Meet Maine Scientist Kristy Townsend

The 2017 Maine Science Festival Headliner event was a different event than the previous headliners. Rather than a hosted talk or conversation, the MSF brought in the show You’re the Expert, for an evening of science and comedy. One of the best things about having this show was that it featured a Maine scientist as the expert for the panel of comedians (Roy Wood Jr., Michelle Buteau, and Charlie Hankin) who came to Maine with host Chris Duffy. In honor of the release of the MSF You’re the Expert show this week (February 8th!), we spoke with University of Maine Assistant Professor Kristy Townsend about her background, work, and what it was like to be the Expert on the show.

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MSF: Can you give us a little background about yourself? Where did you grow up, go to school, what graduate school did you go to, how did we get lucky enough to have you land at the University of Maine?

Kristy: I am a native Mainer, born and raised. I grew up in Boothbay Harbor, and still feel like the coast of Maine is my true home. From there, I went to Orono High School and got my Bachelors in Biochemistry at UMaine. In 2002, I left Maine for over a decade, which included getting my Ph.D. in Neuroscience at Boston University, two years living and working as a postdoc in London, and then a five-year postdoc and junior faculty position in Boston again, at the Joslin Diabetes Center and Harvard Medical School. My research has always been focused on the neurobiology of energy balance, as it relates to obesity and diabetes, so the ability to train with world-renowned researchers at the historic Joslin was an important opportunity to grow as a scientist.

I’ve always had the career goal to end up in a traditional academic position with a mix of teaching and research, and I also feel strongly about the benefits of our land-grant public university system, so I was very fortunate to be able to come home to Maine at the end of 2014, when I started as Assistant Professor of Neurobiology at UMaine. It is incredible to see how UMaine has evolved since my time here as an undergraduate. We now have an active campus-wide and state-wide neuroscience group, and much more biomedical research around the state. I firmly believe Maine could be the next Boston for biomedical research. We already have great research strengths in areas like earth and climate sciences, ecology, marine biology, forestry, and engineering, but we still have a ways to go to compete with other state universities in the biomedical fields. I think the trajectory we’re on is headed in the right direction and I’m excited to be part of the continued growth. I feel a fierce loyalty to my alma mater and home state, so I’m thrilled to be back. Plus, I’m ready to be able to enjoy Coastal Maine summers again!

MSF: Have you always been interested in science, and in how the body works in particular?

Kristy:  Oh yes. As I grew up I was always surrounded by scientific inquiry and encouraged to ask questions about how things work – curiosity was rewarded in my home as a kid. Many people in my family are scientists as well, although nobody working on physiology or neuroscience like me, so I’m not sure what was the original inspiration for that interest. I guess every neuroscientist I know really gained their interest from wanting to understand how the brain underpins things like mental illness, consciousness, addiction, and personality. Or how we are able to learn and remember and make decisions. Ever since middle school I have wanted to investigate the brain. My high school yearbook lists my career goal as brain research. This narrow focus from a relatively early age may seem unusual, but I found it beneficial as I navigated college – I sought out experiences that would help me reach that career goal, and tended to excel more at those things that directly related to it as well. I think the brain is a particularly compelling organ, and brain function relates to so much of our every day life. I was originally drawn to the study of neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s, but ended up doing my Ph.D. in a neuroendocrinology lab studying leptin resistance with obesity. Luckily, the work has come full circle and my lab now investigates adult neural plasticity that relates to both metabolic diseases and neurodegeneration.

 

MSF: You were the mystery scientist for You’re the Expert (the headliner event) at the 2017 Maine Science Festival. For that evening, you had to talk about your work to people who aren’t necessarily in a scientific field – including a panel of stand-up comedians. Was it difficult to talk about your work without using science “jargon?” How about knowing that you had to talk to comedians?

