Unearthing Principles of Human Brain

Unearthing Fundamental Principles of the Human Brain

Paola Arlotta, PhD, Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology at Harvard University, is the recipient of the Mid-career Investigator Award. Arlotta has an impeccable track record of discovery in the complexities of the human brain, as well as mentorship and public engagement.

The award recognizes Arlotta’s stellar track record as an eminent scientist who focuses on understanding the molecular laws that govern the birth, differentiation, and assembly of the human brain’s cerebral cortex. Arlotta is also a principal faculty member at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, where she is co-leader of the neuroscience program; an institute member at the Broad Institute; and an associate member of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute.

Can you briefly discuss your background, and what you do in your current role?

Arlotta: I was born in Italy, in a small town (2,000 people strong!) in the northeast of the country, right at the border with Slovenia. I attended the University of Trieste for my undergraduate studies and MS degree in Biochemistry and received a PhD in molecular biology from Portsmouth University in the UK. I was a postdoc in Boston at Harvard Medical School in the field of developmental neurobiology. This is when I fell in love with studying the nervous system, a passion I have been cultivating for more than two decades. Today, I am a Professor and Chair of the Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology at Harvard University.

I am lucky to have a wonderful research lab where students, postdocs, and technicians share a passion for studying the development and disease of the cerebral cortex, the part of our brain responsible for cognition, sophisticated control of motor function, and processing of sensory information. As a department chair, I also get to think about the future of a much broader field, that of developmental and regenerative biology. It is exciting because I can collaborate with dedicated faculty, trainees, and administrators to make sure that not only our collective body of research is meaningful for society but also that we inspire, through education and research, the next generations of students to stay and thrive in science. It is an amazing opportunity to think big about science while also building an inclusive space where everyone has a role and a purpose.

When did you decide to become a scientist? Were you inspired by someone (or something)?

Arlotta: Thinking back about me as a kid, I think that I may have been a scientist even then. What 7-year-old girl spends hours in the garden counting rings on worms? Or, opening flower buds to see how they look inside before blooming? I was always curious about the workings of nature. But it was only in high school that I fully became aware of the fact that I loved science. That’s when I had the incredible fortune to cross paths with a one-of-a-kind science teacher, Prof. Vecchia, who showed us the magic of science and paid attention to those who wanted to know more. We would stay after school and talk about interesting discoveries, and let me tell you, he could tell a good story. His classes went by so quickly, and I was always longing for more. Everyone needs a mentor, and he certainly was an incredible one. As a first-generation college student, I am very grateful to him for putting me on a path to research and discovery. Little did I know that a career in science would be so rewarding.

Your nomination includes the research you’ve conducted and published. What drew you to this field of research? What do you wish to achieve with your research?

Arlotta: I have always been fascinated by the process by which the embryo builds the cells, tissues, and organs of the body. Development of the brain is a particularly beautiful process, a highly orchestrated sequence and combination of events that ultimately build an organ of unparalleled complexity and capacity. I find myself driven to unearth fundamental principles by which the human brain develops. I aim to build on this basic understanding to decode mechanisms of human neurodevelopmental disease, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder. 

What discovery are you most proud of? Can you describe what you felt when you made that discovery?

Arlotta: The best discoveries are always the ones that you did not expect to make. It often starts with a destabilizing result, a piece of data that does not immediately make sense. You find yourself mumbling: “That’s funny.” There is nothing more satisfying for a scientist than getting lost in thoughts about why data did not match a hypothesis or does not squarely fit a dogma in the field. How wonderful to go back to the drawing board, learn from apparent failure, and think in a new way. Success almost always starts (and is constellated) by what we tag as “failure.” I prefer to call it the vitamin of growth.

The Excellence in Science Award also celebrates your contributions to the broader scientific community (such as leadership in professional organizations, university service and leadership, and public outreach). What have you most enjoyed/found the most meaningful about such service?

Arlotta: I think we should be judged not only on what we have done ourselves but also on the contributions that our trainees have made. Through this lens, the most satisfying initiatives I have led are those that create opportunities for individuals who would not otherwise be in science. What a waste of talent if a student chooses not to pursue a career in science simply because the field does not look like them or the topic seems too difficult. It is the role of mentors to see the hesitation and break down walls to allow for real opportunity. 

What does it mean to you to receive the Excellence in Science Award?

Arlotta: I have no words to express my gratitude for this recognition. This is an award that does not only support me as a woman scientist but also recognizes the work and dedication of so many of my trainees. It takes a village to make discoveries; it is never the work of one person. During the COVID pandemic, I saw first-hand what my postdocs and students had to do to continue their research. This took an immense toll. This award is dedicated to them and to the members of my own family, my husband Claudio, and my kids, Silvia and Alessandro, who were there to support me through the most difficult times.

What advice would you give to young women entering this field?

Arlotta: Be yourself, do it your own way. Success means many things and comes in many shapes. Most importantly, it can be reached in many different ways. Find yours and stick with it. Chances are that “your way” will not only serve you well but will illuminate a different path for many other women after you.

Paola Arlotta, PhD, is a member of the Society for Developmental Biology, a FASEB member society.