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Lab Notes | The novelist and the scientist

March 2, 2021

NoneWhen neuroscientist Christina Kim published an important research study, her close friend, novelist Yaa Gyasi, wanted to understand more about her friend’s work, so she asked to shadow her in the lab. That experience eventually formed the basis for Gyasi’s moving novel about addiction and mental illness, Transcendent Kingdom.


PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

Tina Kim
You're doing real good, I said to the mouse as I put him down. Though I'd repeated this process dozens of times without fail. I still always said a little prayer, a small plea that it would work. The question I was trying to answer was, could optogenetics and it be used to identify the neural mechanisms involved in psychiatric illnesses? Were there issues with reward seeking, like in depression, where there's too much restraint and seeking pleasure or drug addiction, where there's not enough? In other words, many, many years down the line -- once we figured out a way to identify and isolate the parts of the brain that are involved in these illnesses -- once we've jumped all the necessary hurdles to making this research useful to animals other than mice, could this science work on the people who needed the most? Could it get a brother to set down a needle? Could it get a mother out of bed?

Rob Piercy
That's Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Christina Kim, who goes by Tina, reading an excerpt from the 2020 novel Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi
Reward seeking behavior is fundamental to survival. That suppression of this behavior can be essential as well.

Rachel Tompa
And that's novelist Yaa Gyasi reading from her good friend Tina Kim's 2017 research publication entitled, Molecular and Circuit Dynamical Identification of Top-down Neural mechanisms for Restraint of Reward Seeking.

Rob Piercy
Well, that's a mouthful, isn't it?

Yaa Gyasi
In humans and rodents, the medial prefrontal cortex has been implicated in suppressing reward seeking.

Rachel Tompa
It's a study that helped inform the story and main character of Transcendent Kingdom.

Yaa Gyasi
However, despite vital significance in health and disease, the neural circuitry through which medial prefrontal cortex regulates reward seeking remains incompletely understood.

Rob Piercy
Do you remember what you thought when you first read that?

Yaa Gyasi
I thought much of any of that mean.

Rachel Tompa
Today we're talking with Yaa and Tina about Tina's research on the neuroscience of addiction and depression; Yaa's book, Transcendent Kingdom that features that science; and their friendship that gave Yaa the idea for her best selling novel.

Rob Piercy
I'm Rob Piercy.

Rachel Tompa
I'm Rachel Tompa. And this is Lab Notes. I'm super excited about this episode, as I think you know, Rob, I've been fan-girling about getting to interview Yaa Gyasi for weeks now.

Rob Piercy
Yeah, we've been talking about this for a long time. And I know that when you first pitched this idea, you are super excited about it. And here we are today finally happening!

Rachel Tompa
I'll just recap how we decided to do this because it's a bit different from our past podcast episodes. So Yaa Gyasi second novel, Transcendent Kingdom came out last fall. I grabbed it from the library as soon as it was available, because I just loved her first book Homegoing so much. And when I was reading it, I didn't actually know what Transcendent Kingdom was about. But it turns out that the main character Gifty is a neuroscientist,

Rob Piercy
So, I haven't read the book here, you're gonna need to give me a bit of an overview.

Rachel Tompa
Sure. Gifty is a graduate student in neuroscience at Stanford. And the book goes back and forth between her present-day doing research on the neuroscience of addiction and depression. And her childhood in Alabama growing up in a household where her older brother, Nana was addicted to opioids, and he eventually died of a heroin overdose. And her mother suffered from severe episodes of depression. As Gifty is doing her research on mice to understand addiction and depression, her mother is actually staying at her apartment, and she's not eating or getting out of bed because she's in such a seriously depressed state. It's really sad. And just a lovely book.

