As dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, Joanne Berger-Sweeney has her hands full. The School of Arts and Sciences is the university's largest school, and Berger-Sweeney sees herself as ultimately responsible for its financial, human, and physical resources.
Three years into the position, she has already implemented initiatives aimed at helping undergraduates make a smooth transition to college life and expanding the school's interdisciplinary programs. And if you want to know her plans for the future, just check her website: Berger-Sweeney maintains a list of working goals for the university that she updates twice a year.
But even with the demands of her administrative responsibilities, Berger-Sweeney is keeping one foot firmly planted in the laboratory. She's a neuroscientist who studies learning and memory and how those processes malfunction in neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative disorders.
Berger-Sweeney was born in Los Angeles, California, into a family of lawyers. "My father was a lawyer, I had uncles and cousins who were lawyers, it was clear my two older brothers were going to be lawyers, and I grew up thinking I wanted to be anything but a lawyer!" she says.
Fortunately, Berger-Sweeney discovered she loved science at an early age. She was especially interested in how brain activity guides behavior. Her own research addresses basic questions in neuroscience but with a mind toward clinical conditions.
In the last 10 years, she has focused largely on Rett syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder that primarily affects girls. Rett syndrome is a regressive developmental disorder; in girls who have it, development is normal until about 6-18 months, and then there is a significant regression.
"If they had started to babble and create syllables, they lose that. If they had started to reach purposefully for objects, that is replaced by stereotypical hand-wringing motions," Berger-Sweeney says. Other symptoms include decelerated head growth, difficulty walking, and mental retardation. The average life expectancy for a woman with Rett syndrome is around 40 years.
Rett syndrome is caused by a spontaneous mutation in a gene on the X chromosome. When the gene associated with the disorder was discovered in 1999, it became possible to create mice with the same genetic mutation. Shortly after such a mouse model was created, Berger-Sweeney took on the task of carefully quantifying and describing the physical characteristics and behavior of the mice in order to compare them to humans with Rett syndrome.
Berger-Sweeney remembers the first time she saw the mice she would spend the next decade studying. "I looked into the cage and saw the little female mice with these stereotypical hand movements and they looked so much like the hand-wringing motions we see in girls with Rett syndrome," she says. She ran a battery of experiments and found more parallels between the mouse model and the human syndrome.
Her lab has achieved moderate success in reducing some of the mice's symptoms. While she recognizes this is progress in counteracting the effects of the disorder, Berger-Sweeney says she is always looking for a way to treat the underlying genetic deficit and reduce the likelihood of symptoms emerging.
"I feel like I've had the really great fortune to be able to work on fundamental questions in neuroscience about how we learn and remember things, and at the same time do work that could potentially translate into treatments that help people," she says. "I feel as though I've been able to have an impact. And what's more satisfying than that?"
In addition to her scientific contributions, Berger-Sweeney is widely recognized for her devotion to teaching and mentoring future researchers, like Dorothy Jones-Davis, who completed an undergraduate independent study in Berger-Sweeney's lab. "As I was a first-generation college student, she helped me navigate through numerous questions I had about applying to graduate school and figuring out fellowships," Jones-Davis says. "She always made time for me, and has been one of my biggest inspirations as I navigate my career as a scientist."
As dean, Berger-Sweeney is also addressing issues of diversity and inclusion in education. "I'm interested in creating curricula for the 21st century that allows students and faculty to engage with issues that are of importance to a broad variety of students," she says. "It's not just an education for and about the elite."
In the last three years, Berger-Sweeney has created a new Office of Intercultural and Social Identities, expanded graduate fellowships to support diversity to all doctoral fields, and introduced faculty workshops for mentoring graduate students that focus on supporting students from diverse backgrounds. She's also proud of a new academic program in the School of Arts and Sciences that focuses on race, ethnicity, and identity, particularly of marginalized groups.
For Berger-Sweeney, the goal is to foster a culture where diversity and inclusion are valued for their inherent strengths. "Diversity is necessary for excellence," she says, \"and I think that all these efforts go hand in hand to create a more inclusive environment for all of Tufts' students, faculty and staff."