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Non-profit founder, Wendy Marie Ingram, on building a global mental health network for academics

Wendy Marie Ingram: Executive Director at Dragonfly Mental Health

Understanding the Brain at a Molecular Level

Wendy Ingram always knew that she wanted to understand how the brain works. As a young child, the first super-power she wished for was an ability to read people’s thoughts. She was engrossed by writers such as Oliver Sacks and Kay Redfield Jamison, who explained the neural underpinnings of the human mind. Later, as an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, Wendy pursued a double major in psychology alongside biochemistry and molecular biology. While she began school as a pre-medical student with the intention of becoming a psychiatrist, Wendy joined a biochemistry lab and fell in love with scientific research. While she marveled at her ability to measure molecular attributes of proteins, she was at the same time disappointed by the comparatively imprecise content of her abnormal psychology course. She realized that the field of psychiatry knew relatively little about etiology of mental illness, much less how to ameliorate these conditions or even how state-of-the-art treatments really worked. “I got really excited about the idea of being a researcher,” she says, and “figuring out what we could use to revolutionize our understanding of psychiatric illness at the molecular level.”

To accomplish this goal, Wendy decided to pursue an unconventional educational trajectory. First, she started a Molecular and Cell Biology PhD program at the University of California Berkeley, a school which was so devoted to basic research that it had no medical school. “I knew I wouldn’t be tempted to get into working with patients or patient data during my PhD,” she explains. At Berkeley, she worked with Ellen Robey and Michael Eisen, studying Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite which infects the brains of mice and substantially changes their behavior, making them unafraid of cats (This is actually advantageous for Toxoplasma, which can only reproduce in the cats’ digestive tract).

From there, Wendy moved on to do a postdoctoral fellowship in psychiatric epidemiology, first at Geisinger Health, and then with the Johns Hopkins Psychiatric Epidemiology Training Program. “My interest in psychiatric illness never wavered,” she says, which was one reason why she specifically sought out training opportunities in hospital systems. During Wendy’s postdoctoral fellowship, she learned how to analyze electronic health records (alongside other population-level information) to identify patterns in the diagnosis and prognosis of patients with mental illnesses.

Dismantling the Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness

Over the last year, Wendy has been working as the executive director of a nascent international consortium, Dragonfly Mental Health, which is dedicated to improving access to mental health care within academia. Unfortunately, this is a problem she is all too familiar with. She and many of her colleagues have each struggled with mental illness, and she lost one of her closest friends in academia to suicide in 2018. At this point, Wendy realized that her career goals began to pivot; instead of searching for a professorship, she knew she wanted to use her expertise to improve health outcomes for her colleagues in academia. “We don’t have the time” to address the academic mental health crisis in the near future, Wendy says, “We need to find out what needs to be done before we keep losing friends.”

We need to find out what needs to be done before we keep losing friends

Wendy Marie Ingram

Dragonfly Mental Health was born at the 2019 I, Scientist conference in Berlin, Germany, where Wendy spoke about the state of mental health in academia then initiated and led a well-attended breakout discussion group on the same subject. The participants in this later group unanimously decided to found a network (then known as the Global Consortium for Academic Mental Health) which evolved into Dragonfly over the next few months.

Dragonfly conducts independent research into mental health initiatives throughout academia, evaluating current practices and offering evidence-based consulting services and interventions to universities, departments, and institutes. They provide education and training for many different audiences (including a free virtual workshop on Thursday, August 27th, which will teach participants how to organize their own peer networks). The organization also offers networking opportunities for academics through initiatives such as the Dragonfly Cafe, a peer support group which meets three times a week. Finally, Wendy has been collecting stories from people who have “succeeded” in academia–they’ve earned coveted professorships and gotten tenure — and yet still struggle to cope with challenges to their mental health.

How to Solve Problems

As a child, Wendy got a first-hand perspective on the impact that a tight-knit group of talented and determined volunteers can have. Her parents, who are both exotic animal veterinarians, started a wildlife shelter and rehabilitation in their Arizona home which has since grown into an organization which treats thousands of animals every year. Wendy talks about how inspiring it was to see her mother and a group of like-minded associates identify a problem that wasn’t being addressed, then take it upon themselves to make a solution. “With people and passion,” Wendy says, “it can work out.”

Wendy’s Favorite Books

Once a Scientist is made possible by support from our listeners! Each week, we ask our interviewee to tell us about their favorite books. If any of these reads catch your eye, you can support the show by using the links below to buy a copy for yourself!

Notes for this episode were written by Sam Asinof.

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