Rob Piercy
We talk a lot about the human side of science. And this is really it, right? Even though she's a fictional character, it's a scientist studying something very real that affects so many people

Rachel Tompa
Totally. And the way she describes the science and the scientist is so accurate. As I was reading, I thought to myself is Yaa Gyasi, also a neuroscientist besides being a writer, right? And I flipped to the back to see if she talks about having a background as a scientist. But in the acknowledgments, she cites the work of her brilliant friend Christina Kim.

Rob Piercy
Yes, she is brilliant. Tina Kim is a neuroscientist at Stanford, studying these very same neural pathways in mice related to addiction and depression. And she's also a Next Generation Leader at the Allen Institute. The Next Generation Leaders program, or NGL program, is a cool advisory program Allen Institute scientists run for early career researchers in neuroscience.

Rachel Tompa
Yes, I was like this famous novel features real science by someone we know that is so cool! And then I thought maybe we could get the two of them Tina on the podcast together to talk about the book and the research.

Rob Piercy
And then you sent me an email that I think was just three giant exclamation points when they agreed to do the show.

Rachel Tompa
Yes, I did. And that's basically been my state of mind about this episode ever since.

Rob Piercy
And this was our conversation with the two of them just a few weeks ago.

Rachel Tompa
Maybe the two of you can start by telling us how you met and how long you've been friends.

Yaa Gyasi
Ok. Tina, do you want to start?

Tina Kim
Yeah, so yeah. Yaa and I, we actually didn't meet and become friends, I think until senior year of high school right, Yaa? Yeah. Yeah, we did. We went to different middle schools. But we're both in the same town. We grew up pretty close to each other. And then we somehow met, I don't know, in a series of courses or something classes we had together. Yeah, senior year and then, I don't know formed like a really strong friendship. Very quickly, that sort of has just lasted throughout. Until now.

Rob Piercy
What was it that made you guys click?

Yaa Gyasi
I don't know. I feel like I secretly wanted to be friends with Tina. And I think she just seemed very cool. I liked her clothes. I thought she was very fashionable. We share very similar sense of humor mages, and I can talk to y'all for hours. Once we realize like what we had in common, it was just pretty natural and quick to become close.

Rachel Tompa
Yaa and Tina both grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, which is also where Gifty, the main character of Transcendent Kingdom grew up. Yaa drew on many aspects of her own childhood to inform Gifty’s. Yaa was born in Ghana and moved to the U.S. as a young child and Gifty is also Ghanian American. Both Yaa and Gifty are Black and grew up in an area of Huntsville with few other Black families around and the novelist and her main character both grew up going to a white Pentecostal Church in Alabama. But the present-day parts of Transcendent Kingdom take place at Stanford and more closely matched Tina's life experiences. As a scientist.

Rob Piercy
This is one of the things that always interests me when watching a movie or listening to a song or reading a novel is how much of a person's real life fits into this story, and what's fact and what's fiction? So, this is super interesting.

Rachel Tompa
Can you tell us sort of when you knew that you wanted to be respectively, a writer and a scientist, like what was the impetus for your career decisions?

Yaa Gyasi
And I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be a writer, I read so much as a child, we had this program called accelerated reader in my middle and elementary schools. And I got very into that was very competitive about it. It's like a program where each book is assigned a number of points. But even beyond that, I just loved reading so much. And very quickly for me, like reading, and writing went hand in hand, like I always felt like writing was just an extension of my love for reading. But I had no idea that it was like a profession that you could do, I just was doing it and then hiding the stories in my closet, so my brothers wouldn't find them. I just remember like, if you got to certain amounts of points, you could take it to the librarian, Miss Rutledge, and she would give you like the coordinating prize for whatever the amount of points was. So, like 10 points, you could get a soda, and then like 50 points, you'd get a little Beanie Baby. And then like 100 points, you've got a large stuffed animal. So, my closet and hen smells like stuffed with all of these Beanie Babies and stuffed animals, but I have nowhere to put and don't know what to do with now.

Rob Piercy
That's so turn of Millennium -- Beanie Babies. What was it like coming of age in Huntsville, at the dawn of the new millennium?

