Marie-Françoise Chesselet PhD
Marie-Françoise Chesselet has spent the past 40 years working in neuroscience. She has been the Chair of Neurobiology at UCLA for 11 years, she has been a part of some of the biggest breakthroughs in the study of Parkinson’s disease, and she’s currently embarking on her next chapter: life after work. This interview is a reflection of her time in the field and her hopes for the future.
Do you remember your first week in LA?
Oh sure. I moved here with my son, who was nine at the time, while my husband stayed behind in Philadelphia for an additional year. We rented a car from the airport and, of course, I started by getting lost. [Laughs] That shouldn't be a surprise.
My son’s teacher had told us about Trader Joe's, so I was lost and suddenly I saw this sign and I said, "Oh David, that's what your teacher told us about. We should go in." So there we were in Trader Joe's, and it had everything you couldn't get in Philadelphia. They had all these French products like mustard and good bread. Things you can't find in Philly because they have a very limited selection. And I thought I had died and gone to heaven. [Laughs]
So that was my introduction to California.
That's a good start.
When my husband came for the first time a couple of weeks later, we surprised him by laying out a table with everything that we would normally buy in France. California was more French to us than Philadelphia, even though it's much farther.
Is your husband French, as well?
No, he's American but we spend a lot of time in France. I grew up mostly in Paris and I spent some years in Brussels, as well.
What brought you to America?
I already had a permanent scientific position in France and I wanted to take a sabbatical and come to the US for a little while. I wanted to learn the other side of what I was doing. I chose to come to Boston. I went to MIT for two years as a visiting scientist.
I had met my husband when he was studying in Paris. We started dating but we thought it was just a fling, because he was the American in Paris and was going to leave. When we came to the US, we continued seeing each other. He went to the NIH [National Institutes of Health], which is in Bethesda, a suburb of Washington that is very, very boring. I was in Boston, so he would come visit me for the bookstores. Not necessarily for me. [Laughs]
We continued seeing each other and at one point we decided to stay together. It was practically impossible for a young American to have a permanent position in France at that time. Things have changed now, but at the time, to have a lab meant you usually have to wait much longer than in the US and he was certainly impatient to get his own lab, so I stayed with him.
What made you decide to study neuroscience?
I have an MD because in the French system you would go to medical school right after high school. So I had to make a decision and I decided to go to medical school. But I very quickly realized that I preferred to do research rather than take care of the patients.
Studying medicine really helped me in the course of my career; it gave me the bigger picture. As a scientist, you have to focus very, very deeply. In medicine, you learn that everything is connected to everything. I think that that's very helpful, but I didn't practice beyond my training.
So I'm a neuroscientist. The reason why I chose neuroscience is because I felt it was the field in which there would be the most breakthrough and novel findings in my lifetime. And I think that’s been true.
Wow. That was your perspective going into it?
Yes. My father was a scientist, but he was an oceanographer and that really turned me away from oceanography. Not that I didn't like it. In France, being a small country, I was really afraid that anything I would do will be attributed to nepotism. Being in a completely different field was much of my motivation.
Did you ever have a moment when you thought, “Maybe I want to do something else?”
No. When I chose medicine I really had no idea that I would go into science. I chose medicine because I thought it gave me the broadest choice. I went to Africa when I was 20 and I was really interested in tropical medicine and I said, "I can do anything if I go into medicine." It was a portal.
It was during my second year in medical school that I took my first class in biochemistry and I said, “That's it. I want to do research.” But I wanted to finish medicine first because everybody, even in the ‘70s, was telling me that there was no work in science so I wanted to make sure I had security. For me, medicine was giving me security and I even did a specialty of occupational medicine because I figured I could always get a job if I had the qualification to be an occupational physician.
That was my motivation. I'm from a very matriarchal family where my grandmother was always telling us that we should never depend on the men. We should always have a job. She would always praise the girls much more than the boys in the family.
That's so interesting from a woman of her generation.
She was born in the 1900s and she only worked for wages during the war when my grandfather was a POW. She had no qualifications to work ,so she waitressed. But she absolutely felt that girls should be independent.
