AAAS Fellow Susan Amara thinks the brain is "the coolest organ" in the human body and has enjoyed being able to spend her career investigating how it works.
"It's about who we are, and so much of what we are," says Amara, the Scientific Director of the Intramural Research Program at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, Maryland, where more than 40 laboratories address fundamental questions related to mental health at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. Amara was also recently announced as a candidate for AAAS president-elect this year.
Amara's research as a neuroscientist has an advanced understanding of signal termination in the central nervous system, and has identified novel drug targets, as well as novel approaches for developing them. In particular, Amara researches neurotransmitters (such as dopamine, serotonin, and glutamate), chemical molecules that mediate communication between neurons. Amara's lab studies the movement of those neurotransmitters in and out of the cells, and how various drugs interact with the transport process.
As the senior investigator in the NIMH's Laboratory of Molecular and Cellular Neurobiology, Amara studies two families of transporters, SLC1 and SLC6, which include the carriers responsible for neurotransmitter transport, and are associated with such mental health conditions as drug addiction, schizophrenia, mood disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD) and Parkinson’s Disease.
"The mental illnesses we study here at NIMH are diseases of the brain, with an underlying biological cause," she says. "Our treatments aren't perfect, but there are treatments, and better treatments will come when we understand the underlying mechanisms and target them in ways we hadn't thought of before."
Candidate for AAAS President-Elect
Amara says the nomination for AAAS President-Elect is "a great honor."
She identifies climate change and the opioid crisis as two serious challenges science can and must address. But she also sees an exciting time ahead, in that researchers are homing in on the biological underpinnings of cancer, mental illnesses, and other diseases, which may lead to cures.
"Science offers solutions to complex problems during challenging times and is so important for our future," she says. "We owe it to the public to help them understand what we do."
Amara thinks AAAS has been "a driving force for science diplomacy," and she believes strongly in the value of a global approach to science. But the challenges seem greater now than at other times in the past, she says. She thinks increasing support for STEM education is a good area to focus on and that we need to ensure that the broader public understands how scientific evidence can inform decision-making.
"Science is for everyone, not just for scientists," she says.
Leadership in Science Advocacy
Amara grew up in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, California, where "science was the only career I ever wanted," she says. Her father was an engineer, but she was among the first generation of women in her family to go to college.
Amara did her undergraduate work at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and then got a Ph.D. in Physiology and Pharmacology from the University of California at San Diego. She went on to a brief post-doc at the Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, which led on to her own lab and a faculty position there. Amara later went to the Vollum Institute in Portland, Oregon, and was also later chair of Neurobiology and a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. She was a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Yale and Vollum.
Amara has held a number of leadership positions she believes have prepared her well to become president of AAAS, including a three-year term, which ended this year, on the governing Council of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Like the AAAS, the NAS represents a wide range of scientific fields.
In her position at NAS, she says, "I became intrigued with the idea of advocating for science in a broad sense. I've always enjoyed bringing groups of people from various areas together to think about how to address a problem. Coming up with a plan is often the first step," she says.
She points to the NIH's BRAIN Initiative, a public-private research push begun in 2013 to accelerate insightful discoveries about the brain. "I watched the BRAIN Initiative begin--it came from thoughtful discussions among scientists from diverse perspectives on what new things could transform brain science. I think that's the kind of approach that AAAS excels at across a wide range of fields."
While Amara was president of the Society for Neuroscience in 2011, that group created (with the Kavli and Gatsby Charitable Foundations) BrainFacts.org, an educational website launched in 2012 to share the excitement of neuroscience with audiences that may not have a strong background in science. To this day, Amara believes public engagement is important for scientists.
"As scientists, we have the training and the capacity to solve problems and to help guide public policy. Right now is an opportune time for the vital activities AAAS is known for," Amara says.
The AAAS annual election will begin on Tuesday, December 3, 2019, and run through January 6, 2020.
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