Lab Notes: Interview with Claire Foldi
The last year has been challenging for early career researchers. Labs were closed to halt the spread of COVID-19 and research stopped. Those hit hardest were the early career researchers. As research begins to get going again, we want to support our ECRs as much as possible as they begin to think about the next step in their career. In this 'Lab Notes' blog series the British Society for Neuroendocrinology is interviewing recently established neuroendocrine researchers about how they started their labs and advice they would give to up-and-coming neuroendocrine researchers during this difficult time.
Dr Claire Foldi is a Research Fellow in the Department of Physiology at Monash University and a Group Leader in the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute (BDI) Metabolism, Diabetes and Obesity Program, Australia.
In this interview Claire reveals how her mentor was crucial in allowing her to explore her own research interests, the importance of building academic independence slowly for a stronger foundation for the future and how making friends with administrative staff and deciding on your lab culture early will set you up for a successful research laboratory.
If you are looking for a mentor to help you with the next step of your career, please take a look at BSN's Mentorship Scheme.
Tell us who you are and in which research you specialise
My name is Claire and my research program focuses on understanding the neurobiology underlying anorexia nervosa. To this end, we utilise a preclinical model of anorexia nervosa (AN) known as activity-based anorexia (ABA), which remains the only experimental model in which laboratory animals (rats and mice) will choose self-starvation over homeostatic energy balance.
The ABA model provides a unique opportunity to dissect the biological mechanisms underlying pathological weight loss because it mimics the major hallmarks of the human condition, including rapid and precipitous body weight loss, a drive to excessive exercise despite minimal food intake, and disrupted neuropeptide and neurotransmitter signalling.
One focus of the lab is to understand the imbalance between excessive cognitive control and diminished reward processing that contributes to the development and maintenance of pathological weight loss in AN, by using the ABA model to examine the behavioural, neurochemical and molecular nature of this imbalance.
The other focus is on determining the potential therapeutic efficacy of novel pharmacological compounds for treating pathological weight loss, including psilocybin, the psychedelic compound derived from so-called “magic” mushrooms. Our work aims to provide detailed insights into the neurobiological mechanisms of this new medicinal treatment for AN in order to inform its therapeutic application.
How did you get to where you are now?
My background is in behavioural neuroscience, and I completed a PhD aimed at determining the biological plausibility of advanced paternal age as a risk factor for neurodevelopmental disorders including schizophrenia and autistic spectrum disorders in a mouse model. I completely changed gears for my first postdoc position, where I travelled to the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden to learn electrophysiological and molecular neurobiological techniques. Here, I gained a detailed understanding of brain function at the cellular and circuit level, and combining this knowledge with my deep appreciation of the behavioural consequences of neuronal activity directed the focus of my current research.
How has the pandemic impacted your career?
We have been reasonably lucky in Australia in terms of overall case load during the pandemic – in Melbourne we were subject to swift and strict lockdowns throughout 2020 that were effective at containing the pandemic to hotspots and low numbers. These lockdowns, of course, prevented much of our experimental work from continuing, and the lab was essentially idle for about 6 months. Not being able to collect data during that time was a challenge psychologically, constantly feeling unproductive regardless of how many hours I spent writing or on administrative tasks. Having said that, time away from the lab allowed me to focus squarely on writing tasks, which led to the publication of a big project from the lab in the journal Biological Psychiatry and the first successful Category 1 grant funding for the lab – a grant that I wrote during the worst weeks of the pandemic!!
What would be your top tips to up-and-coming neuroendocrinologists who want to establish their own labs?
- The most important thing for me in the journey toward establishing my own research program has been to maintain strong links with supportive mentors and collaborators. There is this pull in academia toward total independence as a sign that you’ve “made it”, but if you have the opportunity to build independence slowly I believe you will have a stronger foundation for the future.
- Make friends with administrative staff at your university or institution – there are so many things outside of research that are required for a successful lab – including managing finances, hiring and recruitment as well as ordering and allocation of resources. These extra-research activities can be incredibly burdensome without help from someone who is familiar with the specific systems that are used to manage these aspects of the lab.
- Decide early the culture of your lab and spend time thinking about how YOU want to approach research science. Ask yourself, what are the three values that are most important to you? Then try to make decisions about your actions based on these intentional values (I would recommend one of these values being to ALWAYS HAVE FUN doing what you are doing!!).
Can you tell us about any mentors who helped you get to where you are now?
Professor Brian Oldfield has been pivotal in my transition from postdoc to independent researcher. Over the several years working as a postdoc in his lab at Monash University, Brian encouraged me to pursue my own interests and questions – even when they didn’t necessarily align perfectly with his own – and supported me with the resources, time and freedom that were instrumental to my career trajectory.
Mentors have played a big role in Claire Foldi's path to setting up her own lab. If you'd like a mentor to help you with the next step of your career, please take a look at BSN's Mentorship Scheme.