Sex, cognition, and stimulating neurons: Katie Wallin-Miller featured in OHSU In the Lab

Kathryn Wallin-Miller PhD at NWnoggin

Men and women suffer from mental illnesses at the same rate, but the kinds of disorders that tend to occur in men and women are very different. Katie Wallin-Miller, Ph.D., studies sex differences in the neurobiological mechanisms underlying mental processes of cognition. Understanding the basis of these differences may lead to more effective treatments for mental illnesses. Wallin-Miller is a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of  Bita Moghaddam, Ph.D., where research focuses on the neurobiology of mental illness.

What are you studying and why is it important?

My specific focus is on sex differences in what’s called executive function, which governs decision-making, inhibition and how well we adapt to situations. I work with rats, and I start out looking at behaviors. If there’s a behavioral difference in the males and females, it’s important to understand the cause. I look for differences in brain physiology and anatomy to explain the sex differences in behavior and cognition. In the history of the discipline, almost all neuroscience has studied male subjects. But understanding the differences can help both sexes. Men, for instance, are much more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia. Understanding what protects women could be helpful in developing avenues for treatments for everyone.

Katie Wallin-Miller at NogginFest
Postdoc Katie Wallin-Miller presented at NogginFest — part-research presentation, part art show, part benefit concert for NW Noggin — a non-profit that brings neuroscience to the masses.

What’s been your most exciting moment of discovery?

It’s not so much a moment of discovery as an experience — the experience of being able to see and manipulate the physical world at the level a single cell. One of the most amazing moments of my life was the first time I stimulated a neuron. It’s very geeky, but I basically took control of a cell that receives, processes and transmits information through electrical and chemical signals. This was something I’d read about and seen in books since I was a sophomore in college. First, we modified the neuron so it was sensitive to light. Then we shined light on it, and it fired. It was amazing. Actually seeing a neuron in action was the neurobiological version of the difference between looking at a photo of the Mona Lisa and seeing it — or understanding the science of an eclipse versus experiencing one.

What’s your day-to-day life as a researcher like?

It involves a lot of thinking. A lot of thinking and reading. The most important aspect of being a postdoc is thinking of good questions and then determining good ways to ask those questions. What’s the best way to design a study? In my case, I need to be careful to create paradigms that can be appropriate for males and females. So I think, design studies, then conduct experiments and analyze the data. And the data always says things that you don’t expect — so I assess and revise my approach.

About In the Lab

OHSU In the Lab looks at the people in the laboratories who help make OHSU such a vibrant research institution. In each post, researchers describe their current work and answer the same three questions.