Isabel Baker
Nikki Payne
Abby Bisi
Amy Peterson
Elizabeth Fisher
Shahida Sanusi
Angelica Guercio
Brynn Sherman
Sophia Hameedi
Celine Shin
Nicole Keiley
Ilona Yagudayeva
Fay Lin

NYU Female Social Scientist of the Month: Wendy Suzuki


Dr. Suzuki is a Professor of Neural Science and Psychology at New York University’s Center for Neural Science. She graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1987 with a degree in Physiology and Human Anatomy, and earned a Ph.D. in Neuroscience at U.C. San Diego in 1993. After completing her post-doctorate at the National Institute of Health, in 1998 she received a teaching position at NYU. Her research focuses on brain plasticity and the formation and retention of memories. In particular, she studies exercise, associative learning, pattern separation, and temporal order. She has received several prestigious awards for her work, including the National Academy of Science’s Troland Research Award. Because she is very passionate about promoting the equality of women in science, Dr. Suzuki frequently lectures on women’s leadership within academia and the public. She has collaborated with the Op-Ed Project, which offers workshops for women to teach them the mechanics of writing an op-ed article and how to convey their desired message in order to even out the gender gap wherein about 80% of op-ed articles in major newspapers are written by men. Thought leadership, the act of becoming an authority with influence on a large scale in one’s field, is an essential goal for women’s equality according to Dr. Suzuki. In order to promote thought leadership among female NYU faculty, she has brought the Op-Ed Project to NYU faculty and is working to transform the 2-day-long workshop into a year-long program which can include students as well. Dr. Suzuki recently published “Healthy Brain, Happy Life”, a book describing the results of her work on the effects of aerobic exercise on memory and cognitive function. She shows how exercise positively affects mood, memory, and attention, using both her own experiences and the results of her research. The book has been featured widely throughout various media outlets. Dr. Suzuki has given numerous interviews and talks about the results of her work, including two TEDx talks. Her work on the book has impacted her intellectual and academic paths. Since her research results have implications for educational policy, health care, and aging, in order to get the message out, she has focused on how to convey the results of scientific experiments to a much wider audience than most scientists are used to without using the common jargon within scientists’ circles. Working with editors and publishers has taught her how to make a message meaningful and understandable for anybody while maintaining the scientific accuracy and legitimacy of her words. As a result of the book, Dr. Suzuki also changed the focus of her research from primarily learning and memory to exercise. She is beginning a collaborative process with Dean Richard Kalb of NYU’s College of Arts and Sciences to develop a program of student exercise for freshmen at NYU in order to study its effects on school engagement, study habits, and grades. They are bringing in partners at the New York Health and Racquet Club for training, as well as an instructor for exercise sessions and group runs in Washington Square Park. She is also forming a start-up company in order to gather data on the effects of exercise on different cognitive functions across a wider range of adults.


When did you first become interested in memory?

I have a clear memory of exactly when I decided I wanted to be a neuroscientist. During my first year at UC Berkeley I took a freshman seminar class called “The Brain and its Potential”. It was taught by an amazing professor named Marian Diamond. She’s among the Top Five Google University downloads of all time with over a million downloads. On the first day of class I remember thinking, “She looks very impressive.” She was so engaging: striking, tall, athletic, and very beautiful. At the front of the classroom that day she had a flowered hatbox. She started talking about the brain and why she was so fascinated with it. As she told us about the brain and how it controls everything that we see and hear, she slowly and dramatically opened up that hatbox, and with her gloved hands she pulled out a preserved human brain from it. It wasn’t only the sight of the human brain which I was immediately captivated with, it was also the story of the way that she had studied the rodent brain. She asked how she could change that brain for the better; she did that by raising the rats in enriched environments with lots of other rats to play with and lots of toys. She showed that that environment actually made the outer covering of the brain grow and increase in thickness which created more synapses between the neurons, higher levels of neurotransmitters, and higher blood levels in the brain. That was just the first day of class, and I thought, “Wow, I want to do that.”

What qualities do you think are essential for a scientist?

