Roads Taken

Brain Activity: Helene Sisti on wanting to do it all and taking one thing at a time

Episode Summary

A love of sport and an interest in psychology have been constants for Helene Sisti. But with a tendency to want to experience every last thing life has to offer, she has both benefited from the variety and at times struggled to decide which things to try first. Find out how sometimes putting something on ice and then returning can be the healthiest thing

Episode Notes

Guest Helene Sisti has always wanted to take in every experience life offers, whether in the classroom, on a field or on stage at an Aerosmith concert. Combining her love of sport with her interest in psychology, she found her way to sports psychology. But while pursuing a masters in kinesiology, an early class in neuroscience during opened her eyes to the world of research. She continued on for a PhD in neuroscience, looking specifically at the mind-body connection and how we learn.

As all-season track athlete in college, she was unable to study abroad; so she made sure her postdoctoral experience included a stint in Europe. Along with the memories and souvenirs, though, she returned home with a case of burn-out and wasn’t sure that academia was for her. She tried adjunct teaching and then spent a couple years in consulting, but ultimately found her way back to neuroscience research with new perspective.// In this episode, find out from Helene how sometimes putting something on ice and then returning can be the healthiest thing on ROADS TAKEN...with Leslie Jennings Rowley.


About This Episode's Guest

Helene Sisti is a neuroscience researcher. Being a lifelong athlete, she is most passionate about understanding the nature of the mind-body connection. She has examined the brain from multiple perspectives, ranging from cellular models to human brain imaging studies. While currently an assistant professor at Norwich University, she still tries to do it all, skiing, running, biking and keeping her eyes out for the next thing to try.




Executive Producer/Host: Leslie Jennings Rowley

Edited by Worth Rowley

Music: Brian Burrows

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Episode Transcription

Leslie Jennings Rowley: Today, I'm here with Helene Sisti, and we're going to talk about kind of a pinballing of interests and careers and how that helps you find where home is, so welcome to the show, Helene.

Helene Sisti: Thank you. Thank you again for inviting me. It's great to be here.

LJR: So Helene, when we start these shows, I ask the same two questions. When we were in college, who were you? And when we were getting ready to leave, who did you think you would become? 

HS: OK, great question. So when I was in college, I wanted to do everything, that's who I was. I was on the track team, I was premed, I was work study. I did not want to miss a party or social gathering. So I was out there, you know, making memories, working hard. And I was premed. I thought, OK, that's a great career. Right? it's interesting. It's challenging. It's good money. But it in my bones, it wasn't quite me, if that makes sense, it didn't really quite feel who I was about. Sports have always been a big part of my life. I was my first sport was gymnastics. I then had a lot of success with track and field in high school and of course, Dartmouth. I was competitive in the 400 meter hurdles. And by the time I was a senior, I was thinking about coaching again, this is something I thought about when I was very young, and I was looking into coaching or something with sports because it was something I was so passionate about. And there were two opportunities that opened up for me after I graduated, and one was a coaching position at Middlebury College. And I was like, wow, this would be nice. It was a lot like Dartmouth is very familiar. And the other thing was an internship at the Women's Sports Foundation in Long Island. And I actually remember how I found out about that. I was in the training room. I think I was like the icing or something or near LeBron field house. And it was in one of the magazines. And I was like, wow, this sounds interesting. It was in Long Island. So it was not far from where I grew up. And it was a nonprofit organization that just promoted girls and women in sports. And I thought, this sounds really interesting that they had one of the internships was a communications internship. And I always like to write, in fact, senior year, I think it was Brad Parks who started the Dartmouth Sports Weekly and I started writing an article like columns for the track team. And in high school, I always wrote for the paper. So I always enjoyed writing, too. So I ended up going to the Women's Sports Foundation because that's attractive as the Middlebury position was. It was a little too much of the same. And it's very different. Your experiences as an athlete versus your experiences as a coach. And I knew, you know, I kind of was like, you know what, I'm going to go to the Women's Sports Foundation. This seems like it could open up new things. I had never really thought about before. So that was a three-month position that turned into a six-month position. It was a lot of advocacy work. I wrote press releases for a lot of Olympians. It was an Olympic year. So it was the time when women's were like sweeping gold medal medals and soccer softball. Kerri Strug vaulted. So it was a lot of fun to be there. And then that was kind of winding down because, again, it was an internship. It wasn't a full time job. I ended up through my work there, through the communications. I started getting into marketing research. And so I found a position in Manhattan. It was called Zement Associates. They kind of build on my kind of curiosity and kind of research tendencies. And it was right in the Flatiron district. And so I ended up moving to New York, moved in with some Dartmouth classmates with Eugenia, Scott, and when Michelle was traveling, I was with Meredith was the third. 

