Q&A with Dr. Liisa Galea, Editor-in-Chief of Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology

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Dr. Liisa Galea, PhD, is a Professor in the Department of Psychology, and a member of the Centre for Brain Health and Neuroscience Program at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada. Her research focuses on how sex hormones influence brain health and disease in both females and males. She joined UBC in 1997. Dr. Galea is a Distinguished University Scholar and has held a Michael Smith Senior Scholar Award. She has twice won the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Discovery Accelerator Supplement, and is a recipient of the Cattell Sabbatical Award and the Vancouver YWCA Women of Distinction award (Technology, Science and Research).

1. What attracted you to science as a young girl?

From a very young age I was always curious about how things worked; in fact, when I was three, I figured out how to open the daycare gate and led a group of toddlers on a great escape. I was fortunate that my parents nurtured my curiosity and insisted I should never feel limited in what I could accomplish. They taught me to push through perceived barriers. My biggest role model growing up was my mother (with honorable mentions going to my grandmother and my aunt) who escaped the Iron Curtain during WW2, losing everything, including the shoes on their feet(!) before making a new life for themselves in Sweden, and eventually Canada. These women all worked full-time (teachers, accountants) and I never knew life without a full-time working mom. Her independent spirit was very special to me and she taught me to challenge norms and always back up my beliefs with data. She was perhaps the first Reviewer #3 that I had to deal with in my life.

2. And what excited you about neuroscience in particular?

The brain is a truly wonderful organ. Without our brains we would not have medical advances, electricity, air travel, clean water – you name it.

Despite these discoveries, we are well behind in our understanding of how the brain actually works. Brain diseases are devastating to society and to us individually – it’s extremely painful to watch someone lose the essence of themselves to psychosis or dementia. When my mother asked, “why haven’t you discovered a cure for Parkinson’s yet?” I replied 1) I don’t study Parkinson’s and 2) the brain is complicated. Our treatments do not work well and we need to do better. I believe a big reason we haven’t progressed as far as we should have, is that we essentially treat everyone the same. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or brain scientist, to understand that treatments need to be tailored to our genotype and age. The bandwagon I have been on for most of my research career has been that the sexes are different and we need to discover how we can capitalize on these differences to lead discovery. Thankfully, neuroscience is beginning to pay attention to sex and gender-based analyses.

3. You’ve achieved so much in your field. What keeps you getting out of bed in the morning?

I’m sure you have heard the saying that you need to do what you love to keep going in your job… I do what I love. I love discovery, I love researching new fields, and I know the quest for knowledge will always be a part of my life. I also thoroughly enjoy mentoring students that care about the science. Watching them grow and discover their own passion for research and discovery is a gift.

4. Any roadblocks you’ve encountered during your scientific career? If so, how did you overcome them?

How many words do I have here? No, seriously, at every point in my life there have been roadblocks: professors telling me I wasn’t good enough, or I was pretty enough so why worry about grades or graduate school, and that if I had another baby it would be the end of my career. Even now, each success has only been possible after climbing a seemingly endless stair of rejections (research grants, manuscripts for publications). Some roadblocks are just a part of doing science (e.g. experiment failures), but other roadblocks need to be acknowledged and removed for science and society to progress (e.g. sexism and ageism).

You learn to take the lumps with the successes, to grow a thick skin and try, try again. Success in academia (and science in general) is all about how we cope with failure. Just because an experiment fails, it does not mean we are back to square one. My mother taught me that during times of adversity, I should ask myself what I have learned from the experience, because frankly you always learn something - even if that something is I never want to do that again!

5. What motivated you to accept the role of Editor-in-Chief, Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology (FIN)?

Well, neuroendocrinology is one of the true loves of my life so it was a privilege to help support the journal. To be honest, accepting the position scared me a lot. But being scared is a good thing; it allows you to grow. And I really wanted to show the world that women can be editors. I am so glad I took on the role and am excited to see who takes the helm next and the direction in which they steer FIN.

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6. Tell us briefly about your vision for the journal

When I started as Editor-in-Chief, I wanted to make the process as open and transparent as possible. So, we now welcome different types of reviews, such as meta-analyses, and unsolicited reviews (I do not think it is ever good to have an invitation-only journal). We also welcome opinion pieces, and while we have yet to receive submissions along these lines, I would like to see some more pro and con articles debating issues in our field.

7. Why should authors choose Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology for their submissions?

Is it too much to say that I believe FIN is the premier journal for reviews in neuroendocrinology? Our metrics have been strong for many years and our editorial board reflects the who’s who in neuroendocrinology. If you have an opinion or review in the realm of neuroendocrinology, then I believe FIN is your best option for sharing it with the science world.

8. Your experiences make you a strong role model for aspiring female researchers – what advice would you give them?

This job will present setbacks time and time again. Learn to develop a thick skin, or at least come up with coping mechanisms. Even after 22 years on the job, I don’t have a thick skin - I have a little pity party for myself, but I try to limit it to 24 hours. Then I think about what I can learn from the experience and channel my anger/humiliation/misery into improving the manuscript or grant.

Strive to move forward one small step at a time. But, above all else, no matter how many deadlines you are facing, put your mental and physical health first! I remember being told that if I had a second child, I would never get tenure; that I had to decide whether family or research was my priority in life. To me it’s never been a hard decision. Family ALWAYS comes first. I love research but it doesn’t give me unconditional love.

9. If there is one thing you could change to improve gender equality in science, what would it be?

We need to be mindful at every level to raise the bar and shed a spotlight on the underrepresented. Typically, the underrepresented are women, but let’s get something straight; it’s not just men who contribute to gender inequities, it’s all of us – consciously and unconsciously. We need to acknowledge and confront our biases every day if we are to change the system. We need more leaders to promote underrepresented folks so that others can see themselves reflected in leadership teams.

As unpopular as the idea is, I do think we need a “quota” system. Without it, we seem to fall back into our old ways.  One just needs to look at the continuing gender wage gap to see we are not making enough progress.

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