PhD Program alum Annaliese Beery is currently Associate Professor of Psychology at Smith College. Beery has an infectious enthusiasm for her research, which is broadly concerned with how environment and experience affect the brain to influence behavior. A major focus of her lab is a continuation of the work she started during her PhD studies with Irv Zucker at UC Berkeley – the neuroendocrinology underlying variation in social behavior.
Neuroendocrinology refers to the bi-directional influence between hormones and the brain. Some hormones, such as oxytocin, play a big role in social behaviors. For example, to see how oxytocin signaling varies with sociality, Beery traveled to multiple South American countries to collect samples from different species of rodents with varying social behavior. Beery brings a new perspective to this kind of work by studying aspects of the brain in an evolutionary context. Specifically, she is looking at how variation in oxytocin receptor distributions relates to behavior and phylogeny.
“I guess I kind of like to do my own thing.”
Annaliese Beery, PhD Program alum (2003-2008)
Beery lives in a way that is self-directed and fearless, as her history and the answers to the Q&A below clearly show. Listening to her tell her story was inspiring. What I also heard loud and clear was that she has a deep appreciation for her mentors, collaborators, and exceptional students.
Read on to learn more about Beery’s path, and what it is like to run a research lab at a liberal arts college.
Georgeann Sack: How did you become interested in neuroscience?
Annaliese Beery: I started working in research labs in high school. I spent a summer at the NIH, and then I worked in different labs every summer as an undergraduate, from molecular genetics to neurobiology. I have been interested in neuroscience since my first undergraduate course in the topic. But between college and graduate school I actually spent six years working. So I had a different path to getting to graduate school than many people do.
GS: And what kind of work did you do?
AB: I taught high school for five years and worked as a software engineer for one year.
GS: What lessons did you take from those experiences?
AB: Teaching high school was how I figured out what subfield I was interested in going into in graduate school. My initial path was really molecular and genetic. I knew by the time I had graduated from college that I didn’t want to do that kind of research on a day to day basis, but I didn’t know what I was specifically interested in replacing it with. It was while I was teaching high school that I discovered research that made connections all the way from molecules to behavior. It was that focus on behavior and the whole organism that got me interested in doing the research.
GS: What led you to try software engineering?
AB: I basically split time between biology and computer science as an undergrad and I thought I would try out the other path during the dot com boom. I worked as a software engineer at a startup in Colorado for a year (and it still exists!), but decided that I missed science.
GS: Why did you choose UC Berkeley for your PhD?
AB: My partner and I were looking at schools that had good programs in both of our areas, and I was attracted to the fact that there was a rotation program that encompassed a wide range of labs and topics. Ultimately it was meeting Irv Zucker, my graduate advisor, during the interviews that convinced me to go.
GS: Can you tell me a little bit about Irv and what was inspiring about him?
AB: He actually has a reputation in my field for being one of the best mentors. And he’s just a wonderful human being. That personal connection was really important to me, but early on what made his lab interesting to me was that he was interested in questions that related neuroscience to the ecology and behavior of specific organisms. For one of the graduate programs I considered, I would have been doing computational modeling of ecology. I’d been interested in environmental and ecological topics for a while, but I didn’t know how to integrate that with my neuroscience goals. But here was a lab that had studied bats and ground squirrels and ultimately allowed me study “weird” rodents.
GS: What was your experience like as a PhD student?
AB: Well, I was the only Helen Wills [Neuroscience Institute] person in my lab, so it was nice to have the regular program gatherings and seminars and things like that. I had a really good experience as a PhD student. I knew that if at any point it wasn’t a great fit I could go back to teaching high school, or to programming. It was nice to know that I had an alternative in my back pocket, and I never wanted to exercise it.
I also attended lab meetings of Wayne Getz’s lab group for 5 years. I did a computational rotation in his lab, and I liked hearing about their projects modeling disease transmission in wildlife and humans. It’s a different trajectory I might have had.
GS: Can you describe your thesis work?
AB: I started out doing research on seasonality, but quickly became interested in social behavior. For my thesis I studied mechanisms that support social behavior between peers, which I think of as the rodent version of friendship. I did most of my work with meadow voles — a seasonally social species. In the wild, these voles are territorial and aggressive in the summer, but rather than hibernate, they form social nesting groups during the winter. Day length is the most reliable signal that animals can use to initiate seasonal changes in hormones, brain, and behavior. So I was able to manipulate meadow vole social behavior by changing the light cycles they experienced in captivity from long to short day lengths. It was a departure from what the rest of the lab was studying at the time, and one of the things I really valued was that Irv gave me the freedom to pick a new topic and helped me go in that direction.
GS: What previous research inspired your own?
AB: Research at the time was showing how different pathways in the brain could support the formation of social bonds between mates in monogamous species. And then I was taking Eileen Lacey’s behavioral ecology class to do some catching up on behavior. She studies animals that live in groups (or sociality) from the perspective of why it’s evolutionarily adaptive. It just kept occurring to me that all of the mechanistic/neurobiological studies of social behavior were focused on maternal behavior and monogamy. Nobody seemed to be studying the mechanisms that support the vast majority of our social interactions which are social interactions with peers. So that is the gap that I set out to fill, starting with my graduate thesis, and it’s one of the topics I’m still working on today.
GS: I see that after your PhD you did two years of postdoctoral research as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar at the UCSF/UC Berkeley site from 2008-2010. Was that a good experience for you?