LJR: Right? I heard about that from Michelle’s point of view. 

HS: Yeah, that's right. She went away and Eugenia said hey, do you want to live with us? I'm like sure that sounds great. And I would walk to work. So it was a lot of fun to just be in the heart of the city walking to work. But as I was there for close to a year and thought I knew I would always go back to school. So even though medical school wasn't the track for me, I knew I kind of wanted something additional. It was just sort of something I knew about myself. And I found out just through doing some reading that they had graduate programs in sports psychology. I was a psychology major at Dartmouth and I was like, wow, I didn't even know that those programs existed, let alone. They had graduate programs in them. So I moved to Philadelphia and did a master's in sports psychology. And that's where neuroscience really opened up for me. I kind of came full circle. I was reading a study that demonstrated for the first time that exercise running specifically can actually enhance the growth of new brain cells in the adult brain. And so now this has been widely publicized. But in 1999, this was brand new and this was kind of contradictory to everything I learned as a student and to everything scientists had thought. So it was pretty exciting place to be. And I thought I would love to pursue my PhD in psychology focusing on the brain. So that's what I ended up doing. 

LJR: Yeah, well, that just seems like it's so that path seems so fitting to you as a curious, like wanting to do it all, wanting to have all these references, just saying, OK, what I'm not going to look at this is forever. I'm going to look at this as a stepping stone. And what will it open up to me? Something that I don't think for we were really great or weren't trained to do so much. So I find that great. I also have to just interject: one of my favorite Dartmouth memories is of Helene Sisti being pulled onto a stage in Vermont, like Stowe, Vermont or something. We got a bus to go to this Aerosmith concert. 

HS: Oh, the Aerosmith concert. 

LJR: And Steven Tyler pulled someone on off the grass onto the stage. And it was Helene. And we were like, what is going on? 

HS: Yes, I thought you were going to say running the field as freshmen, rushing the field. No doubt there was a handful of us that did that. Aerosmith.

LJR: I will always remember, every Aerosmith song that comes on I will always remember Helene Sisti. 

HS: Oh, that's so funny. Yeah, I was a big fan. I still love that 90s Pump album. The other albums not so much, but the 90s pump album is always makes me want to like belt out and sing along anyway. 

LJR: It just kind of encapsulates the I'm ready for anything. This is so great. It definitely plays with the story. OK, so you thought you were going to kind of take some, some things that you'd done in the past and loves of sports and all of that. And sports psychology. And then a whole—uh oh--new way of thinking neuroscience. That's well, right. Related but… yeah

