What Heterogeneity Breeds
A Diverse Workforce Thrives in BWH Psychiatry Neuroimaging Laboratory
BWH PNL faculty include: (top row) Kang Ik Cho, Yogesh Rathi, Jennifer Fitzsimmons, Martha Shenton, (bottom row) Ofer Pasternak, Inga Katharina Koerte, Demian Wassermann.
Entering the BWH Psychiatry Neuroimaging Laboratory (PNL) is like entering any other office environment in the U.S. But tucked away in the ubiquitous beige cubicles and housed between the blank white walls is a diverse group of individuals from around the world, highly specialized to unravel the mysteries and complexities of the human mind.
The Psychiatry Neuroimaging Laboratory is perhaps one of the most evident examples of a diverse workforce within the BWH research community. The lab recruits researchers from all over the world. The majority of its faculty hails from other countries such as Argentina, Germany, Korea and Israel.
"When you come into the lab, you don't feel like a foreigner or a tourist because everyone is from another place," said computer scientist Ofer Pasternak, PhD, BWH Department of Psychiatry, who is from Israel.
The lab is led by Director Martha Shenton, PhD, of the departments of Psychiatry and Radiology. Founded in 2005, PNL's main goal is to gain a better understanding of brain abnormalities and their role in psychiatric disorders. The lab has pioneered the development and application of neuroimaging tools to understand brain alterations in patients living with schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, William's syndrome and attention deficit disorder, to name just a few.
One of the main psychiatric conditions studied in the lab is schizophrenia. In the last decade, the lab's use of state-of-the-art neuroimaging techniques has helped lead to more findings about schizophrenia's impact on the brain than the previous 100 years of research. Now, the lab is shifting its attention and employing advance magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques to help further the understanding of a previously neglected disorder-mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI).
|White matter fiber tracts connect different parts in the brain|
of a healthy adult. The tracts were extracted based on
diffusion tensor MR imaging using the software 3Dslicer.
Image courtesy of Michael Mayinger and Dr. Inga Koerte,
Institute of Clinical Radiology, Ludwig-Maximilians-University,
Munich, Germany and Dr. Martha Shenton, Psychiatry
Neuroimaging Laboratory, BWH Department of Psychiatry.
"In mTBI, the injuries are not visible using conventional magnetic resonance imaging or CT. More sophisticated tools are needed to visualize the kind of diffuse axonal injury that occurs," said Shenton.
She added, "If one is making a decision in the emergency room, it is to decide if the person needs neurosurgery or not. But for mTBI, CT and MRI are often not done because most people recover within hours, days or weeks. And this kind of imaging has not been helpful in identifying injury. For a small minority of patients, however, between 15 and 30 percent, there are symptoms that persist including dizziness, problems with concentration, memory and irritability, as well as impulsivity and sometimes depression. Our research focuses on this group of patients in order to diagnose the injury and provide further information about prognosis that can be used for treatment and perhaps prevention down the road."
When studying mTBI, as well as other brain abnormalities, the clinical researchers in the Psychiatry Neuroimaging Laboratory value the fresh ideas and approaches that a diverse workforce brings.
"Working with people from different backgrounds gives you an opportunity to learn how to approach problems in different ways," said Jennifer Fitzsimmons, MD, BWH Department of Psychiatry, a clinical researcher with Spanish, American and Irish citizenship.
Fitzsimmons studies brain structure connectivity in psychiatric disorders and traumatic brain injury. "Everyone has something different to contribute, which exposes you to new ways of thinking and new experiences," she said.
"Everyone has a unique perspective based on differences in education, cultural background, working style and experience," added Inga Katharina Koerte, MD, BWH Department of Psychiatry, a senior research fellow from Munich, Germany. "When these different perspectives are put together like a puzzle, we are able to perform creative and innovative research."
Using advanced MRI techniques, Koerte studies the effects of concussions and subconcussive blows to the head that are the hallmark of the kind of subtle head trauma observed in the brains of professional athletes who have played in contact sports such as football, soccer and hockey.
The theme of collaboration is also echoed by Kang Ik Cho, a visiting PhD student from South Korea. Cho has worked in the Psychiatry Neuroimaging Laboratory since October 2012 helping neuroscientists better analyze brain images. Specifically, he helps them investigate the movement of water molecules in the brain, which can provide informative images on how the fibers in the brain are oriented.
Cho is not only lending his expertise, he is also reaping the unique benefits of having both clinicians and computer scientists in a centralized space.
"In my lab in South Korea, if I get stuck on a technical problem, I have to search documents and do a Google search to find an answer. This would take weeks because our lab is mainly made up of doctors, and not engineers," said Cho. "But here in the PNL lab, I just have to go downstairs to meet with our computer scientists and engineers, and explain to them the problem, and they can help solve it immediately. That is the best combination you can have in a neuroimaging lab-the engineers who develop the tools and run the analysis and the clinicians who can interpret the results. I think it is really rare to see this combination working in perfect harmony."
A diverse workforce also begets collaborations from labs worldwide, and exposes its employees to projects that they may otherwise be unaware of.
"You get to know what type of research is being done in different countries and labs around the world," said computer scientist Yogesh Rathi, PhD. "We can tap into their strengths and they can tap into ours and build a global type of workforce that can solve grand scale problems that one country or lab alone cannot do."
It should come as no surprise that many of the foreign nationals in the Psychiatry Neuroimaging Laboratory are well-travelled. Computer scientist Demian Wassermann, PhD, BWH Department of Radiology, is a research fellow who provides methological mathematical research on brain anatomy.
Wassermann, who is originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, has visited several countries throughout his native South America, as well as Central America, Europe and states within the U.S. from New York to Hawaii. Travelling has provided Wassermann with an open-minded, positive point-of-view that he applies to his career.
"Travelling gives you a perspective that there is work everywhere, and you can always find your way in life. The workspace is the world," said Wassermann.
Members of the Psychiatry Neuroimaging Laboratory share what makes their home countries special.
|Jennifer Fitzsimmons, MD|
"Zaragoza was one of the first Roman settlements in Spain, and was named after one of the first Roman emperors. It is a young, vibrant city located an hour from Madrid, the Pyrenees, and two hours from the coast of Spain. There are four days in October where people celebrate the feast in honor of "La Virgen del Pilar." People go out and attend events and concerts and dress in regional costumes. On Sunday, it is a tradition to offer flowers to the Virgin and create a large scale mantle for them." Jennifer Fitzsimmons, MD
|Demian Wassermann, PhD|
"I grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which is an extremely thriving city. A lot of the art scene-especially underground-is very accessible to people." Demian Wassermann, PhD
|Kang Ik Cho|
"I was born in a little city outside of Seoul, Korea called Sokcho. It is a popular city to visit, even among Koreans. It has beautiful lakes, mountains and beaches." Kang Ik Cho
|Yogesh Rathi, PhD|
"As a kid, I really loved the kite festival in India. It falls on the 14th of January and is a celebration marking the end of winter. I used to make kites with my own hands by learning from the kids around me. When making a kite, you take rope and apply certain solutions to it to make it really sharp. The goal during the kite festival is to fly your kite as high as you can get it to go, have it cross other kites, and try to cut them. There are many techniques to doing this that you learn growing up while participating in these festivals. It's one of the festivals I always looked forward to as a kid." Yogesh Rathi, PhD