Meet a scientist: David Haggerty, who hates working with mice but does it anyway

Meet a scientist: David Haggerty, who hates working with mice but does it anyway

"I was trying to figure out what the hell was going on with my own life."

We chatted over Slack with David Haggerty, a biologist who studies mental health and recently wrote about the complexities of autism research. Learn about how he got into science, his current work on panic attacks, and why he hates working with mice and rats (but does it anyway).

Gabe Stein, cofounder of Massive: Alright, first thing's first: WHY ARE YOU HERE?! Why are we all here? What is the meaning of life? Just kidding. Tell us about yourself: who are you, what do you study, and most importantly, why do you study it and how did you get into it?

David Haggerty, Biologist, Indiana University School of Medicine: I’m David. I’m from a town with a bunch of strip malls from the Southside of Chicago. I went to Indiana University, where I played lacrosse and studied biology. While I was at IU, I took a really cool class with one of the leading mental health sociologists in the country, Dr. Bernice Pescosolido, and I instantly fell in love with all things brain science. I'm currently doing my masters in cell biology and do research in a neuroscience lab that focuses on the neural circuitry of panic, anxiety, and fear. 

I'm here to help people understand the value of science. I think thats pretty universal, but as our society gets more complex and data-driven, people are going to need to learn how to understand how things work, why they work that way, etc. to make progress. I think science will play a huge role in that transition. 

As for the meaning of life...I have no idea. I read a bunch of Camus in college, which was pretty depressing, but I'm still working on figuring that one out.

Gabe: lol. I don't think Camus thinks we can know.

David: Yeah, honestly, probably the wrong place to go looking for those answers.

Gabe: Fair. So back to your story: I hear all the time about that one class or professor that changes everything. What was it about that class and Dr. Pescosolido for you that did it?

David: I started college thinking I was going to go to medical school and become one of those doctors who wears a lab coat and tells people that not everything they read on WebMD is true. Naturally, they made me take some sociology classes as a prerequisite.

So, I signed up for a class called Medicine in America thinking I wasn't going to show up. And then the first day this wild older lady came into the lecture hall and gave this lecture about Talcott Parsons’ fundamental theory of medicine and I was hooked.

I ended up befriending the teacher, not knowing she was a hot-shot in the mental illness field, and then she asked me to work with her on a project studying stigma in college populations for the next 3 years of my undergraduate career.

So, I guess the first 50 minutes of that lecture shaped my career trajectory. It was just her ability to question everything I thought I knew, and say, no, this is actually the way you should think about science and medicine that really hooked me. I guess sociology has a way of doing that.

Gabe: For those of us at home, what is Talcott Parsons' fundamental theory of medicine?

David: Hahaha. He was a sociologist at Harvard who tried to explain how doctors were “gatekeepers” to care in the rise of modern medicine. Sort of the underlying story of how doctors and hospitals became so powerful in modern society, which was a vast difference from them being quacks and places to die earlier in history.

Gabe: Ah, that's really interesting. But somehow, this lecture convinced you not to become one of those modern gatekeepers, but instead to follow in the footsteps of Dr. Pescosolido?

David: I still thought I was going to go to medical school for a while, but over time I realized I really wanted to do mental health research from a multi-disciplinary approach because of my work with her. She was the person that showed me how much there was that we don’t know, and them motivated me to go out there and figure it out.

Gabe: What was it about mental health, specifically? How did she approach it in a way that made you realize that you wanted to do that?

David: Well, to be honest, I almost dropped out of college my sophomore year for mental health reasons. So a lot of it was personal, because I was trying to figure out what the hell was going on with my own life.

Gabe: Was studying it a kind of way to make sense of it for your own benefit?

David: Initially, I thought I was going to instantly find the answers to why I was feeling the way I was, which didnt happen. But Dr. Pescosolido pushed me to get the help I needed while simultaneously entering the research world. So it was good balance: an interest in the field, and having a mentor that always kept me on my toes.

Also, I felt like I was starting to scratch the surface of making a change in the field, and I had someone who was highly respected in the field telling me that my ideas were cool, which never hurts.

Gabe: Heh, that makes a lot of sense. So let's turn to your current work. What's the most interesting thing you're working on right now?

David: Well, our PI got a 3D printer in our lab, so probably printing fidget spinners. JK.

Gabe: haha. I've never seen a fidget spinner in real life, but my 7 year-old cousin LOVES them for some reason.

David: My thesis right now is working on how prefrontal cortical neurons modulate panic attacks. I’m learning how to use optogenetics and chemogenetics to alter neural circuitry. So I get excited about that a lot.

Gabriel: That sounds really interesting. Let's break it down a bit. What's optogenetics and chemogenetics?

David: It's using light (optogenetics) or drugs (chemogenetics) to turn specific neurons on and off in rats and mice. It's basically just really precise ways to do old school “deep brain stimulations.”

