Originally published on AbbVie.com
Scientists Rock! is a monthly Q&A where we pull an AbbVie scientist out of the lab to hear what makes them tick. This month we travel to Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, to chat with Samantha Brecht, associate scientist, AbbVie Foundational Neuroscience Center.
Once upon time, in a body of water not so far away, Sam Brecht relished competitive rowing. With true grit, determination, and a whole lot of heart (and muscle), she paddled her way to some major victories. Nowadays, with feet firmly planted back on the ground, she’s intent on achieving strokes of genius in the uncharted waters of neuroscience.
Tell us the story of how you fell in love with science.
I am an intensely curious person and have always been fascinated by the natural world. One of my first science romances was with a book called “The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians.” Filled with colorful photos to help with specimen identification and an index of fabulously dry text descriptions, I picked up my first copy at our local library at the age of four. Much to my parent’s chagrin, I insisted on reading it as my bedtime story for the better part of the next two years and would listen intently, enraptured by every morsel. By the time my parents tried to pry it from my hands to return it, the book was stained with cranberry juice and other ‘love’ marks so they were forced to purchase a new copy for the library. To this day, my treasured copy sits atop my bookshelf, adorned with its library sticker on the jacket. Ultimately, my ambling curiosity has continued to shape my love of science. And to this day, I continue to fall in love with science over and over again!
You work in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at AbbVie’s Foundational Neuroscience Center. For us non-scientific people, can you explain what exactly it is that you do?
I do exploratory work in one of the earliest stages of medicine development, identifying potential targets for future medicines to treat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. These diseases, which affect the central nervous system and brain, are difficult to study in humans partly because brains are not very accessible for observation. In addition, these diseases take a long time to develop – often over multiple decades – and are difficult to reliably predict or diagnose precisely. I am tasked with developing ways to study aspects of these neural diseases in a laboratory-type setting, the primary way being with cells in a dish. In my experiments, I test whether treatments on cells produce significant changes in a measurable outcome that is relevant to Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. For example, one hallmark of Alzheimer’s Disease is the development of clumps of protein called tau aggregates. In my cells, I can design an experiment where I test different therapies to see which ones change the size or number of tau aggregates in cells, as well as monitor cell health to identify therapies that may be toxic. Carefully designed cell-based experiments allow me to rapidly generate a lot of high-quality evidence (data), which ultimately enables us to make more informed, strategic decisions and hopefully (eventually) contribute to the development of successful medicines.
I was amazed to find out you spent 10-years as a competitive rower. Any similarities between your athletic career and your current role as scientist?
Rowing is a freakish combination of strength, endurance, skill and determination. When you row, a sliding seat allows you to use the powerful muscles in your legs and trunk to initiate the stroke and do most of the work of propelling the boat. Oars about 8 to 13 feet are used as levers to aid in this propulsion. To minimize friction with the water, the boats are very lightweight, narrow and sit high atop the water. As a result, what appears to be one simple stroke not only engages every major muscle group in your body but requires incredible body awareness and intense core strength.
The lessons I learned as an athlete crop up in many areas of my life, but some of the most powerful directly correlate to my role as a scientist: 1.) how to win – in rowing, to progress as an athlete, I was forced to break down larger goals into smaller, concrete, achievable short-term goals. No athlete ever succeeds by simply having a dream; success comes from the actual ‘doing’ — from taking smaller steps that eventually add up to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. As a scientist, I use similar skills by breaking down overarching goals into smaller, actionable tasks I can achieve today, tomorrow and next week; 2.) learning to fail – rowing taught me that pushing my limits to the brink and beyond that, to failure, was the only way to both find and advance the limits of what I could and could not do. In this way, rowing taught me that I was usually capable of more than I expected, and even when I failed, that ultimately lead to new personal discoveries and disclosed what my body was and was not capable of. Similarly, in scientific research, determination, knowledge, and creativity are stretched to their limits to innovate and potentially help uncover the next scientific breakthrough in our understanding of a disease. Maintaining my drive and enthusiasm can be challenging given the caveat that most experiments fail to produce the desired result. The key is to fail in ways that carefully document any critical learnings. In science, rowing, or many other worthwhile things, success generally requires being patient with the iterative process of generating modicum improvements and doing my best to ‘fail’ slightly better each time; 3.) how to be a good teammate – rowing, like scientific research, requires excellent coordination and teamwork. In a team boat, just about every motion must be perfectly coordinated between rowers. If one rower is a fraction of a second too early or late with any part of the stroke, it can be devastating to the trajectory of the boat. As a result, communication, trust, and incredible teamwork are required. From my experience, modern, meaningful scientific research is a similarly complex team sport. It takes many hands (on deck) to transform an idea into a successful therapeutic.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you proudly embrace your openly gay status in corporate America?
My wife, Zoë, and I were married in August 2019, one month after joining AbbVie. Although I had just started, my boss happily allowed vacation time for the big event and a short honeymoon to Iceland post-wedding. In addition, even though we had essentially just met, my boss also gifted me a beautiful card and a photo album to capture all the special moments from our wedding. Right off the bat, the bar was set extremely high for a positive, welcoming, inclusive experience at the company.
