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Uncovering the Mystery of Memory

Posted on Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The brain is not only unique; it is also mysterious. Will there ever come a time when all the inner workings of the brain are revealed, and we can truly unravel its mysteries? ARCS scholar Sydney Boutros is moving us closer to that day.

Sydney is a PhD candidate exploring learning and memory in the Department of Behavioral Neuroscience at Oregon Health & Science University. Her primary research focuses on the mechanisms that lead to memory at a cellular level and ways these mechanisms can malfunction in diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Here she talks about her interests and accomplishments as a neuroscientist and her appreciation of the financial support she has received from ARCS Foundation.

Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?

My grandma always used to tell me how she thought I’d make a great scientist. However, I didn’t know any scientists and had no idea what a scientist did. To me, doing science for a living sounded boring, and I never really thought about it beyond that. In fact, I was excited to never take a science class again when I got to University of Portland for my undergraduate degree! That changed quickly, though. In my first semester, I took a psychology class on learning and memory, taught by Dr. Mark Pitzer. That class is where I was introduced to the excitement of neuroscience. My enthusiasm continued to grow as I took more neuroscience classes and began studying Huntington’s disease in Dr. Pitzer’s lab. 

How do you envision your research contributing to the advancement of innovation in the nation?

The excitement of that very first learning and memory class with Dr. Pitzer never left me as I continued in neuroscience. The topics I study now—what healthy memory looks like in the brain, and what drives neurodegenerative diseases—are still big mysteries in the field. With more and more Alzheimer’s diagnoses delivered every year, there is a clear need to understand the origin and progression of neurodegenerative diseases so that we can create effective treatments. I envision my research boosting US innovation by eliminating some of the mystery surrounding memory and neurodegeneration, helping us all work together to find a cure.  

What are you eager to investigate further in your scientific research?

I am really excited about identifying a genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Apolipoprotein E (apoE) is the strongest indicator for developing late-stage Alzheimer’s; people with apoE4 are more likely to develop the disease than people with apoE3 or apoE2. One of my current projects is looking at differences in brain activation based on apoE genotype. I’ve had the opportunity to use incredibly high-powered microscopes and fluorescent labeling to observe beautifully glowing brains!

What challenges have you faced as a woman in science? How are you overcoming those challenges?

The biggest challenge I’ve faced as a woman in science is not being heard. My opinions, comments, or ideas are often overlooked, only to be revisited later and enacted by others. I’m fortunate that my mentors support me and work to get the scientific community to pay attention to what I’m saying; however, it often takes them suggesting what I did to get another person to listen and accept it. It’s incredibly frustrating to be overlooked, but we are working to change that.

What advice would you give to young people, especially young women and girls, to encourage an interest in science?

Science is all about creativity and curiosity! I never thought of being a scientist when I was growing up because I didn’t understand what being a scientist actually meant. Now I get to ask questions every day and think of creative and innovative ways to answer those questions, continuously discovering new information about our brains! The other important thing to know about science is that anyone can be a scientist—you don’t have to be good at science or math in school to be a good scientist.

How do you achieve and maintain a healthy work-life balance?

When I’m not studying, working, or thinking about studying and working, I like to run. My husband, dog, and I often find ourselves in Mt. Hood National Forest on a Saturday, running through the beautiful trails together and enjoying the amazing environment of the Pacific Northwest. Running on trails is a way that I can leave absolutely everything behind and let my mind focus on the present beauty while also pushing my body physically. If I’ve been feeling especially stressed about school, nothing helps me relax more than a trail run.

How has your ARCS award helped you during your graduate years?

The ARCS award has been a huge stress-relief for me. Graduate student stipends, while enough to cover the basics of daily life, don’t leave room for savings, special occasions, or emergencies. The extra financial support from ARCS has given me the chance to enjoy life outside the lab. ARCS was a big reason my partner and I were able to get married during my second year and travel for a second celebration with his family in Beirut. I’m incredibly grateful for the support that ARCS offers, both in funding and in providing a caring community.


Learn more about how you can help advance the work of ARCS Scholars like Sydney!