Tina Kim
I'm still I just I don't know about Yaa, but I just I just remember growing up and always just feeling this, like, Oh, I just have to just have to like make it to college. And then I can, you know, go and explore the rest of the world. I hadn't really been anywhere else other than you know, Alabama, Georgia, and then my mom's family's in Florida. So, I was just kind of just waiting and waiting and waiting. I thought that college would be like my great escape.

Rob Piercy
After high school, Tina headed off to the east coast for college and Yaa went to California. They stayed in touch and then overlapped for a while when Tina started grad school at Stanford and Yaa was still living in the Bay Area, before she headed off to Iowa to start a graduate program in writing.

Rachel Tompa
As Tina was studying the brain pathways related to addiction and depression in mice at Stanford. Yaa was writing her first book, Homegoing. After she sold that novel, she moved back to the Bay Area.

Rob Piercy
Tina, you know, knowing your passion for writing and you know, she goes off to Iowa and then comes back and publishes her first novel as a friend, when you see a friend having this really cool success like that, what's that like for you?

Tina Kim
Oh, my God, I'm just My heart is like full of joy for her. I mean, I can't fully express like how proud I am of her. I don't know, I think it's just amazing to see someone so talented to just like, have a vision from day one and just seeing words loads. It's amazing.

Rachel Tompa
After Homegoing came out, Yaa was trying to figure out what to write about next, she started working on one idea that she ended up abandoning.

Yaa Gyasi
And Around this time, Tina had a paper that was due to be published, and was very excited about it, and had texted me about it. And then I asked if she could send it to me. And I remember my partner and I, like sat down and tried to read it. And I couldn't understand what was happening in it at all, which I thought was kind of strange, because I spend all this time with this person and ostensibly know what she does for a living but didn't actually. And so I just asked if I could go shadow her in her lab. And at that point, I didn't think I was going to be writing about it. I just mostly just wanted to know what she did all day.

Rob Piercy
What was it like to be able to learn that and really get a greater sense about what Tina does?

Yaa Gyasi
Honestly, it was such a gift, like I think so. There are so few opportunities to see someone that you love that in a different context, like in the work context, where like, I knew, I suspected that Tina was brilliant. But then to like, see her work, like see her at work and hear her talk about her work and see the ways that she lights up when she talks about her work, and to think about the implications of her work. The broader implications of her work, I just, I found it really moving. And I think it just kind of like deepens something in the scope of your friendship and of your understanding of each other. Because now I can't unsee that part of her when I when I talk to her when I know her.

Rachel Tompa
Tina, could you give us just a brief summary of the project that was described in that paper and then went on to be the project of the main character in your book.

Tina Kim
So, the goal of that research was to identify a neural pathway, or projection in the brain that is sort of important for regulating self-restraint, or in this case, self-control of reward seeking. And so, as Yaa mentioned, I think a lot of my research is sort of inspired by, you know, neurological and psychiatric disorders such as depression or addiction.

Rachel Tompa
Believe it or not, Tina models addiction in mice by getting them hooked on Ensure; that chocolaty meal replacement shake. She trained the mice to push a little lever for a tiny drop of the shake.

Rob Piercy
Now, I've had an Ensure before, and it's hard to imagine anyone or anything being addicted to it, but apparently mice can become addicted!

Rachel Tompa
After the animals learn to press the lever for a sweet reward, the scientists pair the treat with a little electric shock. And pretty soon most animals learn to avoid that reward even if they really like it. But some animals keep going back for the Ensure, even as they're getting punished at the same time.

Rob Piercy
Now, to put that in human terms, maybe it's similar to the enjoyment you might get from drinking a lot; when you're out with your friends, you have a few too many cocktails -- the hangover the next morning makes you reconsider indulging so often.

Rachel Tompa
Exactly. But then there are some people who continue to drink even though they have those negative consequences. Or even if they might want to stop drinking, they can't, we still don't know what's happening in the brain when someone has an addiction to alcohol or another kind of addiction. And that's what scientists like to want to figure out.