Visibility as an openly gay woman in the LGBTQ community is important to me both personally and professionally. Having had the support of LGBTQ friends and allies when I was first coming out; having been loved and accepted for exactly who I am by my friends and family; and having the ability to live my life openly without fear of losing my job, I consider being visible in my career and elsewhere as a privilege and responsibility. I have come of age during a time of much change for LGBTQ people. For instance, when my wife and I first started dating, gay marriage was not legal at the federal level in the United States. My abilities to be married and use names and pronouns when talking about the people that I love are freedoms that I cherish dearly, every day. As my co-workers can attest, I will take any opportunity to gush about my amazing, brilliant wife. More altruistically, I think that being open about my identity and accomplishments as a proud, visible, outspoken lesbian woman is my (very) small way of helping to enable those around me to bring their whole selves to the fore, too. Women, and certainly LGBTQ women, are often under-represented in STEM in general, and especially at the executive level. As a couple, my wife and I are doing our best to ‘represent’ the LGBTQ community and hope to live up to the lesbian STEM power couple hype!
What is your advice to kids interested in a career like yours?
Never stop asking questions! If you are considering a career in science, you are already most likely curious by nature. As a kid, I remember flipping over rocks to discover creatures and borrowing books from the local library. Although I hope kids still perform these old-school rituals, I would also suggest scouring the internet for answers. There is so much information available at the click of your fingertips! If you’re curious, just “google” it. I still regularly stop what I am doing – sometimes mid-conversation – to look up the etymology of a word, or whether teeth are technically bones, or whether whales have hip bones (spoiler alert, they do!) … and any other number of seemingly absurd questions. But I think the practice of going from asking a question to learning something is at the core of what it is to be a scientist.
I understand you convinced your wife that harboring an Australian Blue-Tongued Skink in your home office was a good idea. Can you tell us more about this lizard who has quickly stolen your heart?
Two years ago, while sick in bed with the flu, my childhood obsession with Australian Blue-Tongued Skink (BTS) lizards was suddenly rekindled. These cool, four-legged creatures enjoy bananas and are known for their striking bright blue tongue (displayed when curious and/or threatened). Realizing my wife was going to be (rightfully) skeptical, I spent the next 48 hours performing extensive research to help plead my case: compiling a detailed spreadsheet of all of the materials I would need to provide for housing and care; calculating upfront costs with different price points, as well as annual maintenance costs. I also selected the subspecies that would be best suited for our climate (and relative humidity) and identified several local BTS offspring for purchase. My wife, unprepared for this rapid onslaught of information, quickly yielded and we brought home the little monster a few weeks later. I have never had a cat, but I believe he is very cat-like in nature. He thrives on a diet of supplemented cat food, hisses when disturbed and generally stomps around giving judgmental looks from his perch, when not busy sunbathing. Appropriately, we decided to name him Scaleycat.
What it was like growing up in the Brecht household?
Encouraging, generous and supportive of any of our endeavors, my amazing (and extremely patient) parents provided my three siblings and me with a lot of latitude when it came to exploring our interests, indulging our creativity and embracing our yen for experimentation. On any given day growing up, my parents might wake to such hair-raising experiences as the “whoosh” of a bottle of coconut rum being ignited in a sauté pan in an effort to cook bananas foster; a family of voles rescued from a recent flood being fed pumpkin bread in the bathtub; or the faint glow of three young children using a blow torch to melt soldering wire to make home-made musket balls (inspired by a recent trip to a Revolutionary War reenactment) – please do NOT try these at home without the proper safety precautions! I am fairly certain that many in our small community thought my siblings and I were a bit odd. Needless to say, I think we all turned out just fine and we are extremely grateful that our parents enabled us to be the somewhat-weird, yet interesting people we are today.
What advice would you give your 10-year-old self about any future career prospects?
I am in total awe of my 10-year old self and would like to call on her for advice! At the young age of 10, I was obsessed with experimentation. At that age, I built a working incubator with a 10-gallon glass aquarium, a humidifier, and a desk lamp. If my present self was tasked with doling out the advice, I think I would want to impart two mantras that I have adopted in recent years: ‘done is good’ and ‘just take the next best step.’ As a born perfectionist, I can sometimes get so obsessed with gathering information that I get stalled at the gate. I want so badly to excel at everything that even still I sometimes struggle to give myself permission to take a first pass that is just okay, or less than great, and then make progress from there. I think maturity is accepting that you will never have all the answers and learning to make the best decision you can with the information in hand. Similarly, the second mantra reminds me that my successes, including my careers as an elite rower and a scientist, were not the product of a linear master plan, but of exploring the opportunities available to me at the time. I once attended a lecture where a visiting scientist demonstrated that the most skilled walkers, including ultra-marathon runners and bushmen, regardless of the speed or terrain difficulty, optimally look to plan their footfalls only two steps ahead of time. Thinking only one or two steps ahead helps me get to achievable goals at the bench and elsewhere, but still gives me the flexibility to adjust the path or destination in response to unexpected twists and turns in the road. I think that these lessons, letting the younger me know that her curiosity and yearning for adventure are her strengths, and encouraging her to be more brave and less perfect, would be the best wisdom that I could offer her, in terms of her future career and beyond.
In your opinion, why does science rock?
Science rocks because it gives you the tools to learn everything about our physical world. You don’t need to be a scientist to love and appreciate science, or all of the ‘biological miracles’ we experience daily. Take the simple task of eating your favorite food; now think about how incredible it is that hundreds and thousands of years of cultivation led to the creation and discovery of the delicious produce and spices in our grocery stores. Have you caught yourself smiling at a family resemblance; how cool it is that our DNA is essentially a protein cookbook written with a four-letter alphabet, and is responsible for all the diversity of life here on earth? Science provides an opportunity to create new knowledge — with very direct applications — and to shape the future in different ways. On a more personal level, it provides me with the tools to translate my natural abilities and talents into work that can potentially help other people, by leading to new medicines that may benefit human beings around the world.