The Scientists – Dr. Kay Tye

The Scientists – Dr. Kay Tye

How do we know what’s true? How do we solve seemingly impossible problems? How do we make real magic? From Covid-19 to the climate crisis, every aspect of public and private life right now reveals our relationship with science and nature. Author Sasha Sagan speaks to female scientists, in different disciplines, born on different continents, about their work, their philosophy, and how they navigate the old boys' club of the lab in the Violet Online series, The Scientists.
Published: 2021/07/11
Updated: 2021/08/05
Sasha Sagan

I grew up with Dr. Kay Tye in the scenic college town of Ithaca, in upstate New York. She was a year ahead of me in high school and I was in constant awe of her easy-going confidence and personal style. In particular, one pair of brown corduroys that I struggled to duplicate for years. Now, 20 years later, I realize it was her breathtaking intellect—not her trousers—that I should have been coveting. Today, she's a groundbreaking, award-winning neuroscientist who studies the intersection of the mind and the brain with cutting edge technology. At the Salk Institute in San Diego, she runs her lab with an emphasis on creativity, diversity, and good vibes.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Sasha Sagan: What first drew you to neuroscience?

Dr. Kay Tye: Growing up, I'd always be wondering: I've got these feelings, I'm having this experience, what is this? What makes everybody different? When a song comes on, how come some people like it and some people hate it? We celebrate all of our differences, but what produces those preferences? How does it happen? And I don't mean on a psychological level.

I initially got into psychology and cognitive science. Then I got more interested in neuroscience, specifically. Emotions are very adaptive. People often say, "Don't make emotional decisions." But why not? Your emotional evaluation provides a summary, an aggregate—normalized and weighted based on motivational significance. It's an abstraction of everything that you already know. Making impulsive decisions has been conflated with making emotional decisions, and emotional decisions can be made on a longer timescale as well.

Using your emotions is a valid way to make an important decision— like, "Should I take this new job? Should I move? Should I marry this person?"You make a list of pros and cons, but those pros and cons don't all count the same. And emotions do that weighing for us automatically.

Can you talk a little bit about using hard science to study what’s usually allocated to soft science? How unusual is that? How difficult is that? What does that approach allow that either, on their own, doesn't?

When I was in graduate school, I had a chapter in my thesis where I used the word “emotion”. My thesis committee members were like, "You can't use this word ‘emotion’ in neuroscience." But I would say, “Why not?” Emotion is an internal state. You can't assess this objective state. All you can do is measure behaviour. I would counter, "But how do you know how another person feels?" If you walk into a room, there’s a stranger and you can say, "Oh, they seem stressed out." Or "This person seems really mellow and chill." How did you get that vibe? You got that vibe from observing their behaviour.

And it's such an evolutionary advantage.

Absolutely! And that's why it's so well conserved. Being able to tell what's good and bad for you, and running away from a predator or chasing food, is essential for survival.

I think understanding the neural basis of emotions will be the key to solving the mental health crisis, and potentially improving the quality of life of pretty much everyone in the world, because half the people in the world have a mental health disorder at some point in their life.

When someone has a mental health disorder, not only do they suffer, but everyone in their life suffers. If we could understand how the brain is tied to emotions, then we could actually treat mental health disorders. It's more prevalent than cancer. It's one of the biggest problems our society faces, and we don't have any idea what to do with it. We are just beginning to understand what the mechanisms are of how emotions are produced, and for therapeutic development, we essentially use trial and error — shooting in the dark. It's an extremely inefficient strategy for finding a treatment for mental health.

This is the last frontier. And it's not confusing why. The brain is super complicated, and it's scary to poke around when you don't know what you're doing. There have been many examples in history when people have poked around in the brain without knowing what they're doing, Devastating mistakes have been made. How do we avoid that? I think it's essentially just opening our eyes and looking where we're going.

How do you hope your work can change some of the stigma around mental health?

I am so glad you asked that question. It's one of the most important messages that I want the world to hear: Why do we treat mental health and physical health disorders so differently? People are afraid of what they don't understand. If we can understand more about the biology of a mental health disorder, then maybe we can also change the stigma.

