You can be a “brainiac” too!

An interview with neuroscientist Dr. Wendy Koss

Have you ever dreamed of having an amazing job when you grow up — maybe you thought I’d really like to be an astronaut — but had negative thoughts held you back? Perhaps you said to yourself I’m not smart enough or only kids who come from wealthy families can do stuff like that. If you’ve ever experienced these types of thoughts, we’d like you to meet Dr. Wendy Koss.

No one in Dr. Koss’ family had gone to college before she did, and today she has a PhD in neuroscience. She studies the brain! How cool is that? Recently she let GSWISE interview her about her experience because she wants girls to have confidence that if you work hard, you too can accomplish incredible things.

Dr. Koss volunteering at a GSWISE robotics event

GSWISE: What type of research do you do?

Dr. Koss: I study sex differences in the brain. I study depression, anxiety, and learning and memory and how some of those are different for women and men. I look at the differences in the biology of the brain and the role of estrogen.

GSWISE: Can you tell us about your career journey and how you first got interested in this?

Dr. Koss: At first I was not going to go into science. I was not interested in science in high school. I don’t know if it was because I thought it was somebody else’s thing — it wasn’t mine. I started college at a junior college and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Then I decided I like psychology, and I thought maybe I’d be a teacher or do something in psychology. I wasn’t sure. I ended up transferring to the University of Illinois in Psychology. I debated between becoming a therapist and becoming a teacher.

I went to see a guidance counselor, and I said what I liked. She said, “Well, it sounds like you’re interested in biological psychology.” I thought, what? She said, “Take some classes. See if you like it.” So, I took some classes, and I liked it. Then I started working in a lab doing sex difference research, and I got into it.

Then, I decided to make it a career, but I wasn’t sure how far I could go. I’m from a middle class, working class family. They never went to college. My sister and I were the first ones to go to college in my entire family — both sides. It’s kind of weird being that because you don’t know how far you can aim. It’s very unlike people who have parents who went to college.

So, at this point I didn’t know. So, I decided to get a Master’s Degree. I got that in Indiana, then I graduated, and then I became a technician for six years at the National Institute for Health. Then, I decided I’m good enough. I can get a PhD. I can become an independent researcher, have my own lab, and teach. I can do this.

GSWISE: What do you think the tipping point was?

Dr. Koss: The tipping point was me training postdoctoral researchers. I realized that I was doing it already. My boss gave me a lot of freedom. I had ideas, and he said, “Okay, do it.” I did my own research, and as a technician that’s very unusual.

After that I went back to the University of Illinois to get my PhD. Then I went to DC as a post-doc researcher there in developmental neuroscience with how the brain is developing. Then, I took the position here [as a postdoctoral researcher at UW-Milwaukee].

GSWISE: What do you enjoy most about the work that you do?

Dr. Koss: I think it’s finding an answer — asking a question and then finding the answer. Even though sometimes it takes years to get the answer, when it comes and when you have a story to tell about it, that’s what’s rewarding. The day to day is not as rewarding. It can be monotonous. There’s a lot of writing involved in science that people aren’t aware of, but it’s the number one thing you need to know. You won’t get money to do your research without writing.

GSWISE: Do you have anything that motivates you to keep going when it gets monotonous?

Dr. Koss: Science is 75% failure and 25% success. Every experiment you do has a 75% rate of failing. You have to have a passion for it. The motivating factor me is that I’m passionate about my research. It interests me why men and women are different in the way they think and in the way they respond to different things.

GSWISE: What impact do you see some of the discoveries of your research having?

Dr. Koss: I like to look at areas of hormonal change — so, learning and memory more rapidly during aging in women. They’re also more susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease. I used to do a lot of work with premenstrual disorder and postpartum depression. These are both when hormones are changing, and it’s specific to women obviously. I look at that kind of change in hormones , why it’s affecting mood and the brain, and how it’s doing that.

What I’m doing now is looking at cell signaling pathways — very cellular molecular ways that estrogen affects the brain. These little pathways — these little proteins can be targeted for medication in the future. It’s targeting one protein that you can decrease or increase to make a difference in learning and memory, mood disorders, and things like that.

GSWISE: Do you have one moment that you’re proudest of in your work?

Dr. Koss: I remember the first time I saw the first published paper I wrote cited in someone else’s paper. That made me feel proud. Somebody else saw my stuff is what it said to me.

GSWISE: Do you have any women role models or colleagues in your field that you admire?

Dr. Koss: Yes, Dr. Janis Juraska at Illinois. She’s been in science since the early 70’s. So, she has experienced all the negative things of women being stifled and all that stuff. She’s a very strong woman. People like her, and people look up to her when she speaks. My boss right now is also great. She balances home-life and her work-life very well. She runs the lab very organized. Everyone knows what they’re doing. She manages well.

Neuroscience is a particular field. Neuroscience has a fifty-fifty ratio of graduate students: women to men. That’s great. However, only 29% of faculty at a university level are women. Women are still not becoming leads in these jobs.

GSWISE: Were you ever a Girl Scout?

Dr. Koss: Yes, I was. I think I was a Girl Scout up until I was ten. I was a Brownie and a Junior.

GSWISE: Can you tell us anything you remember about your experience?

Dr. Koss: I remember doing a lot of arts and crafts. I remember hanging out with other girls and doing projects. I went to Girl Scout camp.

GSWISE: Did you have fun?

Dr. Koss: I did. We kind of did everything at the camp I was at. We kind of did the gamut. We did do archery. Swimming was big for me because I love to swim. I also sold cookies. I remember the boxes and boxes and boxes that we had in our kitchen!

GSWISE: You reached out us and you told us you wanted to get more young women involved in STEM. Can you tell us about why that’s important to you?

Dr. Koss: It’s important to me because I didn’t know that I could be a scientist. I think that Girl Scouts reaches every demographic. Most important to me are girls from lower or middle class families, because I think me being a girl and having two parents that didn’t go to college was a setback for me on what I could do later. I think girls need to be told that they can do it, and everybody needs to be told that they can do whatever they want — they just have to work hard at it and that they’re smart enough and they’re just as good as anyone else. I don’t think we tell girls that enough.

GSWISE: What types of challenges do you think girls and women face entering the STEM field?

Dr. Koss: I learned that you ask for what you want. If you don’t get it, you don’t get it. For example, I learned that if you want a raise, you have to ask for it or no one’s going to give it to you. It’s a big thing to know because not everybody does it. I certainly didn’t do it. I thought, if I’m good enough I’ll get it. No, most of the time that’s not true. You have to go and get it. When you negotiate for a job, you negotiate. They’re going to want you either way and they’re going to give you the best that they can, but if you don’t negotiate, they’ll give you the middle of what they can or lower than that.

GSWISE: What do you think are the greatest opportunities for women and girls in STEM?

Dr. Koss: There are more support for women starting up. I’m applying right now for a Fellowship that is given by L’Oreal and another foundation — their joint effort for women in science. They basically support your research for a year. There are a couple of them, and I suspect there might be more in the future.

GSWISE: Is there any additional advice you would give to a girl interested in entering the STEM field? What would you encourage her to do?

Dr. Koss: I would encourage her to take every science class in high school that she can take. If she’s really interested, study hard, work hard, and you’ll get there. Take A.P. classes if they’re offered. Take the best classes in high school when you get there to prepare yourself. Work hard and you’ll get where you want. Don’t give in to rejection. Just keep going. You’ll do it. You can do whatever you work hard at.