HS: There was a little bit more depth when you obviously, when you're kind of looking at it from a kind of neurobiological perspective, and I like that depth that neuroscience gave me that sports psychology didn't quite give me, again, it's I think it's probably because going back to the athlete versus coach thing, you know, athlete, you know, my experiences as an athlete are so again, that's something that's in my bones. You know, like I'm skiing now all the time. I'm biking when it's summer. And when I and, you know, when I'm not doing that, I'm just not myself. But as a career, it wasn't. So I didn't see myself becoming a sports psychologist, for example. But in neuroscience, I could see myself publishing neuroscience studies. I could see myself writing, doing experiments, mentoring students, you know, going to meetings and just collaborating with other people who are interested in the same kinds of things that you're in. So I went to Rutgers for my PhD and I studied in the lab of Tracey Shors, who was at Princeton before coming to Rutgers, and she was one of the lead authors on the study who showed that learning, certain types of learning can enhance new brain cell growth in adults. So it was great to be in her lab. I ended up being there for five years, typical for a PhD program. And again, it was not without its challenges. We're looking at a very reductionist approach. I was looking at blink conditioning in animal models with rats. So I'm like, OK, here I am looking at a rat blinking its eye. I was like, what am doing? Talk about an existential crisis? Like, is this really worth it? But as it turned out, it's a very good model for looking at brain changes. Right so you have a very simple learning model. And then I would go and literally count the number of new brain cells in a part of the brain called the hippocampus and see how many survived based on different types of learning. So that took me through about 2008 or so. I graduate in 2008. And then I had always wanted to live and work in Europe because track was two seasons, indoor and outdoor. There was a very small window of opportunity for me to get abroad and it just wasn't in the cards for me. And then at Rutgers, again, many of my friends were from Europe, from Greece, Turkey, Russia, all around. It was a great international group and many of them went back to Europe. And I was missing that experience. Again, as you said, the Helene wanted to do everything. So I found an opportunity through the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies. I started, I started looking in Switzerland because, of course, then I could ski. But then it was there was not a ton of opportunities at the time. So I kind of widened the search. And I applied for a postdoctoral fellowship in Belgium at the motor control and neuroplasticity Research Center at Catholic University of Louvain. And the lead scientist was interested in my background. And I flew over. It was amazing. I mean, it was a dream come true. I flew over just to see it at first, even though I knew I was going just from our conversations and looking and reading. And it was a great big lab. It was very productive. A lot of junior faculty and post-doctoral fellows. I was in the heart of Europe. I got a bike with the start of the position. So I'm biking to and from work every day past these Gothic Renaissance churches and over these old brick, stone cobblestone streets. So it was just a great experience. And I was doing human brains. I was doing brain imaging. That was the other switch. I wanted to make because I did not see myself working with animal models for a career. Yet I was still very interested in neuroscience and seeing all these MRI pictures of the brain. And I was like, OK, that's what I want to do now. So he was doing, you know, the latest in MRI research. And he was looking at movement, human movement. So he was he was glad to see I had a background in kinesiology, that was the master's degree. And it was fantastic. I mean, it was just it was, again, a very international group. So there were people from a lot from Holland, from the Netherlands, quite a few from New Zealand and Australia. But, you know, again, I was intellectually stimulated. I played soccer. I joined a soccer club while I was out there. So that was a lot of fun. Yeah and then postdocs in neuroscience tend to be quite long. It's a competitive field. But because of my kind of winding path that I've taken, I didn't really have time to just sit there. And again, I wasn't planning to move there permanently at that point. It was just something I wanted to experience. So two years later, I came back to back to the US and took some teaching positions. So then I was teaching. I was back in New Jersey area, Philadelphia area. And then. Again the teaching was great, but part of the drive for me to become a professor was the lifestyle. I liked the lifestyle that it allows in terms of the flexibility. But down in the kind of urban metropolitan areas, I couldn't do the outdoorsy things I like to do. So I have kind of roots in Vermont. We always used to spend family vacations up here when I was a child, I came back up here, I was like, OK, I have to get up to Vermont. So that's what I did. I started looking in Vermont. And I found finally a tenure track position where I can both teach and do research. And when I'm not doing that, I can go out and enjoy the mountains. So that is kind of how I got here. The short version, I guess I skipped over the two years as a management consultant when I was burnt. Yeah, I was burnt. I forgot about that. 

LJR: We'll get there. All of this really does speak to the I want to do it all. I really do really robust life. And it even in deciding, I want to look for a career path that gives that flexibility that I can give my all in one domain, but also in another domain, the outdoor experiences, the physicality, all that stuff. So I just love that. But you did choose a field that was like, first of all, this was the era of so many advances in neuroscience, like you were getting in kind of ground floor. And so much was happening. It is not an easy field. And I can imagine it would lead to a little bit of like I've seen so many mice brains and, you know, people brain MRI, like maybe is this was there was there a time where you were like, I can I really have the balance I want? Is that where you, where it kind of came to a head? 

HS: Well, that's funny, because I do remember I remember when I came back from Europe that it was not easy making the transition back here. And I just remember having kind of a tough. I don't know, I guess some people call it a Come to Jesus moment. I'm not really sure what that means. I remember having sort of maybe a crisis of faith, just sort of like what next? I was like, OK, I have my PhD. I've lived in Europe. Like, now what?