Gabe: Gotcha. So you can look at the way specific neurons work?

David: We get information about how and where they function, and because we can do it in live animals, we can see if their behavior changes, too.

Gabe: So you're using these techniques to see how neurons in the prefrontal cortex impact panic attacks? I know this is basic, but from a neuroscience perspective, what is a panic attack?

David: That's a super good question, which I will do my best to answer.

Gabe: hah.

David: There are certain regions of the brain that when you stimulate them, you get physiological responses, such as an increased heart rate and blood pressure. In the case of panic attacks, there are some studies that show that when you stimulate specific areas of the brain, people experience an intense fear of dying. 

So, we take that data and use it to understand how the brain mediates those physiological and psychological responses. People who experience panic attacks, or have panic disorders or phobias where they fear for their life, might have altered areas in their brain, or different connectivity. So we look at the inputs, outputs, how neurons connect, etc. to try to better understand how our brains make us feel panic and fear.

Gabe: Got it. I got lucky here because I just edited a story about connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. My understanding is that the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that essentially regulates all those feelings and helps us make decisions about them rather than just reacting. Is that right, or am I going too far?

David: You’re right! We think those connections help us understand what is fearful and learn how to respond appropriately to those stimuli. This plays huge roles in understanding and treating things like PTSD, too. And its not just fear, but most emotional reactions that we have as humans.

Gabe: So in essence, you're trying to see how the neurons in the prefrontal cortex function during panic attacks? What role they play in regulating these intense fear emotions?

David: Yep!

Gabe: That's awesome. And are you finding anything interesting so far?

David: We’re finding neurons projecting to new areas that are altering behavior in some pretty interesting ways. But thats all I can say right now 🙂. Which brings us to the topic of getting scooped in science, and open sourcing stuff, if you want to go there!

Gabe: I think we'll leave that for another session. The last thing I want to talk about is something a little different, which is, what does your day-to-day work actually look like? We're talking about some pretty cool things and I think people usually think of the life of a scientist as pretty glamorous. But I've been to a lot of labs, and not that it's not interesting, but it seems like a lot of the work is actually stuff like feeding mice and logging a bunch of data and other pretty familiar tasks to the average office worker. True in your case? (Well, feeding mice may not be that familiar, but you get the idea.)

David: I dont know if I can say this or not, but I HATE working with mice.

Gabe: hahaha.

David: One of the post-docs in our lab works on high-fat diets, which means we have to manually feed the rats she works with. It's not glamorous at all. 

The day-to-day is definitely a grind. Usually, I get in around 9am and answer emails and catch up with people. Then, I either run behavior for a few hours, which consists of sitting in a dark room, absolutely slient for 4 hour chunks at a time, or I do surgeries on rats, which means staring though a microscope all day and trying not to screw anything up.

Gabe: I hear that a lot, "run behavior." What, exactly, does that refer to? Just, like, getting animals to do specific stuff so you can observe them?

David: We have standardized tests that we use to test animal behaviors. But handling the animals stresses them out, so you have to let them calm down again. Their heart rate and blood pressue has to go down before you can run tests. So, there are some experiments where I literally spend 40 minutes praying to the rats for them to calm down so I can actually run the study.

Gabe: So you're sitting in a room, staying silent and still because you don't want to excite them, staring at heart rate and blood pressure monitors and waiting for them to hit a certain level?

David: Yeah. We have to let them “baseline” so we can be sure that the effects we see aren't from human interaction, and are actual behaviors due to the experimental conditions.

Gabe: Can you at least read a book or play with your phone or something?

David: Yeah, but sometimes even the light from your phone screen messes with the animals. So you get to think a lot.

Gabe: And now we're right back to Camus...

David: hahahaha. Yes. But yeah, science is time-consuming and not that fun on a day-to-day basis. Plus, I'm still taking classes and studying for quals, which means my schedule isnt that glorious on a day to day basis. I think you really have to love it to stick with it.

Gabe: I'm glad you are. Well, I think that's as good a place as any to end it. Anything you want to add for people who want to hear more from scientists? What are the best ways for them to reach out?

David: I think people love science, but I feel like there's this perception that there is a huge distance between scientists and the rest of the world. To break that down, people have to be more open to asking questions and thinking about things differently. If you want to know more about science, ask questions, tweet at people, do everything you can to break down those barriers. Don’t think you have to be at a meeting or conference about science to talk about it. 

I literally named the confocal microscope that I work with “Big Gina,” and post pictures on my Snapchat all the time. its silly and trendy, but it helps my friends see the things I do on a daily basis in relation to science, and I think thats important and cool to share.

Gabe: Well, hopefully folks will read this and reach right out to you if they have questions. Also, I may need you to add me on snapchat. Thanks for chatting!

David: Absolutely.