Dr Diane Whitmer home
I first came to Barcelona many years ago as an undergraduate on a Spanish language study abroad programme. I then came back after finishing my PhD. to take a job at Starlab where I work as a researcher in applied neuroscience. I already knew the city and loved it and I came with an open mind as to how long I would stay.
The city has changed quite a bit. The pickle building [Torre Agbar] didn’t exist and there weren’t so many tourists. Back then, the people were very proud of the newly built Olympic village and we had the peseta. The Gaudí stuff is, of course, timeless.
Neuroscience is the interdisciplinary study of the brain and nervous system. Applied neuroscience could be described as the development of technologies (hardware and algorithms) for enabling neuroscience research. One example of applied neuroscience R&D is the field of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs); devices that allow people to move and take action based on brain signals alone.
I’ve been interested in maths and science, since I was a young child and my parents encouraged this curiosity. My interest in neuroscience started when I was an undergraduate and I took courses in neurobiology. I remember being especially fascinated when my professor explained that neurons are essentially analogue-to-digital converters.
I enjoy ‘mind’ films like The Matrix and Inception, even though they are far from reality. I was particularly impressed by the 3-D brain renderings in Avatar and the fact that they use the term ‘phase-locking’ to describe how close the character is to achieving the Avatar state. When I saw that, I thought, somebody has done their homework!
I have always worked in male-dominated fields so I’ve never really experienced the alternative. My impression is that women in these fields need to make an extra effort to find mentors and establish collaborations.
I didn’t find it at all difficult settling in at Starlab. Spanish people are extremely friendly and sociable, so it was fine.
There is almost nothing I love more than dancing. I took West African dance classes when I first came to Barcelona and I have also done a fair amount of salsa dancing. When I lived in San Diego I used to salsa dance for 10 hours a week.
Coming here to live, I found it hardest to adjust to the cigarette smoke...I took clean air for granted. It was hard for me to go to bars in the winter time. That, and the amount of dog shit on the sidewalk!
I prefer the mountains to the sea, especially being amidst green trees. It’s very restorative. I grew up in the mountains [in Massachussets], so it feels like home.
Modern society has developed a destructive relationship with nature and the environment. There was an article in The New York Times recently about some neuroscientists who spent a few days in the wilderness, exploring what happens when people get away from technology; there’s some evidence that their ability to retain information is improved.
We’re just at the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding how the healthy brain works and what gives rise to neurological disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. For example, there is a treatment for Parkinson’s called DBS (deep brain stimulation) and it is extremely successful in treating people’s symptoms and bringing back natural movement, but scientists don’t yet fully understand how it works.
I am currently reading Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer, which is about Mormon fundamentalism. It’s a fascinating look at an American subculture, a religion that was created in America less than 200 years ago.
I find creationism to be ridiculous. But the religion versus science debate is also silly to me because I don’t think there’s any contradiction there when you define a religion in terms of a set of cultural practices and traditions. Agnosticism is also much more interesting to me than atheism, because it leaves room for asking hard questions, which is actually what science is all about.