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Salk neuroscientist, Kay Tye, on work-life balance and reducing stigma in mental health

Kay Tye: Wylie Vale Chair of Systems Neurobiology at the Salk Institute

A little over a year ago, Kay Tye took the big step of moving her lab from MIT to the Salk Institute in San Diego. A true testament to her mentorship style, some 15 people in her Boston lab also uprooted their lives to follow and continue doing science with Kay. Since the move, the lab has really embraced their new southern California lifestyle, with regular surf breaks at the beach next to the lab, complete with a rotation for who will provide the post-surf burritos. In her chat with Nick, Kay paints an idyllic picture of a lab culture that effortlessly combines work and play — a model of work-life balance.

The Value of Balance

The atmosphere of the Tye lab is very important to Kay. Recently, she sent out a survey to her lab members to solicit anonymous feedback about how her colleagues felt about their work environment. Kay shares some of that feedback with Nick, including one response that posed a tough question: it’s great that Kay promotes a healthy work-life balance in her lab, but sometimes her trainees cannot help but wonder if promoting this balance is at odds with the way that Kay ultimately became a tenured professor, and whether being a so-called workaholic was something that benefited her earlier in her career.

It’s hard to miss the passion and intensity that Kay brings to all aspects of her life. One of the respondents to her survey even described her as “pathologically competitive” — which Kay finds funny and completely understands. It is certainly true that she works very hard as a scientist and often finds herself overcommitted. To that end, she’s not sure that she is any sort of authority on work-life balance. “I don’t feel like I’ve been great about having a work-life balance consistently,” Kay explains. For example, she describes her postdoc workload as essentially completing five years of work in two years. She didn’t want to miss the exciting developments with optogenetics when she joined the Deisseroth lab, and felt that she had to work extra hard to catch that wave. It was an amazing experience that she looks back on fondly, though she admittedly isn’t sure she could do it again.

I think striving and improving is the thing that connects all of the things I put energy into. I like the feeling of improving at something.

Kay Tye

Kay is the type to enthusiastically sign on to new projects even when she has a lot on her plate, yet no matter how hard she works, she pushes equally hard to maintain her social life and hobbies. Taking time for herself plays the crucial role of preventing burnout, so she brings her characteristic vigor to non-scientific endeavors, too. In graduate school, for example, Kay spent a lot of time competitively break dancing. (We fact-checked this — #APlus). “I think striving and improving is the thing that connects all of the things I put energy into,” Kay shares with us . “I like the feeling of improving at something.”

That buzz Kay feels from personal improvement gives her the energy to keep pushing. When she has neglected those parts of her personal life — as she feels she did during the first years of motherhood — the impact of losing that balance showed in her work. She just felt “a little bit less inspired.” Only when she revived that personal life did she feel the creativity return. “I kind of felt that excitement [for my work] comeback as I nourished myself.” It’s a lesson in why work-life balance deserves promotion in the workplace; maybe it’s counterintuitive, but playing hard can help you keep working hard.

Boiling Emotions Down to a Science

Kay has long been fascinated by emotions and their influence on our subjective experience of the world. The study of emotional processing was a fringe area of neuroscience when Kay was writing her dissertation; interrogation of sensorimotor systems was the predominant focus of neuroscience education at the time — perhaps because an objective behavioral output is more easily measured than a subjective one.

Studies of mental health and emotional processing are becoming more prominent, and may even be especially relevant in this new era of COVID-19. When a scientist wants to model depressive behaviors in the lab, one method is to expose the subject to a prolonged period of unpredictable chronic mild stress — a paradigm that Kay likens to many people’s experiences during the pandemic. Depression and other mental health problems are on the rise in recent months as people are tasked with isolating themselves and coping with constant uncertainty, almost as if the world is the subject of a poorly controlled social experiment. Closing the gap between psychology and neuroscience — an ongoing theme in Kay’s career — is becoming more vital by the day.

Kay is optimistic that as more scientists focus on the cognitive processes that produce our subjective emotional experiences, we’ll be better equipped to treat mental health issues in two key ways. First, we’ll be able to develop more targeted treatments. Most of the treatments that we currently have for mood or anxiety disorders treat the entire brain the same way, even though the relative contribution of different brain regions to the symptoms is almost certainly not identical. “When you diffuse a bomb, you don’t just dump it in a bunch of chemicals,” Kay explains, “you follow the wires.” The more we can dissect circuits within the brain and find druggable targets within that circuit, the more targeted (and hopefully effective) our treatments for mental health issues can become.

A greater understanding of emotional and mental health also means that we can start to strip away the stigma that often comes with a mental health diagnosis. While many scientists understand that the brain is the seat of our conscious experience, this is not a universally accepted truth. If we can identify the physical roots of our “mind,” Kay is hopeful that we will be able to justify the paradigm shift needed to confront mental health with the same compassion that we show for other health challenges.

Notes for this episode were written by Caroline Sferrazza.

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