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Research Week 2018: Not all neuroscientists study neurons

Kelly Monk, Ph.D.
Kelly Monk, Ph.D.,co-director of the OHSU Vollum Institute. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

Zebrafish, the brain's white matter and the success of young scientists — these are the passions of Kelly Monk, Ph.D., co-director of the OHSU Vollum Institute.

Monk investigates brain cells called glia. Basically, everything in the brain that is not a neuron is a glial cell. There are as many, if not more, glia cells than neurons in the brain, but compared to neurons, relatively little is known about glia and their function.

Monk studies the glial cells that make a fatty insulation — myelin — that covers neuronal projections called axons. Myelin makes up the brain's white matter, and it is the white matter that Monk's lab focuses on.  She is an internationally recognized leader in the study of neuron-glia signaling and cell-cell interactions, in particular, myelination. 

The transparency of zebrafish

In living organisms, myelin evolved when jaws evolved, so anything with a jaw has myelin. Mice and sharks have myelin, but Monk studies zebrafish because they are the simplest lab animal with myelin. 

"As a geneticist, I want to work on the simplest animal possible," says Monk. "If fruit flies had myelin, we would be working on them. But they do not, so we work on fish."

An added bonus of zebrafish is that they are transparent. 

"We can actually see myelin forming in the zebrafish," says Monk. "They are amazing animals — and there are a lot of people working with them at OHSU."

Kelly Monk, Ph.D.
Kelly Monk, Ph.D. studies zebrafish because they are the simplest lab animal with myelin. Her research could have major implications for diseases associated with a lack of myelin, such as multiple sclerosis. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

Monk was instrumental in establishing zebrafish as a new model for the study of glial cells and she identified new mechanisms that govern glial cell biology and neuron-glial interactions. Her research could have major implications for diseases associated with a lack of myelin, such as multiple sclerosis.  

The zebrafish community and the substantial number of glial cell biologists at OHSU were factors that contributed to Monk's decision to come to OHSU. Another draw was the opportunity to co-direct the Vollum. Her primary focus at the Vollum is the success of trainees and junior faculty.

Trainee success

One of Monk's roles at the Vollum is directing the neuroscience graduate program. She is working with Vollum professor Gary Westbrook, M.D., to build on the program.

"My goal is to improve graduate student life overall. We know they would like more teaching options, information and training for alternative careers and improved training for grant applications."

Improving training and supporting success for all trainees includes women and people with families. More than half of graduate students in biomedical fields are women. Of postdoctoral fellows, about half are women. But when it comes to applicants for assistant professor jobs, the number drops to about 25 percent. 

"Something is happening at the postdoc level," says Monk. "Women are self-selecting to not even apply for faculty jobs."

The speculation is that this drop-off has to do, at least in part, with family, particularly in families with two postdocs. So Monk has begun implementing programs and structures to support all postdocs and trainees at all levels. 

The Vollum has now started creating mentoring committees that will include the trainees' principal investigators, as well as other PIs from across OHSU and outside the institution. The goal is to help support the network building that is so critical in academic career success. 

Monk will also be making sure that postdocs have opportunities to meet with visiting seminar speakers. It is a simple way to help trainees make important connections. With her colleagues, she is also looking for more ways to help make connections in the industry. Whatever their goals, Monk wants to see Vollum and OHSU trainees succeed.

"It is likely that, as with most things, there are several intertwined factors. The solution will probably be multipronged. But we need to address that and provide the support women and families need to succeed."



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