Advancing the Field of Neuroimaging
Issue   |   Fri, 11/07/2014 - 01:23
Photo Courtesy of Emily Stern '83
Stern firmly believes in continuing to learn after college.

Once a biology major at the college, Emily Stern ’83 has now integrated her science education at Amherst and medical training at Cornell into revolutionizing functional neuroimaging for studying functions of the brain. The director of Functional and Molecular Neuroimaging and of the Functional Neuroimaging Laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, one of the primary teaching hospitals of Harvard Medical School, Stern is a leading expert in imaging of neuropsychiatric diseases.

A Determined Researcher

Stern credits growing up in New York City with providing her the opportunities to explore and develop her interest in science. Her high school’s science program shaped her into a curious-minded scientist even before coming to Amherst, and an internship at a biomedical research lab at Rockefeller University during her last year in high school solidified her interest in the field.

“I had a strong feeling that I wanted to be a scientist, but didn’t know what path I wanted to take. One of the reasons I went to Amherst was to explore different options,” Stern said.

Unlike her peers, Stern did not decide that she was going to be on the pre-med track until her junior year. Instead, she did everything she could to avoid the typical pre-med classes, taking the required courses out of order. Eventually, she reconciled with the idea that she wanted to pursue higher education at a medical school.

“I really had a sense that I wanted to work on problems that were relevant to human conditions,” she said. “I wanted to be able to help people and make a difference in the real world. I decided that medical school was the right path for me and that background has turned out to be invaluable.”

Stern said that her mentor at the Rockefeller internship made a great impression on her and inspired her to pursue research. She continued to pursue her interests at Amherst, where she encountered strong science departments and supportive professors. She wrote her senior thesis in developmental biology with Professor Dominic Poccia and reaffirmed that research was her passion.

Stern was convinced that even if she ultimately worked as a researcher, clinical training was still going to be important for whatever specific career path she chose.

“When one goes into medicine, there are many options,” she said. “One can become primarily a clinician or one can pursue academic medicine with a combination of research, teaching and administrative work. The latter is what I chose to do.”

Revolutionizing Research in Neuroimaging

During her fourth year at Cornell University Medical College, Stern became intrigued by radiology.

“What really attracted me was the idea that you could use imaging technology to not just look at structure, but to examine function,” she said. “At that time, functional neuroimaging was in its infancy so it was a very exciting time. Investigators were using positron emission tomography scanning, and functional MRI didn’t even exist yet. There was a lot of possibility, and I saw this as an area that could develop and provide a powerful tool to examine functions in living humans that we couldn’t look at before.”

Before this imaging technology was developed, conclusions about brain function were largely based on post-mortem examination, detailed testing of spinal fluid and blood or the careful clinical evaluation of patients with stroke or other lesions. Stern wanted to continue chasing the idea of looking at brain function because she was intrigued by psychiatric disorders. She wanted to understand them better using these novel, advanced imaging techniques.

After graduating from Cornell and completing her internship in internal medicine and residency in diagnostic radiology at New York Presbyterian Hospital, Sterm sought more advanced training in functional neuroimaging at the Hammersmith Hospital in London. In 1994, she returned to the U.S. to found the Functional Neuroimaging Laboratory at Cornell with David Silbersweig, her co-director and husband. In 2008, the lab relocated to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School.

In the laboratory, Stern and her colleagues study neuropsychiatric diseases, including schizophrenia, anxiety and personality and affective disorders, among others. They also develop new image acquisition and analysis techniques in order to study these disorders with increased sensitivity and at a higher resolution.

Stern also finds beauty in the detailed investigation required to observe small structural changes within the brain. With careful measurements in research studies, one can identify abnormalities that are not as obvious as a stroke or a tumor. She continues to stay in this field because “it’s revolutionary for psychiatric disorders. It’s a new way to identify the underlying pathophysiology of the diseases, which we weren’t able to do before. This is a prerequisite for identifying potential new treatment approaches.”

A Dynamic Work Environment

Stern’s Functional Neuroimaging Laboratory attracts esteemed professionals from many different fields, including radiology, psychiatry, neurology, psychology, cognitive neuroscience, mathematics, statistics and engineering. She finds her interdisciplinary area of research to be an exciting environment to work in.

“One of the things that characterizes the lab is that we have people from all these different backgrounds,” she said. “It’s tremendously stimulating, but also tremendously fun because we are all constantly learning something new from each other.”

While the lab focuses on further developing functional neuroimaging, she still has opportunities to interact with patients.
“Because we do clinical research, we interact with patients that have the disorders that we are specifically studying in a given protocol,” Stern explained.

Other than being involved in research, Stern finds her work schedule busy with the administrative aspects of running a laboratory, such as applying for research grants and attending to teaching opportunities.

“I always enjoyed teaching and I believe that it is an important part of what I do,” she said. “One reason I am in an academic medical center is that I think it’s incredibly important to train the next generation of investigators to move the field forward.”

Stern had her first teaching experience at Amherst, where she worked as a teaching assistant for both the chemistry and biology departments. She believes that had she not been at a small liberal arts college, she would not have had this valuable opportunity to teach during her undergraduate years.

Most of the teaching happens in the laboratory on a daily basis, where she mentors trainees who range from high school to medical and postdoctoral students. She also teaches medical students, residents and fellows outside of the laboratory. Moreover, for nine years, she worked through a federally funded grant on developing educational programs that intricately outline mechanisms for teaching in this fairly new field.

Stern believes that working in a laboratory is one of the most dynamic jobs because it offers different scenarios all the time. For instance, she initiated a project that involved constructing a new MRI research imaging center at Brigham.

“There was no robust infrastructure for this before I came,” she recalled. “When doing fMRI, it’s important to have a ‘clean’ environment with no electromagnetic interference from outside sources and no vibration. For this project, I had to learn about things like power lines, pouring concrete and green construction procedures … and what did I know about such things?”

Stern also described co-directing a laboratory and working with her husband as very exciting and intellectually stimulating. Her husband’s background is in neurology and psychiatry, so she has learned a lot from his fields of expertise and has enjoyed collaborating on projects with him.

“Before we had kids, it was almost dangerous because we were both really into what we were doing, brought our work home with us, and basically talked shop most of the time,” Stern joked. “But we have a great time working together and discussing our work. We have complimentary backgrounds, so it’s helpful for both of us to have these conversations.”

Her husband, David Silbersweig, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, describes his wife as an extraordinary human being, flawlessly executing the responsibilities of a physician-scientist, administrative leader and mom.

“I feel so fortunate that we are able to share our professional and intellectual lives, as well as our personal lives,” he said. “During the long years of medical school and residency training, we were one year apart, so we would each help support the other through the particularly tough times. I remember bringing her sandwiches when she was on call in the emergency room in the middle of the night, and she did the same for me when I was on call in the neurology ICU.”

He lauded Stern’s “tireless, steady and wise leadership and teaching of functional and molecular neuroimaging” and for bringing incredible expertise and resources to Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Appreciating An Amherst Education

Having taken advantage of the professors and resources a top-tier liberal arts college can offer, Stern felt prepared for the future after college. Nevertheless, she said still misses her undergraduate years and being in “an environment where the sky is the limit for learning.”

However, she strongly believes that her time after college has been an ongoing experience of self-education.

“Amherst prepared me incredibly well,” she said. “It’s where I learned to think deeply and realize that learning is a lifelong process. I discovered that it’s a privilege to spend time educating oneself. I went into the world after Amherst knowing that I wanted to continue to learn, and that was tremendous.”