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Prebys Research Hero: Awardee

Lisa Stowers

Professor, Neuroscience

Dr. Stowers focuses on learning more about how the brain works in order to develop medications and therapies to treat a wide variety of brain-related disorders, from depression to dementia, and more.

“We believe that if we can understand the basics of how the brain is working naturally in a complex world, that will give us clues to be able to understand when it goes wrong in disease and dysfunction."

Dr. Lisa Stowers

Dr. Lisa Stowers on How Neuroscience Yields the Truth About Underlying Social Behavior

The brain is an extraordinarily complex organ, so it may be no surprise that we don’t understand much about how it works. Dr. Lisa Stowers, Professor of Neuroscience at Scripps Research Institute, is working to change that.

  

She was recently awarded a $500,000 Prebys Research Heroes grant, part of a $10 million two-year initiative that celebrates the contributions female scientists make in the field of biomedical and medical research, and which honors outstanding San Diego scientists as a key lever to create a more innovative, equitable, and collaborative medical research system. 

 

Dr. Stowers is exploring the brain’s basic structure to help other scientists study diseases like autism and Alzheimer’s. Stowers believes that it’s important to understand how different genes and proteins are involved in emotions. A key part of her research is figuring out how the brain processes feelings like joy, fear, and anger through smell.  

 

She observes that most brain medications were discovered by accident, not because we understand the scientific causes for dementia, anxiety, or a host of other diseases. She says, “We believe that if we can understand the basics of how the brain is working naturally in a complex world, that will give us clues to be able to understand when it goes wrong in disease and dysfunction.”  

 

Raised by a single mother and without professional role models, Dr. Stowers admits that her path to academia was uncertain. But she always liked science and after working as a technician post-undergrad, she “naively” applied to a long list of graduate programs and was accepted to Harvard. Succeeding in that institution’s rigorous program gave Dr. Stowers “ridiculous confidence and the psychological boost I needed,” she says.  

 

Since launching her lab at Scripps, her team has achieved a number of important scientific breakthroughs. In 2007, Dr. Stowers and her team found out that certain smells can make male mice act aggressively. Then in 2012, they discovered that mother mice have a special scent that makes their babies calm down and feed. These findings enabled her lab to discover how the brain is wired to work during emotions and natural behavior. 

 

Continuing to make breakthroughs like these may create pressure to achieve when science often moves very slowly. “If you start something, it might take three years to finish it,” she admits. “But it pays to be optimistic. Everything we learn is a step forward.” It’s this kind of attitude that Dr. Stowers brings to her methodology at the lab. She emphasizes the importance of asking good questions and trains scientists to approach their research with a similar curiosity. It’s no surprise, then, that Dr. Stowers brings a variety of voices to the table. “I’ve had people who were electrical engineers, had backgrounds in psychology or medicine,” she says. “I just hire people whose careers complement mine.”

  

Dr. Stowers’ career reflects her commitment to exploring the fundamental workings of the brain, particularly how it deals with complex social behaviors. Her leadership style is inclusive and caring, aiming to create an environment with an emphasis on questioning, curiosity, and diversity. Above all, she values balance, striving for a lab culture that fosters creativity, teamwork, and continuous learning. She encourages breaks to rejuvenate and maintain a fresh perspective on challenging problems, noting that back when she was naively starting her research career she worked for three years straight without a day off, which she now concedes is not conducive to creativity or effective efforts. “It’s such a privilege to think about science,” she says. “This privilege should not come with stress.”  

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