Dr. Lorene Lanier: Educating the Next Generation of Scientists

A little bit about Dr. Lanier is that after earning her bachelor’s degree in Cell, Molecular, and Developmental Biology from McGill University in Canada, she then earned her PhD while studying the cytoskeleton at the University of California-Berkeley. Fast forward to her position as an associate Neuroscience professor here at the University of Minnesota, she’s also the Director of Undergraduate Studies for Neuroscience, and the Principal Investigator for a Neuroscience research laboratory here on the University of Minnesota campus. Not to mention, she’s also raising a puppy named Charlie, who will one day be in training to be a therapy dog. After working in her lab for about a year and taking her class, Introduction to Neurobiology, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience her dedication to undergraduate education first-hand.

Q: What made you decide to stay in academia?

A: Well, I never wanted to go to medical school. I thought it would be boring to be a doctor that had to tell people the obvious things, and I was always interested in science. I think I have a very scientific thinking mind. It would be hard for me to just accept all these things you have to know without wanting to know why. In college, I dated a guy who ended up going to an MD/PhD program, and then he had the same problem. Luckily, he had a near photographic memory, so he could just memorize the things and then spend time finding out why. But me, I don’t have a photographic memory. So I would’ve been frustrated that I couldn’t figure out Why? Or What’s the justification for that? A lot of medicine doesn’t know why. Aspirin was used for hundreds of years before we knew what it did. That’s medicine. We’re constantly figuring out – as you’ve experienced in my lab – ‘It does this, but it can also do this,’ but we at least have to know something about the underlying why.

Q: How did you move from Cell, Molecular, and Developmental Biology to Neuroscience? What sparked that interest?

A: Well, I really still do cell biology. We just study neurons. When I was finishing graduate school, trying to think of what I wanted to do for post-doc research, I think I sent letters out to about 6 or 7 different labs. The one that I got the most interested in was actually a neuropharmacology lab at Rockefeller University run by a guy named Paul Greengard. They had identified some of the first phosphorylated proteins and the nervous system, and they identified one called synapsin I, which tethers synaptic vesicles near the synapse to the actin cytoskeleton. So, that’s what made it interesting to me. I wrote this letter that said, “I could bring some expertise to cytoskeleton and development to your lab,” and that’s how I got into neuroscience. Not because I specifically was interested in neuroscience, but because I thought this was the most interesting question within cell biology. At that time, I knew very little about the nervous system other than what you know from general biology. I had never taken a neuroscience class, so I had to learn a lot.

Q: That’s a cool integration, though!

A: It was really cool, and when I first got there, I was completely overwhelmed. I would go to lab meetings, and I kept a list of all the words I didn’t know, and it was a very long list. Then I would spend time looking up what all these things meant and going to the library and reading about them. I was there a year and a half when I was a post-doc, and by the end I was really pleased to learn that some other people from the lab, who I had really admired and thought were super smart, actually came to ask me things about basic cell biology that they didn’t know.

Q: What advice do you have for any students in general who are still deciding on a major, but particularly ones who are thinking about a degree in science?

A: I would tell them that they should go with what they’re really interested in. If they didn’t like science classes in high school, they’re probably not going to like them in college. There’s some relationship between what your major is, and what kind of jobs it’ll be easiest to get after you graduate from university, but not as much as most people think. Do something as an undergraduate that you can get passionate about and get interested in, but don’t forget that even if you’re a science major, being a good writer – I don’t mean writing fiction – but being able to express your thoughts, to write down what you did in a clear way, being able to describe things, being able to communicate and write, is essential. A lot of science majors think they don’t need to be able to write well, but when you’re applying for jobs afterwards, within any of the CBS majors for example, a person who is hiring you is going to assume you learned the scientific ways of thinking. It’s not going to make a huge difference in what kind of jobs you’re eligible for. A lot of the companies around here...3M, Guidant, the booming Pharma businesses that are developing...they want people who can think scientifically, who can critically analyze data and then can clearly express what they know. All the CBS majors give you those skills, so go with what you think is the most interesting.

Q: You’re a professor, you’re the director of undergraduate research, you’re a Principal Investigator for a lab, and you also act as an advisor for students in your lab, such as myself. What do you think is one of the most important things for balancing all of that?

A: Well, you’ve seen the difference when I have a really heavy teaching load, and I feel an obligation to those students, especially because of the class I teach. It’s a big transition for most students to go to the higher level of expectations, so I feel an obligation to make myself really available to them. You really just have to block off time as much as you can, and be honest with yourself. Sometimes you just have to say, ‘Well, I’m not going to be around a lot because I have all these other things I have to do, and I can’t do it all.’

Q: As the director of undergraduate research, what skill or credibility do you think enabled you to earn that position?

A: I think you have really to take undergraduate education seriously, and it isn’t true that all undergraduate students and professors do so equally. Some people really value it and are committed to it, and other people see it as something that they are expected to do but they don’t really care about. I think we’re lucky in Neuroscience – most of our neuroscience classes are only offered one semester, and they're only offered by faculty who are into teaching. After a couple of years of experience, I would say by your third year of teaching a class, you’ve really gotten a feel not just for the material – most of us know our material. What we don’t know is what's easy and difficult for the students to understand, and learning that just takes experience.

Q: What has been the most challenging aspect of being both a director of undergraduate research and a professor, and how do you make it work?

A: The hardest thing for me, being the director of undergraduate research, is when students are really struggling. Here’s a student who maybe has always dreamed of this, or a student who is working really hard. It’s easiest when students are doing badly, and I can usually figure out with a few key questions, that with practice I’ve learned to ask. I can figure out how hard this student is actually working. It’s the students who are really putting in the effort and are not able to make it, and I have to help them figure out what to do. It’s not like neuroscience has any more or less of those than other majors, but those are the hardest ones to deal with.


Q: What has been your favorite memory or aspect about teaching?

A: I really like having office hours. It’s when I get to interact with students the most. I think I’m going to have to start having my office hours in one of the conference rooms, because my office gets too crowded. I also really enjoy when a student comes back and they say, ‘You know this thing we learned, now I’m taking this other class and I’m totally appreciating this class because of something I learned in your class.’ I like that. I like to see when students from my class are starting to make connections with other things and understand things better. I always see this in my own lab when I have a student before and after they’ve taken a neuroscience class, and suddenly it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s what that is!’ and the pieces start to fit together. Neuroscience is fun because now, in the popular press, there’s a lot of stuff about neuroscience, and it’s usually dealt with on a really superficial level, and I have students come into my office hours or just drop by my office and say, ‘You know, I heard this. What does it really mean?’

Q: What is your typical coffee order?

A: Medium latte.

Q: Favorite food?

A: Sushi

Q: Guilty pleasure?

A: Potato chips 

Q: The one thing you can't live without?

A: I don't think I can answer that one. I should say my husband.

So there you have it. An incredible woman, professor, and leader on campus: Dr. Lorene Lanier