Maybe your leg hurts. If someone said, "You should go to a doctor," no one would take that as a derogatory insult, it would be interpreted as supportive. Whereas if someone said, "You should get therapy," there's a stigma. It's negative. People want to run the other direction. Whereas if you have cancer, it's like a million bouquets, everybody wants to help. People are going to run a 5K for you. But if you're diagnosed with bipolar or schizophrenia, nobody's running a 5K for you.

What is that? I think the biggest problem with our lack of understanding of how the brain works is that we don't really see how it connects with the mind.

Can you describe how you would delineate between the brain and the mind?

One analogy from a computational theory of mind, that I think is pretty good, not perfect, is that the mind is like software, and the brain is like hardware. It's all on your computer, but you can wipe your hard drive and delete all the apps or whatever, and that changes what the computer can do now. But the computer is still the same. I think that's one way to think about it.

"I think curiosity is such a beautiful human capacity, and that's sort of my favourite thing about being a scientist. It encourages you to be curious. It's your job to follow your curiosity. What better job could there be?" - Dr. Kay Tye

So, in the lab, day to day, what do you do?

In the lab, we work on mice. We need to listen to the brain, listen to what the neurons are saying. Basically, they're sending signals to each other, electrical signals. We can record these electrical signals, see what neurons are saying, and then identify who they're talking to, where these messages are being sent, and which other neurons in the brain are listening. So that's recording.

The other thing that we do is manipulate—we do things to change what the neurons are naturally doing, and then see how that changes behaviour and what other neurons are doing.

The final thing is, we really look at behaviour. What do animals do, at a very high, detailed, quantitative level using cutting edge, deep learning approaches? Artificial intelligence, to measure, in a lot of detail, what subtle behavioural changes there might be. I think the really exciting thing about the field is just going to this extra level of precision. With all three of those approaches, recording, manipulating, and observing behaviour, there’ve been so many technological advances in the past decade or two. It's just an extremely exciting time to be a neuroscientist, and it's just incredible how the technologies that have emerged have really endowed us with the ability to ask questions we could never ask before.

What discovery makes you, personally, feel that thrill every time you think about it?

The thing that's been really exciting is that we found the cellular substrate, these neurons in the brain that seem to track loneliness. That was really exciting because loneliness was something that nobody had really attempted to discuss in the field of neuroscience before.

It was pretty scary trying to do it. A lot of people were sceptical, and at some points it felt like career suicide, to bridge this gap. I think, at this point, it's been really exciting because the research has been really influential. Now we actually reproduce that effect in humans, and found something to be true in mice, where we find these neurons that signal craving for social contact, the way that you might crave food or drugs.

Wow, that just blows my mind, because anger, love, joy, seem so much more fundamental than loneliness, which just seems somehow more abstract.

There are a lot of criteria for loneliness, which actually makes it easier to operationally define. It's got to be something that's unpleasant, that makes you want to seek social contact. It's not generalised anxiety or stress, it's something else. It's subjective, that's the hardest part, because you could be lonely on a crowded street in Manhattan, or you could be not lonely alone in your room. It depends so much on the context in your individual experiences.

So how do we tackle all this? We basically found these neurons that, if you activate them, it does all those things. It's unpleasant, it makes you crave social contact.

Interestingly, the degree to which these optogenetic manipulations did anything, it correlated with social rank. And that, really, was a key to think about subjectivity. Say you're an alpha, and you really enjoy your social environment. You get prime access to resources, you get to mate with all the females, and when you're isolated, it's unpleasant. Whereas if you're a subordinate, you're just denied all the prime access to resources, you're getting beat up all the time, maybe when you're isolated, you don't feel lonely, you feel great.

[It] has been a four-year project to get that platform up and running, and to be able to record and stimulate from the brains of animals while they're moving around, wirelessly. All this technology, and the idea is just to be able to see what's going on with an animal that's interacting with a social group.

