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Meet Dr. Yewande Pearse from Culver City

Today we’d like to introduce you to Yewande Pearse.

Yewande, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
My mum tells me that when I was little, I had a lab on our balcony where I did experiments, This surprises me because even though I’m a Neuroscientist now and almost three years into academia, there was this whole bit in the middle where I hated science.

I found science really hard at school and was naturally better at English, but long story short, I worked hard and got onto a Human Biology program at King’s College London. To be honest – I did it to please not to be pleased. But then something changed.

In my 2nd year, I realized that it wasn’t that I didn’t like science, it was that I hadn’t known the language. It was like suddenly being able to be funny in a second tongue – I got it. And then I loved it because I could finally see what all the fuss was about.

From my undergrad, where I learned everything from the theory of evolution to the biology of aging, dissected a human cadaver and wrote a thesis on Synaesthesia – a phenomenon where you see words as colors or can even taste them, I got onto the Neuroscience Masters program at The Institute of Psychiatry.

During my Masters, I became fascinated with the brain. I was particularly interested in neurological diseases and how to treat them and ended up doing my dissertation on stem cell research and Stroke. By the time my Masters was over, I was pretty sure I’d reached my academic capacity, so I got a job as a research assistant, where I worked on modeling Huntington’s Disease in stem cells.

Two years later, I was bored. Not bored of the field but bored of not being challenged academically, so I applied for my Ph.D. My Ph.D. focused on a rare genetic childhood brain disease called Batten Disease, that robbed kids of their lives before they’d even had a chance to experience first grade in some cases. The aim of the project was to develop a gene therapy treatment that could use a virus to introduce a functional copy of the gene into their brains.

After four years, during which time I considered quitting at least once each of those years, I handed in my thesis and started fantasizing about moving to LA – a dream I can’t remember not having actually. I came to Los Angeles on vacation with some friends, just after handing in my thesis. My professor had told me about a lab here that was doing the kind of work, I had been doing. In between having the time of my life, I reached out to them and managed to arrange a meeting.

I spent the entire day with the team, getting to know them and talking about science. I left thinking, “if a position comes up when I’m back home, and I have to interview via Skype or something, at least we’ll have met face-to-face,” but that ‘if’ came sooner than I thought. The day I landed back in London, I got an e-mail telling me that funding had been secured and they’d like to offer me a position as a postdoc. It felt so serendipitous, I said yes almost immediately.

For years, my love of science was completely separate from my personal life, which was full of art and music. But, something about being in Los Angeles inspired me to bring those worlds together. As an ex-science hater, who has always felt more comfortable in the arts, I use music, art, and writing to share with people what I know. I believe that it’s important to communicate it in a way that doesn’t isolate people but instead invites them to join the conversation.

My show Sound Science on Dublab Radio is all about that. It’s a monthly 1-hour show (also available as a podcast) about the science stories that affect our lives and have in some way influenced music. The music I play on the show is super eclectic, so there’s usually something for everyone, and I’ve been really fortunate to have some of the most knowledgable people in the field guest on the show.

Has it been a smooth road?
Overall, I am and will always be glad that I did a Ph.D. However, at times, I seriously questioned whether or not I had made the right decision. There were great parts such as the relationships I made, the ownership I felt over my project, the freedom to work to my own schedule, traveling to conferences abroad and learning through experimentation. However, the best things about it were sometimes also the worst.

For example, your Ph.D. is your Ph.D., so yes, you have ownership over it and can work to your own schedule. But, if you don’t do the work, the work doesn’t get done. That means that at times, you might find yourself working until midnight to get an experiment finished on time, and working weekends because of the timing of an experiment, etc.

There is no one to take over when you’re tired, run down or when you would rather be doing something with your friends. Also, learning through doing is one of the best ways to grow intellectually but usually involves a lot of trial and error. Most science doesn’t work the first time, meaning that being in the lab can be an extremely frustrating experience. Although when things finally work, there is no greater feeling of accomplishment.

In the first year of my Ph.D., I spent a lot of time thinking about my project, carrying out preliminary experiments and setting up long term experiments. I also identified areas of the original Ph.D. proposal I wanted to change or expand on and got to know my collaborators. Mostly it was fun. I made friends, went to two conferences including one family conference where I actually met lots of Batten Disease families.

The second year of my Ph.D. was one of the hardest as months in the lab had not given me the data I expected and my motivation and enthusiasm was beginning to dwindle. Things had not worked, and I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere.