Where did that come from?
Her own conviction about being independent, not asking for money from anybody. She always said that my grandfather was very generous with her, but she still felt dependent and she couldn't stand it.
When did you decide to focus on Parkinson's and Huntington's disease?
When I started being interested in neuroscience, I didn't know at all what I wanted to do. I was interested in the neurotransmitters in the brain. That generation of neuroscience was focused on the idea that information in the nervous system is carried by electricity. This research was led by electrophysiologists.
Just when I was getting into the field, chemical neurotransmission was being recognized. I felt that chemical neurotransmission was giving the field so much more opportunity, so I was really interested in it. It wasn't even taught at the time. I talked to my friends about it and they said that there was a scientist who just came back from the US and was talking about chemical neurotransmission and they encouraged me to go see him. So I did and he became my Ph.D. adviser. He was really creating the field of neurochemistry in France.
When he came back from the US he couldn't even get a lab. He couldn't get a job because nobody believed in what he was doing. It's really amazing when you think back—in the span of 40 years, really, this scientific field made an immense difference. It was really exciting to be part of it.
When I was 17 or 18, all I wanted was to be a part of it. Not that I had any ambition to make great discoveries; I never had that, but I wanted to be able to be in the field so I could understand what was going on. That was the motivation.
What about getting into Parkinson’s specifically?
That's a good question. It's related to the fact that I was interested in neurotransmission. The major treatment for Parkinson's disease had been discovered in the late ‘60s, not long before I started getting involved. That's the use of L-DOPA, which is now what's what every person with Parkinson's takes. Have you ever seen the movie Awakening?
Oliver Sacks wrote a book about the experience of using L-DOPA in people who had encephalitis, something similar to Parkinson's disease, after World War I. People that had Parkinsonian symptoms were completely still and couldn't move, but with L-DOPA they could start moving and talking. At the time it looked miraculous. When you think about it, it is miraculous. Not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and it does not prevent the disease from progressing. It was extraordinary to me because it was a discovery that really changed people's lives but that was based on basic science. It was based on understanding the brain, understanding the disease, and taking it to a transforming therapy.
So wanting to work in that field was largely motivated by the fact that the one person in France was doing what I was interested in. When I got into the lab he assigned me to a group where I didn't work on Parkinson's disease, but I worked in the area of the brain and the mechanisms that are affected by Parkinson's disease. It was very basic science. I didn't really work on Parkinson's disease until maybe 15 years ago. I was working in the areas that were affected by the disease but not on the disease itself. What made me move to work more on the disease itself was that in the late ‘90s, some genes involved in the cause of Parkinson's disease were identified. So at that time it became interesting for me to work on the disease.
Because of that discovery?
Yes, because it was no longer a black box. There was a way to really study it.
But the cause is unknown?
It's unknown but it's like a form of Alzheimer's disease, so there is a very small proportion of patients that have a familial form. In terms of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, the mechanism that is affected by the mutation of the gene is also affected in people who don't have the mutation. It gives you a key to understanding what happens in people that do not have the mutation. It's a way in. That fact became much more scientifically interesting for me to study it.
What was that moment like when that knowledge was discovered?
It was better than that, because I was at a workshop where it was discovered. There was a discussion between somebody who was a geneticist and somebody who was a clinician who had gathered information from a unique family in New Jersey and tested their blood but he wasn't sharing his discoveries. So in front of members of the National Institutes of Health and the whole group of colleagues, the geneticist challenged him to give him access to the material and this geneticist found a gene. I was at the workshop. I was there at that moment of discovery.
Are those moments the things that sort of keep you going as a researcher?
Oh, completely. When you discover something and you know that you are the only person in the world who knows that thing. It’s something completely novel, something that nobody suspected before. It happened a few times. I didn't find the PD [Parkinson’s disease] gene but the two aspects of what I’m talking about are: 1) when you find something that nobody knows even if it's a small thing, 2) being a part of the whole enterprise and understanding what’s going on.
You recently retired. How do you feel about that?