Curiosity is key; intellectual energy is really important. There are so many things that you have to be good at to be a professor in academia; some you learn during your training and some you only learn when you’re thrown into the deep end, where if you’re good enough you float to the top, and if you’re not, you sink. One of those skills is grant writing. My first writing experience came when I was a first-year assistant professor and I suddenly had a drawer full of grants and nobody else to write them with. Only a few got funded, but that was the critical experience that taught me how to write. I also learned an enormous amount about writing when I wrote the book. They run on the same principles – you need to be able to tell a compelling, clear, engaging story, irrespective of whether you’re writing a grant or a science memoir. The only way to get good at that is to practice, and to have other people read it and see where they fall asleep, where they start to laugh, and where they ask you questions, and then you can tell where are good directions to go in terms of writing techniques and styles. Writing is really important. Being able to lead a group of people is also very important. I think that’s a skill that we aren’t taught particularly well as scientists. I’ve done a lot of work in leadership training, and thought leadership is another aspect of that, but that was definitely something I did on the job that I have not done optimally my whole time as a professor. It’s something I think a lot about and actively try to improve on, whatever project I’m in the process of.

Can you remember a moment where you felt some kind of barrier to being a woman and a woman of color in science?

There are unconscious biases that everybody has, both men and women, which unfortunately go against women and minorities. One way these biases emerge at all universities is that female professors tend to get rated lower than male professors, across the board, irrespective of their teaching level, because men seem more knowledgeable. And if you’re a woman who isn’t particularly friendly or warm and fuzzy, you’ll get rated even lower, even when your teaching may be superior to a man’s in the same subject. That’s very frustrating to me because I take my teaching very seriously, and I only recently became aware of this fact, which we know is true at NYU as well. It’s just discouraging; it should be discouraging to everybody, including men. And I’m not sure how to change that except to make people more aware of it, and ask them to take their unconscious biases into serious consideration when they are writing their evaluations. It’s a very difficult problem. I think it comes to light in other situations as well. Because there are more men in science, more men tend to come to mind for things like award nominations. I was once on a committee where we were trying to come up with names for an award. The names of two men came up and we started talking about them. I realized in the middle of the meeting that I was more qualified for this nomination than both of the men were. I was eligible to be nominated but my name was never put forward. It wasn’t that the nominees were not impressive, but I had been there longer and I had more experience, so any objective observer having access to all the data I think would have rated my application higher. But we didn’t have that; we just had several people talking. So the men’s names came up, and the meeting ended, and I went back to my office and thought, “What am I going to do?” I then wrote an email to the committee saying I had realized that my record was better than those of the applicants being discussed. I explained the classes I taught and the ratings I received; I listed all of the objective reasons why my record was better. After writing it, I sat there looking at it and thought, “Am I really going to send this?” and I did. Some of the committee members apologized and said they hadn’t thought about me, and some said they would consider me together with the others. Later the other applicants were dropped and I was chosen as the nominee. I would never have done that if I were an assistant professor or earlier in my career, and it took a long time to build up the confidence and the knowledge of my place in the larger scheme to be able to do something like that. But to this day it’s the thing I’m proudest of in terms of getting my voice heard; that I actually had the courage to say, “Hey, nominate me!” I basically nominated myself because I knew was the most qualified. I like to tell that story because I know I’m not the only woman who has not been nominated and knew that she should have been. Obviously there are men who have been in this situation as well, but I bet you there are more women in it because of these biases. So when I’m on these committees, I try to have in the back of my mind a list of women and their qualifications so that I don’t have to be searching around for things, whatever may come up, because you never know when you’re going to be asked about this kind of thing. And it’s true there are more men in the field, so it’ll be easier to come up with their names. But it’s so important to make sure that the women who are doing the best work get nominated for things like this, because there could be an unconscious bias not just by students rating professors but by colleagues rating colleagues. I don’t know for sure; I don’t know the data for that; but all the documented biases are going in that way within both men and women.

Do you have any advice for aspiring women in science?

Yes; that science is a really fascinating and fun thing to do, that there's absolutely room, and that, because scientists realize that the field is not good at embracing women, there are opportunities available to you. Take advantage of that, know that it’s a really great and interesting profession, and don’t be afraid of taking advantage of a situation where they might be looking for women. Many people don’t want to just be chosen because they’re part of a certain group, but I say take advantage of that. Use every single advantage that you can, because everybody else is doing the same thing. Do not give up any opportunity like that. Of course work hard, do the best science that you can, and get into the best, most productive labs that you can, so that you see what a productive lab is; how they work; how they churn out the papers and the quality of the papers they publish. Don’t be afraid to go into the field; it is so intellectually interesting to be able to do this – not everything, there are plenty of things I do that aren’t fun, don’t get me wrong. But don’t get put off by the fact that there aren’t enough women in science. It actually can be an advantage to you.