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Advancing Research On the Human Brain With Paola Arlotta

Haley Paskalides  |  May 13, 2024

Paola Arlotta is exploring questions in neurobiology and about the human brain that have never been explored.

Women across all industries need more female mentors and role models. But perhaps nowhere is mentorship for women more imperative than in the field of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). One of those role models is Paola Arlotta, a neurobiologist and stem cell scientist at Harvard University

We know that when we have more women in STEM, there’s a ripple effect — scientific and financial outcomes for women are improved across the board. Paola Arlotta is one of the women paving the way for other female scientists and showing that it’s possible to run a lab and raise a family at the same time. And her efforts are working — more women than ever are now choosing STEM-related career paths. While women have not yet achieved parity with men in STEM, the number of women entering STEM fields has increased by 31% in the past decade (compared to a 15% increase for men), according to the National Science Foundation

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“When I was going up through the ranks from assistant professor to a full professor, that was really the time when I realized that there is a lot of difference in the way women do things,” Arlotta says. “I was sure I wanted to have children and there was always this constant feeling that I couldn’t be a good scientist or I couldn’t be a good mother. It took me a while to realize that there are many, many different ways of being successful in science.”

While Paola admits that “95% of what we do in the lab fails,” she’s made many successful breakthroughs, including most recently turning a stem cell into a human brain organoid to study how the brain is affected by neurological diseases, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder and Schizophrenia.

“Each and every one of these organoids contains millions of cells of the brain so we can understand, for example, whether I should be in a clinical trial testing a drug or whether you should be in a clinical trial testing a drug,” Arlotta says. “Eventually, my prediction is that we’re going to get so good at this that we’ll be able to predict the likelihood by which different people may respond to new drugs, even before we design and affect that clinical trial. It’s something that may help us get to a better place for understanding why many of the clinical trials for drugs that should affect the brain that worked nicely in mice actually fail the moment they’re tested on humans.”

Paola Arlotta discusses the research she’s doing in her lab, how she balances family life and being a leader in her field, and why she believes we are living through a “miraculous time when critical technologies and critical knowledge have come to bear all at once.”


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