Interviews with Scientists: Maria Diehl
In our latest Interviews with Scientists, we speak to Maria Diehl. Born and raised in Asheville, North Carolina, Maria graduated from Emory University in Atlanta with a Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology. During her studies she worked with Drs. Agnes Lacreuse and Jim Herndon studying sex differences in cognitive aging in the rhesus macaque. Maria went on to complete a Post-Bac at Virginia Tech in Robin Panneton's lab, studying the development of infant language.
Following her Post-Bac, Maria graduated with a PhD in Neuroscience from University of Rochester’s School of Medicine and Dentistry, studying neuronal activity and anatomical connections of face and vocalisation processing regions of the primate prefrontal cortex. As a postdoc in Greg Quirk's lab at the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine she received an NRSA to study the neural circuits of active avoidance using optogenetics and single unit recordings. Maria is currently searching for a faculty position as an assistant professor.
Hi Maria, great to speak to you! Firstly tell us more about your PhD...
As a graduate student, I was interested in how the brain processes emotional information during social communication. I worked with Liz Romanski at the University of Rochester, where I studied how the primate ventral prefrontal cortex encodes faces and vocalisations using single unit recordings.
I focused first on how ventral PFC neurons fire differentially to matching versus mismatching face-vocalisation stimuli needed for optimal feature integration (Diehl, et al., 2014, J. Neuroscience) and also recorded neurons during a behavioral task in which monkeys discriminated face-vocalisation stimuli that differed based on identity or facial expression.
We then anatomically mapped these responses and looked at how temporal lobe inputs innervated specific regions within ventral PFC that responded to faces, vocalisations, or both, as well as changes in identity and facial expression.
Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger, and why?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a vet because I loved animals. I also enjoyed taking things apart and figuring out how they worked. In the 9th grade, I got to dissect a fetal pig in biology class. After I completed the dissection, I wondered why we hadn’t opened the skull to look inside at the brain... so I proceeded to do it on my own. That's when I became fascinated with the brain!
What did you enjoy most about your PhD?
Hearing cells fire to different faces and monkey vocalisations, or during a behavior that the monkey was doing (moving his eyes, pressing a button, receiving juice). I thought it was so incredible that we have billions of these somehow firing in an organised fashion to perceive and interact in our world, and I was determined to figure out at least some of how this is achieved.
What do you think are the biggest challenges currently facing life scientists and their work at the moment?
While most people may think that funding, ethics, or technology are the biggest challenges facing science, I believe that our thinking is what limits scientific progress the most. After reading Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Popper's The Logic of Scientific Discovery, I realised that the context in which we frame our thinking is the greatest barrier to the progress of science.
As scientists, we form hypotheses, ideas, and theories about how things work, and then we go to test them. When you don't get what you want, you are angry, frustrated, and feel like a failure because it's not what you want. Well, science isn't about what you want, or proving your theories and ideas, it's about finding the truth. If we can step outside of ourselves and look at the results for what they really are, then we can discover the truth.
Sometimes that involves breaking the current paradigms or theories that everyone believes. If you look at history, many well-known scientists had to break through these "barriers" to find the truth, and it took time for everyone else to accept and realise these truths. This isn't something we are facing just at this moment, but changes with each new scientific revolution; it's ongoing but we must face it every day.
What advice would you give to someone just starting their PhD?
Get comfortable with failure, it's the only way you'll learn and truly succeed. Instead of avoiding difficult people, learn how to deal with them, and don't take everything personally.
Tell us a bit more about your postdoc, what you’re working on at the moment, and what it's like working in Puerto Rico!
I've been working in Greg Quirk's lab at the University of Puerto Rico for a little over five years. It's a great lab! Greg is an excellent mentor and everyone has a positive energy that really gets me excited and motivated to do science. Right now, I'm studying prelimbic circuits of avoidance in rats using optogenetics and single unit recordings and recently published a paper on my findings. It's definitely different from my PhD work, but I wouldn't say it's easier! The culture here is warmer and more welcoming than many other labs I've experienced; everyone is like family and truly cares.
Of course, like everywhere else, not everything is perfect. There are many challenges in Puerto Rico that scientists and researchers face; from the small things like the mountain of paperwork you need to complete to work at the university, to figuring out how long it will take for lab supplies to arrive (since we are on an island in the Caribbean, many things are not manufactured here, and it takes long to ship to island), and of course, recovering from natural disasters like hurricanes. But again, the resilience and warmth of the people help you carry on and you just do what you can. I've had to learn lots of patience here (due to “island time” where nothing's on time and no one is in a hurry), but at the same time I get to enjoy the beautiful nature that Puerto Rico has!
What would you say to a fellow life scientist who's considering working abroad?
Keep an open mind and realise that things are not going to be the same as they are where you come from. When I came here I realised that they did not have many of the foods I love, so I had to adapt. Now, when I leave, I am definitely going to miss having avocados, pineapples, papayas, and other tropical fruits year round and especially having the best coffee ever! Living here ruined me for being able to drink weak American-style coffee. Just be open to change and embrace the culture; it will make you a better human being.
What does a typical day in the lab look like for you?
I wake up, make some delicious Puerto Rican coffee, walk my dog on the beach. If I wake up before it gets too hot I go for a run, then head to the lab. I am in the lab most of the day until about 6 or 7pm, then come home to eat, relax, watch TV and play with my dog.
Outside of your work, what do you enjoy doing most?
I love nature and the outdoors and Puerto Rico is one of the most unique places on earth where you can go to the beach, the rainforest, waterfalls, deserts, mountains, all less than an hour or so from each other. My favorite pastime is trail running, I love being in the woods, away from the city, where it is peaceful, and I exercise to relieve stress!
If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing?
Perhaps caring for animals in a shelter or working for a non-profit related to protecting the environment. I like photography and modern dance, but I'm not sure I could make a living doing either of those, haha!
What is it about your field of research that gets you most excited?
I think the most exciting thing is being able to see direct relationships with the brain and behavior. For example, when you optogenetically target a brain circuit and turn it on or off and see behavior change, that is really amazing to me. Or when you're recording cells in an animal that's doing a specific behavior and the cell starts "firing like gangbusters" it's really the coolest thing to me!
Which scientists working today do you most admire, and why?
I would have to say any female scientist that can juggle running a lab, raising kids, and having time for herself is my hero.
What’s your favourite science quote?
"If you know you are on the right track, if you have this inner knowledge, then nobody can turn you off... no matter what they say." — Barbara McClintock, cytogeneticist and winner of the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
"Above all, don't fear difficult moments. The best comes from them." — Rita Levi-Montalcini and winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly with colleague Stanley Cohen for the discovery of nerve growth factor.
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
For humankind, probably the discovery of electricity, but I wish we weren't so dependent on it. For the good of pure science, I think the discovery of evolution and DNA is pretty incredible, and we still have more to discover!
Thank you so much for talking to us Maria, we’re very jealous of your Puerto Rican lifestyle! We wish you the best of luck with your future research, which sounds fascinating.
Here’s how you can connect with Maria online:
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Read her latest paper