Neuroscientist Named MacArthur “Genius” Talks Creativity in Science

Rockefeller University neuroscientist Vanessa Ruta was just named a member of the latest class of MacArthur “Genius” grant winners. The fellowship offers a five-year grant of $625,000 to individuals “who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future,” according to the MacArthur Foundation.

Fortuitously, or perhaps by design, creativity has been a guiding principle for Ruta, 45, and her work. Both her parents were visual artists, and Ruta herself grew up as a ballet dancer—and at one point considered it a career path.

After making the switch to science, however, she says that creativity—and the freedom that comes with it—still plays a big part in how she goes about her work. Her research now involves better understanding how the nervous system takes in external cues such as smell and processes these stimuli to inspire various behaviors.

STAT spoke with Ruta to learn more about her life and work. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Both your parents were artists. Did they influence how you work?

I was strongly influenced by their creative process, which is parallel to how scientists work. There’s a kind of honing in your craft. It’s obvious in the artistic endeavors, whether it’s practicing dancing or something else. But it’s also there in the sciences—you have to be disciplined about pushing through with your experiments.

Is there something specific you remember about your parents’ artistry and how it led to your work today?

Both my parents were very passionate about what they did. My father passed away at the age of 98, and up until two months before that, he had painted every single day of my life. He was a landscape painter, and he would look at mountains and trees and then distill it into his own version of what it looks like in [his] mind. I think that’s really intimate—what the nervous system is doing [where] we take similar types of sensory signals, but then there’s some individuality in the way we respond to it. So, I think there is this natural affinity to thinking about sensory perception.

Were you always interested in science?

I did like science and math, but I was actually interested in being a ballet dancer and took four years after high school to pursue it professionally. I went to Stuyvesant High School [in New York], which is a good math and science school. When I decided to quit dance, I thought about what would be orthogonal to that, and decided on chemistry. The rules of chemistry were something I thought I could really appreciate. But I didn’t really know anything because I didn’t realize how creative the process could be.

It was only during my postdoc did I decide to switch things around to neuroscience. [Making the switch] just gave me more freedom. I don’t feel ever hesitant. Many great scientists whom I admire very much [are] willing to take themselves where science takes them, instead of staying some place where science keeps them comfortable. And it’s become something of a guiding principle of the way my lab is run. I hope to always push myself to be a little bit outside my comfort zone.

Can you give me an example of that?

My lab spans a broad range. We try to think of how chemical information is detected in the environment. We do structural biology all the way to biophysics to behavior, and one of the things we’ve come to appreciate recently is even in the simplified nervous system of [fruit flies], there’s a great deal of complexity in how the nervous system works in a dynamic way. You have to think about the nervous system from a systems perspective. I was always sort of a reductionist [as far as thinking about structural chemistry], and doing things this way has taken me out of my comfort zone.

What’s a big research idea you’re pursuing?

One big question is: How do you detect the enormous variety of chemicals in the environment? Insects have evolved a completely novel family of olfactory receptors. Using structural biology, we determined the structure of one of these last year. Insects use their sense of smell to find human hosts [and so] these are great target molecules for designing insect repellants.

What do you see as the biggest issues confronting science?

Funding. It seems too boring an answer, but it is something that we all think about. I really am spoiled by the fact that I work at an institution where I can actually let my questions guide my approaches, and I’m only limited by ideas. I think that’s helped spur greater creativity and exploration. You try things that may fail, but you don’t worry about it because you’re not resource-limited.

One thing I’d really like to see is to increase the diversity in science. I think there’s still a great disparity in gender, but it’s also much more among [scientists of color]. I think that requires reaching out to people earlier and supporting them and giving them encouragement, probably even when they’re in high school and college. To let them know that this is a career, and they don’t have to fit the stereotypical model of an older white man to be a scientist.

Republished with permission from STAT. This article originally appeared on September 27, 2019

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