Kristy: I think any scientist finds it difficult to ‘switch gears’ between the highly-technical, deeply detailed, jargon-filled speech that we use with our colleagues, to the way we need to talk to our students, colleagues outside our discipline, grant reviewers, or the public. It is an essential skill, though. I’ve always been interested in science communication, and at UMaine was able to participate in the Faculty Fellows program that utilized Alan Alda’s science communication method, which is heavy on ‘improv’ techniques. That training, and others I’ve had, definitely helped me feel more comfortable talking about my work – but I think learning to communicate across a variety of audiences is something I still strive to improve.

You’re the Expert was a really unique experience, though. I’m someone who is drawn to comedy and humor so I really enjoyed being able to work with Chris Duffy, Roy Wood Jr, Michelle Buteau, and Charlie Hankin for that event. They made it relaxed and fun. Ultimately, I am glad that I left my comfort zone for that podcast, and I think all of us have the duty as publicly-funded scientists to leave the comfort of our lab environment and go out into our communities to discuss our work – why we do what we do from a personal standpoint (this podcast really did that well), HOW we do what we do, and why our research findings matter for everyone’s lives.

 

MSF: Do you think research universities like UMaine are important? Why?

Kristy: Undoubtedly. We may not have the large endowments and big faculty names that many private or larger universities have, but the dedication to the student experience (undergraduate, graduate, and even visiting students) is unparalleled.  I have been so impressed with UMaine’s commitment to education, quality classroom teaching, and enriching educational experiences. For those in the sciences, that means emphasizing inquiry-based laboratory training, getting students involved in original research in faculty labs, and ensuring students have cutting-edge and current knowledge when they go out into the world to start their careers. My lab is a mix of graduate and undergraduate students working side-by-side on projects, and that is exactly how I want my lab to function – as a source of inspiration and training for students, who are in turn able to contribute meaningfully to authentic scientific discovery. But the underpinning of this student experience is the ability to maintain an active and competitive base of faculty with strong research programs – that is why UMaine is so important; we are the ONLY major research university in our state.  The diversity of research and the strength of numerous programs here are hugely beneficial for our students, and particularly for work in my lab when we need to build a collaborative team across disciplines.

 

MSF: If there was one thing you’d like people to know your work, what would it be?

Kristy: How much we still don’t understand as a field. And that is true for all of science, I’d argue. Every answer we achieve through our science is shrouded by the endless questions that the answer spurs. That is what drives the excitement of our work, but it also means that researchers can become frustrated when they see an over-simplified news headline or public misunderstanding of science, which can lead to distrust of the process or the system. Science has provided us with so much knowledge and understanding but it doesn’t have all the answers right this minute. It is definitely the best way to get the answers in the end, which is why we should be promoting future investments in our research programs.

For my lab, we’re trying to better understand the peripheral nerves that mediate communication between the brain and adipose (fat) tissues, and how that cross-talk affects our ability to burn calories and maintain metabolic health, such as preventing obesity and diabetes. Most neuroscientists are focused on the brain, and most obesity/diabetes researchers focus on fat cells in isolation from their nerve supply – so we really feel our niche is looking at how the nerves affect cellular function, the systemic multi-organ processes. Sometimes the most exciting work is at an intersection like this. There is still a lot of new knowledge that we can contribute to our understanding of physiology and the cellular and molecular mechanisms for energy balance regulation and neural plasticity. Luckily the big unknowns are still there for us to chip away at, despite the immense progress science has made over the past hundreds of years.

And to add one more take-away, I’d urge people to become savvy consumers of health and science information that can be found on the web. Especially for the weight-loss topic – so much information out there, from fad diets and fad exercises to magic-bullet ‘cures’…much of it is quackery. Any ‘diet’ that proclaims quick and drastic results by making major shifts to your daily habits is likely not sustainable, and possibly not even healthy. For our bodies, weight gain is very easy but weight loss is incredibly difficulty – we’re fighting our physiology. People can learn more about what we do at ktownsendlab.com.

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