As a scientist, as somebody who is strictly adhering to the scientific method for work, how does that philosophy, that method, inform other philosophical questions in your life? Religious, political, spiritual, whatever.

Of course, I use [the scientific method] a lot at work, but even at work, sometimes you just explore. You don't necessarily have a hypothesis. It's good to be able to design an experiment to test the specific hypothesis when you get to a certain point in the project, but sometimes you don't even know what the right hypothesis is, and you need to do a little exploring before you get to that stage.

I grew up in a household, and I'm sure you can relate, where when I asked my parents what religion they were, they'd be like, "Uh…science, let's go with science. That's my religion."


Science is my religion. At the same time, I'm also very comfortable with the reality that there are things going on that we don't understand. It doesn't mean they're not real, it just means we don't understand them yet. Just like mental health and spirituality. It's undeniable, the data are there. Meditation has profound effects, and because no one's yet designed the right experiment to study it doesn't mean it's not real. [There are] lots of things that are not considered scientific, but there's a lot of evidence supporting a correlation. And maybe we don't understand the mechanism, but I don't necessarily require a mechanistic understanding of everything to believe that it might be true.

I listened to an interview with you where you talked about the unanimous hiring process at your lab, and how much of an emphasis you put on having different perspectives in all senses. Can you talk to me a little bit about that?

I firmly believe that having a really diverse lab is really important for maximising creativity. If everybody's the same, and everybody's like-minded, it does make things sometimes easier, and there's less conflict. You might get some short-term goals done faster, but then you're stuck in that little channel. I'm always playing the long game. In terms of personality, in terms of culture, in terms of race, gender, you name it, I like having a really diverse group of people because that just makes it so much more interesting. We come up with ideas that cut across fields' boundaries. I love breaking down boundaries—it's my favourite thing to do.

It does mean that everybody has to learn to speak all these different languages. Computer scientists have to learn how to speak biology, and biologists have to learn how to speak molecular neuroscience. There are so many different languages. Neuroscience itself is one of the most interdisciplinary fields in biology there are. I think that's one of my favourite things about it. And it just keeps you free to explore any space. I don't want my lab to look like a bunch of cornfields all lined up in a row— it's so boring. I want my lab to be like a rich jungle, where you don't know what you're going to find next.

I think, key thing, the vibe is good in the lab. Okay, vibe. What is that? It is a gestalt assessment that predicts the likely trajectory of future interactions. That is kind of what I mean by vibe. People are like, "I don't know if we could fit." We just had a vote in my lab about a candidate, and someone who's new to the lab said, "Oh yeah, this is my first [time]. I don't know if a vibe check is appropriate to bring up." I'm like, "It's the main purpose of this meeting. That's what this discussion is for."

No number of skills or knowledge will override someone who's not kind and generous and easy to get along with, and communicative and open. We want to have an attitude of abundance. A rising tide lifts all boats. This is the type of mentality that I want to surround myself with.

Part of it is selfish—I just don't want to work with people who are grumpy. I want to work with people who are motivated and excited and inspired, and inspiring! In the long run, this is what's going to produce the most interesting and boundary-breaking type of science.

Okay, so this question of vibe—sometimes in a woo-woo way it’s called energy. It’s so fascinating that this emotional reaction is some of what you're studying, and it's also the central guiding principal of how you decide who else is studying it.

I feel like the things that I’m really interested in in science are things that are really relevant to my daily life that I just don't understand. What is up with this social hierarchy? Why does everybody cower to an alpha? How did they become the alpha? How does someone else become the alpha? When is it time to choose a new alpha? How do people decide which alpha they're going to go with? How does this all work? Having experiences in real life may definitely guide my research directions and my interests. It starts with just a feeling, and it starts with something I'm thinking about, not even in a scientific way. I'm just thinking about whatever problem or issue is before me.

It starts out like that, and then it becomes, "Wait, why is it like that?" It's just this desire to understand. I think curiosity is such a beautiful human capacity, and that's sort of my favourite thing about being a scientist. It encourages you to be curious. It's your job to follow your curiosity. What better job could there be?

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