By the third year, I had become good at problem-solving and troubleshooting and felt like I really knew what I needed to do. I was responsible for supervising students, and my meetings with my supervisor began to change, feeling more like they were led by me. The third year was when it became harder to maintain a work/life balance.

I was completely consumed by my project, but the good news is that it was paying off! I was getting somewhere. I didn’t have the data yet, but I knew I would get it. And then just like that. Disaster struck – there was a major technical blow to my Ph.D. project that was out of my control. I was devastated. Shock came before denial and then depression. I had to apply for a year’s extension, and although what happened was not my fault, I had to do most of the work to rectify it.

With my motivation destroyed, this was not easy to do. I felt that I had already done the hard work and to do it again was not fair. However, somehow, I managed to power through doing some of the hardest work of my life. Soon, data was being generated, and interesting results are beginning to emerge. For the last six months of my Ph.D., I felt motivated again with the end in sight.

Finally, I finished my last experiment in the lab and after a short break was ready for the final hurdle. Writing up. It sounds like I’m exaggerating but for me, writing up my thesis completely consumed every second of every minute of every hour of every day. I spent all my time in the university library. I would wake up, go to the library, come home, sleep then repeat. But in the end, I got it done, and it got me here.

I have to say that now, even though working as a postdoc in academia is still challenging on a daily basis – experiments not working, long hours, working on the weekend, and not much holiday, nothing feels impossible, and I’m more able to focus on solutions and let the frustrating mishaps along the way go.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with LA BioMed in affiliation with the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA– tell our readers more, for example, what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
I am a neuroscientist and science communicator. I work on stem cell therapy for a rare genetic childhood brain disease called Sanfilippo syndrome. It’s caused by a single mutation in an enzyme that breaks down long chains of sugar molecules in a part of the cell called a lysosome. The lysosome is like the waste disposal of the cell and contains different enzymes, which break down all sorts of molecules.

In the case of Sanfilippo syndrome, it’s Heparan Sulphate that needs to be broken down, and when the enzymes responsible are missing, it ends up building up and stopping the cell from working properly. It happens in all cells, but the cells of the brain are mostly affected. Most children are born with no visible signs that anything is wrong. But then their parents and teachers might notice that their speech is delayed and they have behavioral issues.

The kids become overly active, restless, suffer from sleeplessness and can start showing quite difficult behaviour. Irrational fears are also common, or they seem to have no fear, which is what first interested me in the disease. The Amygdala is the part of the brain that is responsible for detecting fear and preparing for emergency events, and it seems to be affected in the disease. I guess that’s why I’ve always found brain diseases interesting, they teach us a lot about what the different parts of the brain do and what an incredibly complex organ it is.

Children with Sanfilippo experience major temper tantrums accompanied by inconsolable behavior and compulsive behavior; grabbing at people or items, screaming for no apparent reason, laughing fits. It’s a lot for the parents, and some children have seizures, while others have visual and hearing problems on top of that. Over time, speech loss occurs, and communication skills decline along with cognitive regression and loss of motor skills. Eventually, the child will lose the ability to walk, talk and eat on their own while their body shuts down.

Most kids live into their early teens, but some die as early as the age of three. It’s such a cruel and devastating disease and is hard to predict because it’s recessive, meaning that parents can carry the defective gene and be completely healthy, completely unaware of the fact that they have a one in four chance of having a child with the disease. I cannot comprehend how shattering it must be to have a healthy baby that seems totally normal and envision this rich future for them, only to discover that they have a disease that you’ve never even heard of.

Having said that, the parents I’ve met are incredible people and a lot of the money we have for research, comes from the fundraising they do. We have been working on a treatment, that will hopefully slow, if not prevent the disease by targeting the genetic defect. We published a paper based on a pre-clinical study last year, that showed that injecting genetically-modified neural stem cells that can make the missing enzyme into the brain, has positive effects on the disease.

Now, my work is about trying to transform human skin cells from patients into stem cells that have the potential to become any cell in the body. Once we’ve managed to do this, we will use CRISPR technology, the latest technological advancement in gene editing, where you cut out a specific mutant copy of a gene and replace it with a correct copy, to turn the diseased cells into essentially normal cells.

Because stem cells have the capacity to become any cell type, we will then transform them into neural stem cells that can be injected directly into the brain and supply it with the missing enzyme. It’s early days, but we are making progress. Outside of the lab, I’m a science communicator. I’ve written for Massive, a really great online media platform, dedicated to helping scientists share stories about their work and lives. What I love about writing for Massive is that it makes science accessible to everyone, in a really fun way.