Tina Kim
And so, I was interested in finding a pathway in the brain that could regulate the amount of controls that the mice exert, because you can imagine, you know, sort of either way, if you don't pay enough attention to this negative outcome that can lead to abnormalities related to addiction, where you ignore, ignore negative outcomes and just always want to seek a reward. Whereas on the other hand, you know, of course, disorders like depression are your sort of maybe going to be hypersensitive to something like an aversive foot shock and stops you soon as well. And so, the big picture finding was that there was this one projection pathway coming from the prefrontal cortex. And so, this is, you know, potential neural substrates. that hopefully will be important for regulating motivation to maybe develop better therapies at some point for human psychiatric disorders.

Rachel Tompa
I also wanted to ask a bit about Gifty's, brother and mother who's -- so in the book -- her brother is addicted to opioids and her mother suffers from depression. And so, could you just tell us a bit about how you fleshed out those characters? And how you got into the heads of people who are suffering from these disorders?

Yaa Gyasi
Yeah, it almost felt like a, like a writing prompt of a novel. Like if you were in a creative writing class, and your teacher told you to write a novel about a woman who researches addiction and depression, then they're like, a million ways that you could go about that. But I decided to have it. Have it so that those two disorders like affected her life personally, through these secondary characters, her mother, who is suffering from depression, and her older brother who passes away, and struggles with opioid use disorder.

Rachel Tompa
Tina, your work is on mice. Do you think very much about humans that have the disorders that your mice have?

Tina Kim
These disorders are so prevalent, and universal, they can affect, basically, any type of community. So yeah, I've started thinking more and more, especially as I grow as a scientist, thinking more on the translational and human side of things. I think it's great that in mice, we have, you know, a lot of these fantastic technologies that we can use to study the brain circuits that maybe underlie these disorders in humans. But for me, the long -erm trajectory goal is to really start to think about how we can develop therapies or a better understanding of why these manifests in humans.

Rob Piercy
I wanted to ask what each of you takes away from this process. Yaa, you got to see the inner workings of what it's like to be a scientist working in a lab and then Tina, at the other end of things, you get to see how your world in the lab becomes part of a novel. What's the takeaway for each of you?

Tina Kim
One problem I think about a lot in the STEM fields is a lack of representation of women and Black women and Indigenous, Latina women in the sciences, and so what Yaa has done is created this novel where the protagonist, right is representing this entire voice. And I think it just helps to amplify the voices and the science and sort of the image of black female neuroscientists to both communities, both the pure science world and just the broader audience. And that's something that I never really thought of, like, the power of how fiction can do that, right? This work, it's just this beautiful story that immediately just draws you in and I hope can change people's perception, of what a scientist is, and what a scientist can look like or think like.

Yaa Gyasi
For me, I would say one thing that I found really moving, and interesting listening to Tina talk about how she came to do her work, was just the amount of time she spent talking about, like the nature of asking questions and how important that is to how she figures out what she wants to do and why. Which felt like it just mapped on very easily to the ways that I think a lot of artists see the world. These fields aren't necessarily like, incompatible or, you know, at these opposite ends of the pole. Like we're, we're still like doing this very, very human task of wanting to understand what makes us tick and why we're here and what it means to be alive. And that, kind of, transcends field.

Rob Piercy
Transcendent Kingdom was nominated for multiple awards, including the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Fiction. Yaa says she's researching an idea for a new book but is too superstitious to say what it is just yet.

Rachel Tompa
As for Tina, she's starting the next chapter of her scientific journey. She's applying and interviewing for faculty positions in which she'll continue trying to unravel the neural mechanisms of addiction and depression. I'm Rachel Tompa.

Rob Piercy
I'm Rob Piercy. For more Lab Notes episodes and science research news, visit our website alleninstitute.org.

Rachel Tompa
Thanks for listening.
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