By: Dr. Erin Dunn
There are moments in our career that singularly shape our futures. As a scientist, I have had the good fortune of experiencing several of these career-defining moments: getting accepted to my first-choice doctoral program, successfully defending my dissertation, landing my faculty position, and obtaining that first grant. Each of these milestones led to a change in who I was and what I’d do.
When I found out this past July that I had been awarded a Rising Star Research Award from One Mind, the news felt like another one of those big moments. This award provided funding to expand my research studying the biological pathways linking exposure to childhood adversity to subsequent risk for depression. As anyone who has ever applied for grant funding knows, grants are competitive, and plenty of good ideas regularly get passed up, so I was elated when this one came through. With these funds, I’d be able to hire my first post-doc (another important career milestone) and grow my research program.
As part of receiving the award, I was invited to attend and speak at One Mind’s 24th Annual Music Festival for Brain Health, which would feature a scientific symposium with some of the leaders in our field. As if that wasn’t enough in and of itself, this symposium would be followed by a wine tasting with over 75 local wine makers, a concert with Jennifer Hudson, and a dinner afterwards with a three-star Michelin chef. Not my average Saturday.
So with that kind of line-up of events, I knew this was going to be a pretty spectacular day. But I had no idea that this event would ultimately become one of the most transformative and career defining experiences of my life. Here’s why (spoiler alert: it wasn’t because of the food, wine, or even the rockstar).
It gave me the chance to more deeply imagine a world without stigma. The whole experience of being at the Festival provided a glimpse into what the world would look and feel like if mental illness caused no shame, embarrassment, or fear about being “found out.” Among the 500 participants, most of whom were not scientists, there was open disclosure of personal and family mental health challenges. There was pride in describing how far each person had come in spite of having mental illness. Family members of people affected by mental illness shared their experiences, hopes, and challenges. By hearing these stories, I could see how much more deeply we all connected with one another. Imagine the benefits that would come if the experience of having mental health problems or loving someone with mental health problems was shared more openly. Imagine how many people would feel less shame and get treatment sooner. As a result of this experience, I feel an even greater responsibility to make this stigma-free world a reality. I’m therefore going to strive to do more to talk about my own struggles with mental health problems and the experiences of my friends and family.
I was reminded that our science can be hard for others to hear. During the Q&A after each talk, audience members asked my fellow presenters a series of eye-opening questions: “Is my brain forever altered by my experience of stress?” “We are about to have our first child and we are really busy and stressed parents. Will that affect our newborn?” Throughout the day, I heard powerful comments like “I loved your talk, but man was that heart breaking. I have bipolar disorder and I grew-up experiencing adversity.” Another woman, who told me about her daughter who experiences depression, said “I cried during your talk.” Receiving such feedback made me realize the importance of balance when presenting to a non-scientific audience. We can’t just emphasize the risks. We also need to talk about the many paths through which people can overcome them. After all, we know that people are resilient and that most people who experience childhood adversity and other stressors turn out ok. Through the presentation of our science, we have to communicate both the seriousness of mental disorders and the hope for both prevention and treatment of these diseases.
I could feel an entire community behind us. Perhaps most transformational was the experience of engaging with dozens of people and families who approached me repeatedly to share a heart-felt thank you. “Thank you for your research.” “Thank you for all you are doing to understand depression.” “Keep going, your work is so important.” “We are behind you.” These statements of gratitude resonated. I don’t think I’ve ever been really thanked for being a researcher. It was a profoundly humbling experience and one that reminds me that at the end of the day, it’s really not about how many papers you write, how many talks you give, or how many grants you’re awarded. It’s about what you do with these opportunities and how you leverage them to make truly breakthrough discoveries that promote human health – and in my case, prevent depression. The problems we are trying to solve are big and profoundly affect our communities, and people are counting on us to solve them. And I think sometimes it’s easy for us to forget that. Why? Because, as scientists, we chose a career where so much of our day-to-day lives are spent battling rejection, worrying about our papers and grants, and being stretched too thin. So going forward, I’m going to remember the fact that quite literally millions of people across the globe are counting on us. I’m going to use that insight to temper the sting of those rejections. And I’m going to let it fuel the dogged persistence we all need to stay the course and make those breakthrough discoveries.