The graphic design and illustration are really cool, and the tone is relatable. I hope our readers feel like science is for them and that we are helping to create a more informed, rational and curious society. I am also on the 2019 programming committee at NAVEL LA. Through a range of events, performances, exhibitions, screenings, talks, and working groups, NAVEL creates a space where individuals come together to share the knowledge, skills, and volition necessary to find novel ways to organize, distribute resources, impact and bridge communities. We’ve just launched our season of April – November programming, and I’m so excited.

We have some amazing events coming up, including one that I have curated called 0.1%, a week-long program which will demystify how genomics informs identity in the age of the “quantified self,” with an exhibition of works, a collaborative zine, an installation, discussions of scientific papers, and talks by influential figures whose work occupies the space where science meets the arts.

The baby of all my projects is a radio show I have on Dublab called Sound Science, it’s a monthly 1-hour show (also available as a podcast) about the science stories that affect our lives and have in some way influenced music. For example, the first one I ever did was about the science of heartbreak: why emotional pain feels like physical pain. I had a professor as a guest whose research supported the idea that some of the same regions of the brain that respond to physical pain, also respond to emotional pain, which is why heartbreak is more than just a metaphor.

So much so, that taking Acetaminophen, which you’d normally use to treat a headache, has been shown to dull some emotional pain. The music I play on the show is super eclectic so there’s usually something for everyone and I try an invite guests onto the show that are changing our understanding of science and culture. Neuroscience is such a broad field. I don’t think people immediately understand that when I talk about working on the brain.

People often expect me to be able to answer questions like “What is consciousness?” as well as questions like “When will there be a cure for Alzheimer’s disease?” Academia requires you to narrow your focus. To make real progress, you have to dedicate your attention to one usually very niche area of research. Personally, I am just as curious about questions to do with consciousness as I am about treatments for Alzheimer’s. My fascination with the brain is not limited to any one area of the field, so I’ve always studied outside of my immediate area of research.

Last year, I was a guest speaker at Immerse(d), an event series exploring the impact of how deep, immersive music can impact our brains, and last month I did a talk at Science of Grief, a 14-hour community conversation and performance on grief in partnership with Science Gallery Lab Detroit and The Detroit Institute of Arts. I think to fully understand the brain, neuroscientists should build their knowledge in all areas of the field.

Let’s touch on your thoughts about our city – what do you like the most and the least?
I’ve been in Los Angeles for nearly three years now, and I still have moments, regularly, when I’m just driving down a street lined with tall skinny palm trees when the light is all hazy, and the sky is pink and orange, and I feel so incredibly lucky to be here. The light in LA is probably my favourite thing about it. It recently dawned on me that it’s the pollution that creates that magical quality, which isn’t very romantic but it still gets me.

I also love the cacti and succulents that are just casually everywhere, being surrounded by them still feels so exotic to me. Los Angeles has a weird, sprawling infrastructure. It’s more like a bunch of mini-cities with a lot of seemingly dead space in between, but I like that too. All that space allows you to breathe mentally, you are not as aggressively stimulated as you are in a city like London.

People complain about the driving, but I like that Venice and Highland Park, for example, feel worlds apart and that in that so-called dead space, you’ll find the best places to eat or some little gallery or shop. Logistically speaking, it forces you to slow down. In London, I would have three places to be in one night because I could – which I loved. But now that I’m in my 30’s I’m much more content with just doing one thing and blaming the traffic. I do still love a warehouse rave though, and LA has so many hidden venues like that.

I have to say that London set a high bar for me growing up, but hands down. The food in Los Angeles wins. That’s another of my favourite things about it. The food. And the thrift stores. It also feels like there is a sort of cultural bubbling in Los Angeles at the moment in terms of art and music. It feels like a good time to be here.

Finally, there is the proximity to beautiful places – the desert or the mountains or the ocean. And the sun. Obviously, the sun. It’s amazing how much of a difference it makes to your mood. The fact that you can rely on the sun shining pretty much every day has made me a much happier person.

For all that good stuff, I have to say that the polarity between gluttonous wealth and shocking poverty bothers me a lot. It’s easy to become desensitized to it, but that is something I don’t want to happen. The UK isn’t much better anymore, but I think it’s important that we strive for a society that safeguards against extremes like that. I also miss being able to get around the city on foot or on a bike. I feel like a hypocrite saying this, but there are way too many cars here. If I could change one thing, I’d say a better transport system so we can stop destroying the planet!

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Image Credit:
Kate Berry and Anatoli Ulyanov

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