AB: It was. Late in my Ph.D. I started learning more about social determinants of health, and the RWJ fellowship really immersed me in the language and topics of population health. I had learned about effects of early experience on the epigenome, and I wanted to study their implications for health and behavior. The program it made it easy for scholars to work with multiple faculty at both campuses. I worked with Elissa Epel at UCSF and Darlene Francis at UC Berkeley and I collaborated with Michael Kobor at UBC in British Columbia. My goal in that program was to do research that would inform human studies that use biomarkers we might want to understand more from a biological level. I worked with DNA methylation and telomere length and telomerase expression, which was interesting and new for me.
GS: When did you start considering faculty positions?
AB: I applied to the Smith job within months of starting my postdoc, then deferred a year to finish my postdoc before I started. In retrospect, had I understood the job market better, I might have thought I had to wait to apply. But I didn’t, and here I am!
GS: What made Smith College a good fit for you?
AB: I went to a liberal arts college, and I love teaching, so I wanted a place where both research and teaching would be valued. Smith has a lot of support for science research with undergraduates, and sends more students to graduate school than almost any other liberal arts college. Did I mention the really great students?
GS: Do you only have undergraduates in your lab?
AB: I also have two graduate students, a research technician, and recently worked with a great postdoc. We are in the five-college area, and I am on the graduate faculty of the Neuroscience and Behavior Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, so UMass graduate students can be in my lab.
GS: What is a typical day like for you? How much time do you spend on teaching and research?
AB: I teach two classes each semester. I would say my time is split 50/50 between teaching and research during the semester (and of course there is all the other stuff!). At many liberal arts colleges, there is a big emphasis on doing research with students. I have a very active research group, and it is an important part of the work I do.
GS: What is it like running a science lab at a liberal arts college?
AB: It’s probably a lot like running lab at a big university, except that my lab has mostly undergraduate students. I tend to have about 10-15 students at any given time, so the more junior students are helping out with projects and learning, and the more senior students are often doing an undergraduate honors thesis or extended research that they are in charge of. The only problem is they keep graduating!
GS: What is it like being at a women’s college?
AB: It is something that I noticed in the beginning and now I hardly notice it at all. It is just normal to me. I’ve spent a lot of time in mostly male environments — I went to Caltech for my first year of college before transferring to Williams College, and when I was a software engineer, I was the only woman in the company. Now I appreciate being part of this excellent science education for women. I benefitted from several awesome mentors during my early training (shout out to Julie Stokstad, Donna Rowley, and Liz Adler!), and it is a pleasure to mentor these incredible women in science.
GS: Tell me more about the research you do in your lab now.
AB: The big topic that ties everything together is the interaction between the environment/experience and brain and behavior. I especially focus on hormones and behavior. Not exclusively, but that is a big theme.
The main focus of our research is peer affiliation, which we now study in both monogamous and non-monogamous species of social voles. Our first grant in the lab focused on the role of oxytocin in that type of social behavior between peers. For our current grant we are assessing the reward value of different kinds of social interactions. We are using lever-pressing operant conditioning paradigms to ask what is the specific value of a peer versus a mate, or a familiar peer versus an unfamiliar peer. Then we are manipulate dopamine circuitry in the brain as we do those studies. We are also starting to use implanted ECG transmitters to understand the real-time impact of social interactions on cardiac regulation and the peripheral nervous system. So that is the main work going on in peer affiliation.
I’m not very good at staying focused on one topic, though, so we explore a lot of other areas. We’ve got one project on hormones and breastfeeding in human mothers. We just finished a big project on timescales of variability in males and females. I’m on sabbatical now, so we’re starting up a project on prenatal vitamins and epigenetic regulation I’ve wanted to do for years, and I’m hoping to set up some field work related to ground squirrel dispersal. What keeps me excited about research is the idea that I can follow my interests, and I like that I don’t have to do just one thing.
GS: You said earlier that one of the things you set out to do was to fill the gap in the understanding of peer interactions. Do you feel like a lot of progress has been made in that area since you began?
AB: Yes and no. We have figured out a lot of different neurochemical systems that vary with peer social behavior in ways that may be causal, and we can change social preferences by manipulating some of these neuropeptides. But brains are not simple, so “a lot of progress” is a pretty high bar!
One thing I think will be important is continuing to examine how these pathways are similar and different across a variety of species. That’s how we gain understanding of what generalizes across many different species and potentially to humans, and what is really specific. Comparative studies can inform our understanding of the evolution of social behavior and the mechanisms that support it.
GS: What publication are you most proud of?
AB: Well, I can narrow it down. While I was in my postdoc, Irv and I collaborated on a project to quantify sex bias in the use of male and female research subjects, especially in animal studies. We surveyed human and animal research literature in ten different biological disciplines to quantify the extent of male bias [“Males still dominate animal studies,” Nature, 2010, and “Sex bias in neuroscience and biomedical research,” Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 2011]. That has certainly been the most impactful project that I have worked on. It is certainly not the only one of its kind, but I feel like it was important far beyond my corner of neuroscience.
I’m also particularly fond of a paper I wrote on variation in oxytocin receptors in South American tuco-tucos because of the blood, sweat, tears, and joy that went into getting the data. I knew little about doing field work, and I headed off to Argentina and Uruguay (and worked with colleagues in Chile) to sample ten species of South American rodents to look at how oxytocin receptors vary in the brain and how that relates to social organization. That project gave me an appreciation for the variety and trickiness of permits and remote field logistics I’m glad I didn’t understand in advance, but many local scientists helped me tremendously, and my Spanish technical vocabulary is pretty decent now. I have one or two more species to go, and then I look forward to putting together the phylogenetic techniques that behavioral ecologists use with the neuroscience perspective of looking at this particular receptor in the brain. The initial study [“Oxytocin and vasopressin receptor distributions in a solitary and a social species of tuco-tuco (Ctenomys haigi and Ctenomys sociabilis),” Journal of Comparative Neurology, 2008] is the first piece of that, looking at two species.