Reflection and Growth in the Pursuit of Mental Health Research

In 2010, Cali Calarco met a mentor who would forever change her path. During her Amgen Scholars summer at Columbia University in New York, she was paired up to work with graduate student Cate Peña. 

“Cate has been one of my biggest mentors, champions, cheerleaders, and supporters over the last 10 years,” Calarco says. “She helped me with grad school applications, has taken me under her wing at conferences, and helped me with my postdoc search as well. As she is just the next career step ahead of me, her advice is always fresh, sound, and immeasurably helpful.”

Now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maryland, Calarco spends a lot of time paying it forward, actively involved in mentorship and mental health education and outreach, in addition to her neurobiology research. She credits her Amgen Scholars experience with helping her get into graduate school at Yale University right after completing her undergraduate degree at Vassar, and then her decision to continue in academic research. Her goal is to have her own lab one day — working to understand pathological brain function in the context of psychiatric illness. 

We spoke with Calarco about her educational and research path, her outreach activities, and her favorite memories from the Amgen Scholars Program (ASP). 

ASP: First, how are you doing in this pandemic? 

Calarco: While the pandemic has brought so many challenges, I have personally been very lucky in a lot of ways. My job has been stable, and my PI has been supportive of all of us maintaining our health, both physical and mental. I’m not at a transition point, neither finishing grad school nor starting my postdoc nor trying to go on the job market right now. Seemingly against the odds my family has so far been healthy (knock on wood). I have a stable living arrangement, and while I was very isolated for the first 3 months, I adopted a cat in May, who has been a great companion. 

ASP: How has the pandemic affected your work? 

Calarco: I am not sure I know how to truly assess the toll this pandemic has taken on my work. I miss the casual interactions with my lab and department peers very much. We also were not able to have summer students last year as summer research programs didn’t run, and undergraduate volunteers haven’t been allowed on campus since last March.

I try to hold on to a lot of self-compassion for managing to get anything done at all, but it is hard to shake the feeling that others are making better progress, and again, I am very lucky compared to others for what I have been able to do. In academia, that feeling of others somehow being ahead isn’t unique to the pandemic. It’s been a time of deep reflection and of confronting a lot of personal challenges. As we are approaching the one year mark, the anniversary is definitely feeling heavy. It seems unfathomable that a whole year has passed in this way. 

ASP: Stepping back, how did you become interested in science?  

Calarco: I always enjoyed science in school, but I enjoyed a lot of subjects, and didn’t find neuroscience specifically until college where I was able to take psychology and physiology classes for the first time. I think it’s no surprise I got hooked on neuroscience as soon as I found it. Who doesn’t find the brain to be a fascinating mystery? 

From my first lab experience after my sophomore year in college, I’ve been looking at how small genetic or pharmacological changes in the brain produce normal or pathological behavior, weaving together molecular work with behavioral outcomes, although the specifics have changed over the years. My desire to continue work like that helped me choose to participate in the Amgen Scholars Program the following summer, rather than pursue survey-based psychology research at my small, liberal arts college.

ASP: What’s your favorite memory from or part of the Amgen Scholars Program?

Calarco: Amgen Scholars was the first time I had ever been among a group of people that were all also interested in research. I felt like a kid at science camp, in the best way. I got to spend all day learning new science, and then got to explore New York City on the nights and weekends. I spent a big chunk of my stipend on Broadway shows — taking advantage of student rush, and lotteries — and solidified my love for bubble tea, which they sold in the campus center. My favorite memories are those I made with the wonderful people I met during the program, many of whom I am still friends with today either in real life or at least on Twitter, or both.

ASP: Can you talk more about being part of this Amgen Scholars community?

Calarco: Knowing I was part of a whole cohort of people all going through the same thing has been helpful in ways I could never have predicted at the time. I was the only one of the about 30 neuroscience majors at Vassar in my year who went to grad school right after college, but at least 50-75% of my Amgen cohort went on to Ph.D. or MD/Ph.D. programs. I even started my post doc in 2018 at the same time as a close friend from my Amgen Scholars cohort. Even though we are in different disciplines, in different cities, at different universities we can still commiserate over a lot of the same struggles of figuring out how to be a postdoc. 

In February 2018, Calarco had a surprise visit at Yale for her thesis defense from Cate Peña (left), her Amgen Scholars mentor.

ASP: What are you working on now? 

Calarco: My current work focuses on mitochondrial function in neurons in brain regions related to processing reward. Before I started my postdoc I couldn’t have told you much more than the mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell, but I’ve been really excited to be pushing the boundaries of this new research avenue. The brain uses so much of our relative energy, but how mitochondria support changes in neuronal plasticity and function is still not well understood. Even less work has been done looking at how drugs of abuse trigger changes in mitochondrial function in reward related pathways or how mitochondrial function might be unique to different brain regions and cell types. My postdoctoral lab is a leader in understanding cell-type specific changes in gene expression in the parts of the brain that are important for reward learning.

ASP: This work stemmed from your Amgen Scholars research, right?

Calarco: Yes, I got phenomenally lucky that the lab I worked in during the Amgen summer was closely related to the topics I wanted to continue to study in graduate school and in my career. My Amgen Scholars project, which was part of my mentor Cate Peña’s thesis work, helped me start to think critically about how individual differences in life experience can alter brain chemistry and lead to long term changes in behavior.

I don’t think I could have imagined anything about my life right now 10 years ago. I’m the first in my family to get a Ph.D., and I genuinely had no idea what I was getting into or where it would take me.

ASP: Did you imagine this is where you would be 10+ years later? 

Calarco: I don’t think I could have imagined anything about my life right now 10 years ago. I’m the first in my family to get a Ph.D., and I genuinely had no idea what I was getting into or where it would take me. I really loved grad school, even with all its challenges. It was a very transformative and formative time, although some of that is probably true of being in your 20s in general. For me, they will always be linked. I don’t think I could have predicted the personal growth that happened for me in grad school — how I learned a lot more than just scientific facts, but how to organize my thoughts and my time, and how to persist in the face of failure or daunting workloads. I have had wonderfully supportive mentors throughout my career and making meaningful personal connections over shared scientific interests and values has been one of my favorite parts about academia. I will continue to see how far this will take me as each day continues to be an adventure.

ASP: Can you tell us a bit about your outreach work in mental health?

Calarco: Because my research focuses on mental health, I try to work to combat stigma associated with mental health struggles and promote awareness. I was briefly involved in a non-profit organization whose mission was to increase education about mental health, emotional wellbeing and coping resources for middle and high school students.

I also have spent a lot of time working on science outreach to the local communities around my universities. At Yale, I organized and attended school visits, which is something I have continued to do in Baltimore as well. 

As New Haven and Baltimore are both cities with significant underserved populations, this outreach work has been linked to efforts to increase diversity in STEM, which is important to me. More than about 35% of the participants in Yale’s Pathways to Science program (which I volunteered with) would be the first in their family to attend college, and nearly 50% are from groups that are underrepresented in the sciences. 

ASP: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Calarco: I am always happy to speak with any current, former, or aspiring Amgen scholars. I will always be extremely grateful for what this program did for me, and I am honored to give back to the program however I can.