Paola Arlotta

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Dr. Paola Arlotta is a Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology at Harvard. She is originally from Italy, receiving her Bachelor's and Master's degrees from University of Trieste. She completed her PhD between Harvard University and the University of Portsmouth. 


1. In layman’s terms, explain what you do. 

I create new experimental models to study the human brain using pluripotent stem cells. Doing this allows scientists to understand and study the human brain without needing one. I am also a mentor, who attempts to inspire the members of my lab and help them build the skills and confidence they need to work in a lab.

2. Can you explain how exactly the brain develops as an embryo, and how this information can be used to regenerate the brain in later life?

When embryos are forming, cells begin to differentiate. Some from the ectoderm some becomes the neuroectoderm that becomes the nervous system.  This folds into a tube. At the front, you find the cerebral cortex is where most complex processing occurs. We have learned a lot about what occurs there from studying it in mice, but we know less about how it works in humans. One force in how this occurs is transcriptional factors that tell cells what to do. Another is the mechanical force of how the tube is structured and pops into vesicles and bends in particular ways. Another is activity, how cells communicate with each other and send an electrical impulse to each other. Even after you are born, the brain is not finished, it continues to grow. When a baby is born, the brain is built but it has not incorporated the reality outside. That happens through learning or is experience dependent.

3. If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently 

I did not plan my career. Many successful scientists did not have a planned path. I think that is a strategy. Follow your heart and your passion.

4. Why did you become a scientist?

I remember even in elementary school, I enjoyed learning even silly and simple things like why leaves changed colors. I would spend a lot of time picking up things like flowers and worms, but I was never really obsessed with science.

In high school, I had an amazing science teacher. He was so motivated and inspirational. He would teach us stuff that you normally don’t see until college in a way we could understand. I would look forwards to those 2 hours a week of bio! I was very lucky as I have a very loving caring family who never pushed me towards one career. They valued education; but they told me to do what you like, what you are passionate about. So, when the time came to choose what I wanted to do when I was 19, I was between chemistry, biology, and medicine. I had a feeling that I liked to look for things, and I chose biology.

5. What is your favorite aspect of your work? 

That I don’t know it is work! I love it. I’m not saying that it is easy. There are consistently problems to solve, things to think about, and questions we can’t find answers to. It is a lot of work. I am constantly teaching, giving seminars, or mentoring my students. There is never a dull moment. I like to come here, even on Monday morning!

6. What does being a scientist mean to you?

It means getting very excited about some questions like: why do things work this way? How can we solve this problem? It is thinking about them without even realizing it! It is also practical. Sometimes it is hard, but at the core of it is the excitement you get from thinking of questions and once in a while answering them. It is also a feeling of discovery

7. What has been your greatest failure, and what have you learned from it?

Especially for women in science, not only; but especially, one thing that is really hard to deal with is that around the same time you start your real career in science is the same time that you want to start a family. I think this is why there are not as many women who go on to become professors or start their own labs. I feel strongly that I am a mum before anything else, and I have always wanted to have a family. I had my kids when I wanted to have them, but I also had them at the worst possible time from a career standpoint! I had my daughter as a post doc, so I was doing very hard work at the lab, had a baby at home and no money. I had my son around the same time I started my own lab. I think at the very beginning of my lab, I was not able to balance everything out. I should have taken more time off when my children were born. I thought it would have affected the lab and my students but I think I could things differently. I know now that you can succeed anyway, even if you take the time off. When my daughter was born, I made one of the best decisions I’ve made. I decided that I would not go back to the lab over the weekend. That isn’t standard. Especially when labs are young there is a so much work to do, people think you must be there over the weekend. I believe that that time should be protected as it family time. Sure I do a bit of work over the weekend, but I am physically present. I do not think this affected my career in any way, and I can balance work and family life!

8. What is your greatest achievement in science?

This is a bragging thing! So far, every single post doc in my lab, which is about ten years old now, who wanted to go on and have a faculty position, went on and got a faculty position! I am very proud of that. Some of them are already changing the face of the field, and others are beginning to change the field. The philosophy of the lab is one of growth, mentorship, and discovery and is being spread further to more students.

9. What has been the biggest change you have witnessed in your field of science?

We used to study one cell at a time, one region of the brain at a time, one mouse at a time. New technology has transformed the way we do science. We can now look at all cells together, and multiple models. The scale of science has grown due to technology. Science is also becoming more and more of an interdisciplinary endeavor. Nobody can be an expert in every field you need to discover something. Back in the day you could be an expert in a very narrow field and have a very successful career.  Today you have to bridge many fields, from stem cells to genomics. Science is a lot more collaborative and there are fewer boundaries.


10. What problem would you most like to see solved by science in the next 10 years?

In my field, I would love to see a better understanding and treatments of psychiatric disease.


11. What motivates you?

I’m passionate about what I do. I really can’t stop thinking about it. My work gives me happiness and pleasure. I can tell you the work I do is not motivated by money because you do not make a lot as a professor! I think at the end of the day I am motivated by discovery and the thought I could contribute to the field?

12. What one book do you recommend everyone read?

Pasteur and the Invisible giants. I find it fascinating how with very little technology he was able to make so many discoveries. I always give this book to freshmen who don’t know if science is for them. I tell them to read this book and if they aren’t moved to reconsider.

13. What is the best piece of advice you have received?

Do what you like. Do what is in your heart. You’ll never be successful at something you don’t like.

14. If you could have dinner with anyone alive or dead, who would you choose?

Barak Obama, I would love to know what he is thinking these days.

15. What is your favorite movie?

My favorite funny movie is My Cousin Vinnie. I also love La Dolce Vita. I know that it is old and overused but it is a great movie.

16. What question did I not ask you that you want to answer and share with the readers?

Why are girls afraid of science? Is science a scary field?

It is not scary. Girls have the same capacity as boys to do science. If you like it then it is the best job you could possibly imagine! You get paid to think! Do not be influenced by stereotypes. If you know you like it, go for it.

17. What helps you think?

I’ve never had the perfect conditions to think, I learned to study in big noisy rooms with lots of people. I can think independently from where I am. I need to be happy and I need to feel balanced.


18. If you could go back in time what advice would you give your high school self?

I took things very very seriously every step of the way. I was an A student at school, I studied like crazy, and never really went out with my friends. It took me a long time to realize there could be balance there. Take yourself less seriously, maybe you will become more creative. Think outside of the box and don’t be afraid to be creative. Try to do something new and different. Follow your heart and passion. Don’t set your path too soon.

19. What would you say are the top three skills needed to be a successful scientist?

  • Scientist at heart
  • Good taste in people- find the balance between being firm and creating a family atmosphere
  • Communication

20. How has your gender shaped your experience in science?

I never felt like I was discriminated against until the end of my post doc. I had a baby, and I felt like it was not working as well. It was not imposed by others; it was done myself. It should be easier for new mothers in academia. I think this stage in life, is why many women do not go on to have labs. It is why there are more men than women in leadership positions – especially in STEM.


If you have any more questions or would like to reach out to Dr. Arlotta, her email address is paola_arlotta@harvard.edu


Shreya PatelComment