reduce motor dysfunction, and improve the quality of life for people living with this condition and their caregivers.

Dean Melanie Woodin in her lab with 2 students
Dean Melanie Woodin with her trainees Yik Lok Wong (middle) and Gajeni Prabaharan.

Why did you want to study the brain?

When I came to U of T for my undergraduate degree, my primary interest was in studying ecology and evolutionary biology — the field that I most closely associated with those field biologists collecting water samples. As much as I enjoyed these courses, my broader exposure to the breadth of the life sciences got me really excited about physiology.

I ended up doing a master's degree at U of T in the then Department of Zoology in the area of comparative animal physiology, which was a popular approach at the time for understanding basic physiological principles. The question I was pursuing was: why are some air breathers, like diving ducks, so much better at holding their breath than other organisms like humans? My hypothesis was that their remarkable ability to hold their breath for so long while feeding at the bottom of a pond was facilitated by the circadian timing system. By studying Canvasback ducks, I found that the respiratory control system is synchronized by the circadian system, which led me to ask: where in the brain does this happen? That's when I knew I wanted to pursue a PhD in neuroscience.

What is your most important research finding?

My most important research finding is demonstrating that a form of communication in the brain called inhibitory synaptic transmission can undergo change, or as neuroscientists call it, synaptic plasticity. It’s well known that synaptic plasticity underlies our ability to learn and remember. And the vast majority of plasticity research has been conducted on a different type of synapse — the excitatory synapse, those are the synapses that lead to more electrical activity in the brain.

For many years, it was thought that the excitatory counterpart — the inhibitory synapse — was not plastic. As a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley in the early 2000s, I demonstrated that not only could inhibitory synapses undergo plasticity, but that this change in their strength was induced by a nuanced pattern of electrical activity. It wasn’t just the frequency of activity that was important, it was the difference in the timing of electrical activity between different neurons. That concept has been critically important for understanding how the brain processes information.

How does being a scientist help you in your role as dean?

As I scientist, I really like performing experiments, but there’s a lot that needs to happen before you can start working at the lab bench. You first need to convince your peers on a grant review panel that you have a compelling rationale for your scientific program, and then, when you are successful at acquiring that research funding, you need to recruit and train outstanding students to join you in bringing those research plans to successful completion.

In my role as dean, I’m effectively running a research lab on a much larger scale. In 2019, I led the development of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences’s academic plan, Leveraging Our Strengths, which has parallels to writing a major research grant. I then oversaw the allocation of resources to operationalize the plan, and engaged faculty members, staff and students to join me in implementing our priorities. Just like in a lab, when we work together, we can achieve more than we ever imagined.

What advice do you have for students thinking about a career in science?

My advice is to follow your passion. As with any fulfilling career, you’re going to have to put in a lot of work, which is going to be a lot more enjoyable if you’re passionate about what you’re researching. Like most scientists, I’ve had my fair share of failed experiments, and each time I’ve had to figure out what went wrong and how I’m going to modify the protocol for success. That redesign phase can really challenge your motivation — but the challenge will be much easier to overcome if you’re really excited by what you’re studying.

What do you find most rewarding about being a scientist?

Unlike the stereotype, being a scientist is not a lone pursuit. Being a scientist in a lab like mine is being part of a team where we’re striving together for the discovery of new knowledge. It's the realization that collectively, we know more about a particular biological problem than anyone else in the world. So, we have a responsibility to push the boundaries of that new knowledge forward. In doing so, we are adding to our fundamental understanding of how the brain works. And that’s pretty cool!