Women to Watch: understanding what makes sleep a vital function with Dr Alexandra Vaccaro

Written by Neuro Central

As part of our ‘Women to Watch’ series on Neuro Central, we’re putting Dr Alexandra Vaccaro into the spotlight. Dr Vaccaro is a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dr Dragana Rogulja at Harvard Medical School (MA, USA). She has held this position for over 4 years and has had the privilege of working with an amazing, international team of other scientists, which includes other postdoc fellows, trainee students and research technicians/assistants. Her role is to design and perform experiments with the goal to answer biologically based questions related to sleep.

Can you provide us with an overview of your research?

I am interested in understanding what makes sleep a vital function. I have always been fascinated by how our circadian clock and the need for sleep both control our life, which is why I decided to put my energy and time into answering what I think is one of biology’s biggest mysteries: why is sleep essential for life?

Most of us do not sleep enough, and in many cases, we actually cannot afford to sleep more because of personal or professional constraints. Unfortunately, insufficient sleep puts us at risk for a multitude of diseases including cancer, diabetes and neurological disorders. Severe sleep deprivation can even cause death in model organisms, and as a postdoc in the Rogulja lab I use fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) and mice to look for phenomena that explain why sleep-deprived animals become sick and eventually die.

My goal is to identify changes that occur in the body after sleep deprivation, and to look for genes that regulate survival and cognition after prolonged sleep loss. I hope that this work will lead to a better understanding of the link between poor sleep and disease, and to designing appropriate therapeutic interventions.

What inspired you to become a neuroscientist and how were you encouraged to get into STEM?

As an undergraduate student, my mind was set on virology – I guess I could have been studying coronaviruses right now instead of sleep!

That was until I met my master’s degree mentor, Dr J Alex Parker, a neuroscientist at Université de Montréal (Canada) who studies neurodegenerative diseases. Alex offered me to work on Lou Gehrig’s disease, in his effort to create new transgenic models for this disease and look for genetic and pharmacological interventions. Inspired by his research and approach to science, I chose to join his lab over virology ones and never regretted it. I still feel very thankful for his inspiration and support over the years.

What are the best aspects of your job? What are the most challenging parts?

My interactions, discussions and debates with the other members of the lab are what I look for and enjoy the most every day. We stimulate and challenge each other to find solutions and be innovative. They truly make me a better scientist and person.

Some aspects of research can be repetitive, but every day feels different and working in a lab is pretty powerful: it is a unique opportunity for you to make and test your very own hypotheses. It requires a lot of persistence, as many experiments fail or remain inconclusive, but sometimes it can lead to something very exciting: the privilege of being the first person to observe and report a completely unexpected and/or new phenomenon.

I have also been able to appreciate the flexibility of my job over the years: research obviously requires a lot of time and personal commitment – which can be challenging because it includes working late at night and during weekends – but overall, I am in charge of my own schedule. This gives me some independence and flexibility when planning my experiments and is key to balance both my professional and personal life.

Have you ever in your career felt to date that you were at a disadvantage owing to your gender?

This is a perfect transition to my last point about balancing family and work. We often struggle to do so in research (as in many other fields), and it actually affects all genders. However, I can’t help but notice that being a woman adds to this challenge if you want to raise a family.

In your opinion, what more could be done to promote gender equality in your field?

Raising awareness and educating children on these issues early on seems to be the key. I have had a lot of support as a girl and throughout my academic journey; I feel very fortunate. My mentors and colleagues (both males and females) played a crucial role in making me feel that I’m a scientist, and not a ‘woman scientist’.

What advice would you give to young women hoping to pursue a career in your field?

Explore and try as many things as possible until you find the one scientific question that matters the most to you. It may take time and you might have to try a lot of different things, so be persistent and don’t let self-doubts be your enemy. Always seek the help and support of mentors, listen to their advice and be critical of your own work; you will sometimes be wrong, but building self-confidence is essential to make (controversial) discoveries.

Lastly, which women in the field of neuroscience have inspired you most?

Due to my interest in sleep deprivation, I have been inspired by the work of Maria Michailovna Manaseina (also known as Marie de Manacéïne), a pioneer in many aspects, including demonstrating the essential nature of sleep. Marie de Manacéïne was a Russian physician, neuroscientist and biochemist, who was not only one of the first women in her country to graduate in medicine, but also one of the first scientists to state that the brain is still active during sleep. At that time, sleeping was merely considered a passive state of the organism, so I admire that she challenged the current belief (and she was quite right!). On top of that, she also devoted a lot of her time to child education and science popularization.

Many talented and inspiring women neuroscientists actually surround me. My current mentor, Dragana Rogulja, is one of them; she has overcome many challenges throughout her personal and scientific journeys, but her passion and enthusiasm for science/research never stop growing.

This interview was put together and conducted by our Senior Editor, Sharon Salt, with written responses provided to us by Dr Alexandra Vaccaro.

The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Neuro Central or Future Science Group.

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