LJR: Check, check, check.

HS: I remember. Yeah, I remember being just kind of burnt out and exhausted and the teaching. I didn't pursue, my PhD to become a teacher. I pursued my PhD because I found it interesting. And I love psychology and neuroscience. So the teaching was sort of an outgrowth of that. And it's sort of, you know, a responsibility. I’ve come to enjoy it. But I just remember being tired and burnt out and being like, you know what? This isn't worth it anymore. You know, I'm teaching. That's not even really what I kind set out to do. You know, the salary is not that great if I'm just teaching, you know, what can I do? And that's when I started floating my resumes and that's when I hooked up with this. It's kind of like a boutique management consulting. They really focused on leadership development. And it was in right outside Philadelphia, in the Philadelphia area. So that, because I had been to Temple, that was a kind of a familiar area. And this is just, again, maybe just a year or two after I had come back from Europe. So I was like, you know, I'll be back in the city. It'll be familiar and it'll be a change, you know, just something different. So I mean, it was certainly something different, it opened up my eyes to kind of new worlds, kind of it was certainly nice to have some business experience. And it's funny you mention this sort of Helene-I want to do everything. I do remember having this thought as a graduate student that I did not want to be someone who stayed in kind of the ivory tower, the whole time. I wanted to have that experience outside of academia. So I do remember having that thought. And it's just funny that you picked up on that. But so. I mean, the first year was great, you know, it was a lot of really cool people from all different backgrounds. And then the second year, I started working with clients, and that was the year, they sent me to Australia four times. They sent me to Dubai and, you know, a lot of traveling. You know, it was really cool. But by the end, you know, again, I was just sort of like I it was like, I felt like I had unfinished work, you know what I mean, I was like, this is great. But it wasn't I had done all this training. And I felt like it was kind of sitting on the shelf, you know, and that's actually, when I went back and started teaching again and kind of recommitting myself to the tenure track path and that's what kind of got me here. 

LJR: I think there is something to be said for the life of an academic, although ivory tower, there are just so many different avenues you could take your own lab, your own research that could change. And that could fill that idea that like, I don't have to be done and be a monolith now, I can still be healing, doing everything. Just kind of serialized, Right?

HS: Right, right. Yeah, that's a good way of putting it. 

LJR: Yeah well, I, I wonder kind of what your research. Now as you are building, I think your own lab, of what's the interest that you're into right now. 

HS: It's kind of cool because I'm resuming the research that I had done in Belgium, but with kind of a new twist. So when I was over there, I worked with the team of scientists over there to develop this by manual coordination task. And it's basically like the etch-a-sketch toy, but it's based on coordination dynamics and it's used for brain mapping studies. We used it to map learning in the brain. And so what I'm doing now is I'm planning to incorporate brain computer interface, the BCI technology. So this is all in a ground floor right now. So I'm just putting out grant applications and working out the techniques. So we're using EEG, which is used to measure brain waves. And I'm looking at the different brain wave patterns that occur with both real and imagined movement. So an important part of the brain computer interface is mental imagery. So the idea with BCI is I'm not sure how much people know, but is that you can use your brain waves to control, let's say, a computer cursor, right?  Engineers have showed it, people playing pong. Stephen Hawking has the speller. Right so and so It's obviously a very exciting field. And again, it taps into my background quite nicely. I remember actually as a Dartmouth undergrad doing a paper on visualization and how they showed that athletes who are skilled with mental imagery could actually elicit motor potentials. Right so they could see their miring trigger.

LJR: Firing muscles.

