Constanza Villalba, Ph.D., is senior science consultant for Wired to Win. When she was still a baby in her native Colombia, her six-year-old brother accidentally swallowed sulfuric acid and was essentially sent home to die. Her parents had the resources to bring the boy to Massachusetts General Hospital, and the rest of the family followed them to Boston a few years later. (After many surgeries, Connie’s brother survived to age 38.)
Connie’s plan to become a physician lasted until age 19, when she worked as an emergency medical technician. “That was when I realized that what interested me about medicine was the science.” The kind of kid with mud in her ears from crawling after salamanders, Connie started out as a zoology major at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
From salamanders to volesWhen her academic advisor at UMass suggested that she get some laboratory experience, Connie started working for Geert de Vries, a neuroscientist at UMass who was studying sex differences in the brain—a hot potato both culturally and scientifically. De Vries’ claim to fame was having discovered the first neurochemical difference between the sexes. He proposed that these sex differences in the brain did not necessarily give rise to differences in behavior, bur rather that they allowed the same behavior to take place in both sexes.
De Vries was working with prairie voles, a species in which males and females behave almost uniformly: they’re sexually monogamous, aggressively defend their territory, and care for their offspring almost indistinguishably. Yet male and female vole brains show large differences, particularly when it comes to a neurotransmitter-like compound called vasopressin. Male prairie voles had two to three times as much of it in certain brain areas, and De Vries wondered whether it was important in making males show behaviors that in females were promoted by other mechanisms. Vasopressin did turn out to be key: When injected into the brains of males that had not had pups, they became more paternal; a vasopressin antagonist had the opposite effect. Connie’s work went on to demonstrate that aggressive behavior, as well as parental behavior, is controlled by different mechanisms in male and female voles.
De Vries invited Connie to stay on as a doctoral student in the neuroscience program. While pursuing her Ph.D. she published some important research papers and was on a successful career track. Yet she began to be troubled by the 80-hour workweeks and the narrow focus of her research. “I was rarely encouraged to create a synthesis of the work or to put it into an evolutionary context, which disappointed and surprised me,” she explains.
Leaving the lab behindThe allure of a scientific career that wasn’t completely confined to the lab became clear to Connie on the day that Natalie Angier, a science writer for The New York Times, came to interview De Vries about his research. Connie took Angier on a tour of the neuroscience lab; the two women found each other’s work intriguing. Connie finally asked, “So you get to go around and see what all the cool and interesting labs in the country are doing—and you never have to clean up vole poop?” When the writer nodded, Connie saw an appealing new focus for her interests.
Connie applied for a fellowship that allows scientists to learn how cutting-edge research is translated and communicated to the general public. She then spent a summer producing science stories for Good Morning America, and realized she was hooked. “There’s no way I’m going to be a research scientist,” she said to herself, although she did complete her Ph.D.
Everything came full circle a few years later when she was asked to write a story for The New York Times about sex differences in humans; her story appeared opposite one by Angier. Always interested in documentary film making, Connie learned through a friend that the Wired to Win team was looking for someone with a background in neuroscience and media. She now works as a scientific advisor for Wired to Win and the educational materials that accompany the film, and is organizing a symposium for educators about neuroscience.
Learning to be an educatorFor Wired to Win, Connie answers questions about different neurological processes, finds anatomical renderings of the brain, and checks the script for accuracy. “I’ve been happy to learn what it takes to teach neuroscience to kids,” she says. The tested educational strategies include making model neurons out of Twizzlers and potato chips, dissecting sheep brains, and building rudimentary robots. The project does leave Connie a little time for cycling. She has a road bike, a mountain bike, and a commuter bike and finds that a long solo ride offers her a meditative break.
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Name: Constanza Villalba
Born: Bogota, Colombia, 1971
Where I go to watch IMAX films: Museum of Science in Boston
Job: Senior science consultant on Wired to Win
Education: B.S. in zoology, Ph.D. in neuroscience and behavior, University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Book/s I'd want if I were stranded on a desert island: The Danzig Trilogy by Gunter Grass
Favorite place to visit: Leticia, in the Colombian Amazon. I have a spider monkey friend there.
Favorite food: My friends all know that I absolutely love mashed potatoes. That’s what I’d take to the desert island.
Favorite artist/kind of music: Music by angry women: Melissa Etheridge, Sara McLaughlin, Tori Amos
Biking experiences: I’ve done some fairly intrepid mountain biking and gotten the bruises and scrapes to tell the story.