Women to Watch: understanding the physiology of the cerebellum with Dr Martha Streng

Written by Neuro Central

As part of our ‘Women to Watch’ series on Neuro Central, we’re putting Dr Martha Streng into the spotlight. Dr Streng is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota (MN, USA) in Dr Esther Krook-Magnuson’s lab. She completed her PhD training at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities (MN, USA).

Dr Streng grew up in south Minneapolis and completed her undergraduate degree at Mount Holyoke College (MA, USA), a historically women’s college in western Massachusetts. She also teaches neuroscience courses at Macalester College (MN, USA), which is a liberal arts college in St Paul.

Can you provide us with an overview of your research?

 My research interests predominantly surround the physiology of the cerebellum, a brain region that is essential for the production of smooth, continuous movements. The cerebellum is widely believed to help detect and correct for errors in movement by generating internal predictions about the outcome of motor commands and comparing them to their actual sensory feedback. For my PhD work in the lab of Dr Tim Ebner, I examined how the primary output neurons of the cerebellar cortex, Purkinje cells, encode motor prediction and feedback. Emerging evidence also suggests that the cerebellum can influence nonmotor function as well, and as a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Dr Esther Krook-Magnuson, I have been using viral targeting and optogenetic techniques to study how the activity of cerebellar neurons can be leveraged to influence hippocampal dynamics. My work has specifically examined how on-demand modulation of cerebellar output channels can stop hippocampal seizures in a mouse model of temporal lobe epilepsy. My long-term research goals are to elucidate the computations performed by cerebellar neuronal populations and how they contribute to both healthy behavior and disease.

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

Like many, my interests in neuroscience research stem from personal experiences with neurological disorder: living with epilepsy as a teenager compelled me to learn all I could about my condition and inspired me to explore what is yet unknown through research. In particular, I remember paging through an encyclopedia of the brain and coming across the definition for ‘aura’, a term that had never formally been explained to me at the time. Realizing that this confusing and disorienting experience that I had been having was something that we in fact knew enough about to assign a specific word and definition felt empowering in a way, and it made me feel motivated to understand more about what was known, and eventually, what was unknown about the brain. I have been incredibly fortunate in that it has been over a decade since my last seizure, but my experiences as a person living with epilepsy continue to guide my motivations as a neuroscientist: I am deeply motivated to improve the lives of individuals living with neurological disorder both by increasing what is known about the healthy brain as well as by working to inform and improve current translational efforts in the treatment of diseases, including epilepsy.

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

I love the collaborative aspect of research. Everyone has a different background, perspective, area of expertise, etc., so I find that whenever I get to work on a project with other folks, they’ll point out things I won’t have noticed, I get to learn something new, and as a result, the end product is always better than the sum of its individual parts.

What’s most challenging about working in academia overall is trying to navigate and operate within a system that is inherently structured to be exclusive.

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

Certainly. But it’s critical to acknowledge that despite any frustration I’ve experienced from casual sexism during meetings or at conferences, any loneliness I’ve felt being a queer scientist in a still largely heteronormative field, I still benefit immensely from being white and cisgender in academia. 

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

Centering Black, Indigenous, queer, gender nonconforming voices whenever possible, and actually hearing those voices when they speak. I would also implore those who serve as mentors to think long and hard about how much of their (often well-intentioned) efforts are put into molding trainees who come from backgrounds that are underrepresented in research so that they might ‘make it’ in the current power structure, and how much those efforts should instead be directed towards dismantling aspects of the current power structure that are incompatible with equity. I think about this a lot in the context of a really excellent article we recently read as part of our lab journal club by Dr Beronda L Montgomery titled, “Academic leadership: gatekeeping or groundskeeping?

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

Find folks who will advocate for you, commiserate with you and build you up, and then surround yourself with those people whenever possible. Then, be that person for other folks whenever you can.

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

I have to cheat a little bit with this one and specifically mention my first ever research advisor, Dr Desiree Plata, an immensely talented environmental chemist who was my Chem 101 professor and first introduced me to the world of conducting research in academia. I wasn’t ever a straight A student in college and often felt like I wasn’t good enough to be in science, but Desiree was one of the first people who made me feel like there was space for me in STEM research. Despite being in a completely different field, she continues to advocate for me in one way or another even over the 10 years since I left her lab, making herself available for all my panicked questions about my budding career, being transparent with me about what her process has been like, advising me on which ‘rules’ are important and which rules to ignore, and empowering me every step of the way. I think that just goes to show that exceptional mentorship can transcend things like research areas and techniques. I aspire to be a mentor like that for other trainees someday.

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

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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