HS: Yeah, exactly. I was like, wow, that's really cool. And so anyway. Yeah, so that that's what I'm doing right now. I'm starting this project, the neural dynamics of real and imagined movements using a bimanual learning tasks. So my it was so nice to reconnect with the head of the lab over in Belgium. So they it was a custom made and designed apparatus. So they had that shipped within weeks, days really. It was great. And so we've, I’m kind of tweaking that. And then the EEG is already there. The fundamentals, because the chair had used that. We also have eye tracking, which will be great in the future to use, but that that is the plan. I'm also looking at some learning studies, but it's kind of like one foot in front of the other. Again, you do learn that you can't do everything that you do have to commit and take small steps, and the people at Norwich university, where I am now, they've been really great. And encouraging me and along the grant writing process and everything. And the students have been a joy to work with. It's funny because it's a military school, so it's yeah, it's 200 years old. And it's where the ROTC was founded. And so I didn't know what to expect. I actually wear a uniform. I wear. Yeah, the tenured faculty wear uniform, which is funny. So I was hired as a captain, as a lecturer. I'm now a major. The students are great. They really like challenge. It's a beautiful campus. There's pain mountain right in the background and the other research is just taking off again. So it feels good to be energized about research again, because, as you said, it's. It can be tedious, you know, there's moments where you're just it's boring at times and it's and it can be overwhelming and it can be stressful because it is a very busy field. There is a lot of data, a lot of publications, a lot of competition. You do start to narrow your focus. You know, you realize you have to survive. You know, if you really want to go the distance, you realize, OK, one day at a time, you know, one project at a time. And actually, one of my friends, not friends, but a colleague gave good advice to me. She said, think small. She said that was someone she had gone for. Someone I thought that. I thought, what great advice. Because sometimes we're always told, like, dream big, work hard, you know, go big. But sometimes that can be overwhelming and stifling. And when you just kind of think small is just like one, you know, one step at a time and, you know, one little project at a time. So 

LJR: Which I'm sure some coach told you at some point, too, with your hurdles, there's. 

HS: Oh, totally. Completely yeah, I used to oversee I used to oversee stride. Oh, there you go. Exactly I used to start thinking, OK, well, if my stories are bigger then I'll go farther. But you actually lose power because the biomechanics don't work out. 

LJR: Ok, Ms. Metaphor, I love it. 

HS: Isn’t that funny? And I would even I would even get headaches after I competed after race day after I run the quarter. I always thought it was because I. You can't eat before you run. Obviously I always thought I was hungry. Then I realized I was tense. I was so tense in my neck, you know, like in my upper body because I was trying so hard. But once you sort of loosen that up. And the races that were really good, you know, you're loose and relaxed. And then and then you can kind of, you know, operate optimally, basically function more efficiently.

LJR: Well, I think I'm done here, but I will ask it nevertheless, because that was pretty much the answer, I think, when you think back to that younger Helene, what do you think you could tell her with all of this perspective that would not necessarily make her path easier, but just like some wisdom from the future? 

HS: Just say: You don't have to do everything today. You don't have to do everything now, you know, take it easy, you know, just little by little. And also, I would be more encouraging of myself. I know I've heard some of your other guests talk about how we're often our toughest critics and certainly at Dartmouth that's very true. You know, we're so driven. We're so ambitious as a group. But being a little bit more like kind to yourself. I think I would tell my younger self to be kinder and yeah, a little bit more appreciative of what you are accomplishing and not looking at so much what is left to do. 

LJR: Yeah, there's time. There's time. 

HS: Right, exactly. 

LJR: Yeah well, it sounds like you're learning that. I'm not sure if you've completely embraced the. I'll do that later, but 

HS: Yeah. I don't know that I completely have. It's funny because with the skiing. I became a ski instructor and with that too. When I first did it. I was like, Oh my god, this is amazing. I want to because I got certified for level one and level 3 is the highest. Oh, I want to be a level of three ski instructor, I want to go here, I want to go there. And you almost start to laugh when you start seeing that trend in yourself because you're like, OK, you know what, I don't have to do that. So I did that for four seasons. And now I'm enjoying free skiing and not the teaching aspect. And I'm enjoying the mountain much more.

LJR: Good that's about the enjoying. Enjoying.

HS: That's right. 

LJR: Well, it sounds like this has been are continuing to embrace many, many things. And it's a delight to get to see you again. And hear this story. And I'm sure there will be twists and turns and you'll continue to do more. But we hope to hear about it when you do. 

HS: Well, thank you so much, Leslie. It's been so nice talking with you. Thanks again for inviting me. It's been fun reconnecting.