Well, I had decided a long time ago that I would retire this year. In part because I want to spend more time in France but also because I feel it's time to retool and spend time doing what I enjoy. I used to enjoy doing the experiments, running the lab, running the department…. I enjoyed all of those things, but at this point I would like to spend my time thinking and writing and putting those two things together.
Be a little bit more focused on yourself.
Rather than on other people. I would be kept awake at night wondering how I was going to feed the people in my lab for the next months. [Laughs] When you are active in research, you really have to focus a lot.
I really like to read and I think that’s where interesting ideas come from. I used to do that a lot at the beginning of my career. There are a lot of new techniques to be learned from reading journals on cancer and things that have nothing to do with my field. But as you go deeper into your field and you accumulate more responsibilities, you can’t afford that time anymore. You spend so much time in the daily monitoring, daily managing, the survival to keep funded, to keep your lab running. I would like to have more time to read.
It’s an interesting parallel with many careers. I have spoken to a lot of women who have started their own businesses out of a passion for something. But the work always becomes focused on the business and 20 percent is left over to do the thing you loved in the first place.
Exactly. So, I want to go back to 95 percent of what I love.
How do you feel being at this junction in your life?
You always give up something up. When I was cleaning my office I found files for old projects I kept thinking that one day I would revisit, but now I never will. There are moments of sadness when you leave things behind. It’s like when you move; you may be excited about your new house but you still have some things you love about your old house. It’s human.
What about looking back over the span of your career?
Well, I don’t really dwell so much on the past. But with these five weeks I took to clean up my office, I was really going from moments of sadness for things that I will never do or I did not succeed at and moments of complete joy and remembering the great people I met along the way.
It’s funny when students talk to me about their careers and they say they don’t want to go into science because they are a “people person” and they want contact with people. Science is the most people-oriented activity, more than medicine. In science, you are never on your own and you develop these long-term relationships. It’s teamwork.
What’s the perception of being a scientist?
Women, in particular, often think that they have to sacrifice having a family or another interest to be a scientist. You do have to be passionate about science to do it. That is absolutely clear. If you do it as you would do any other job, don’t go into science. You have to feel like this is the one thing you can do with your life. There are things that you will “sacrifice,” of course, but it shouldn’t matter.
So, you can have a family, you can have friends. There are a lot of things I gave up, but I didn’t give them up because I had to give them up. I gave them up because the only thing I wanted to do was to spend my entire weekend working.
I have one child, but I have friends who have been very successful scientists and have three or four children. They are just very organized.
Over the last 40 years have you seen more women go into science?
Certainly compared to when I started. When I entered medical school, there were maybe 5 percent women and when I ended my medical school it was closer to 30 percent, only three years later. That’s medicine, not science. But still, there are a lot of women going into biological science. It’s even less for physics and chemistry.
It’s very disheartening for me to see a woman think that she has to sacrifice having a family to go into science. Maybe you can’t be a full-time scientist and also have six children and live in a big house with five dogs, but everybody makes a choice, right?
What was it like being the chair of the department at UCLA?
I had been the chair of the Department of Neurobiology for 11 years, until 2013. I stepped down from that because I wanted to do it for ten years and not longer, but then I was recalled to be an interim chair of neurology, although I am not a neurologist. But there was a transition period and because I had experience being chair and I had been the member of that department for almost 20 years, the dean asked me to serve in that capacity.
It was very interesting being in that position, because it was learning experience. I was in an interim position, so it was not my place to make long-term decisions for the department but to make sure that I handed the department in good shape to the successor, who happened to be one of my trainees.
Really? I’m sure you’ve influenced a lot of people along the way.
I hope. It’s like being a parent. You always feel that some of your trainees will achieve what you have not achieved, and that is the best part.
The beauty of science in the US is that your trainees are all over the world. The greatest pleasure I have is not only that they keep in touch, which is nice, but that they interact amongst themselves. When you are in your formative years in the lab, that’s where you make your connections and the people you grow up with in the lab. You really have a level of appreciation for each other that you can never have in society. That kind of relationship is really unique.
What about looking forward and the future of Parkinson’s disease?
Obviously we all want a cure. We want something that will stop the progression of the disease so that we can treat people very early on so that they may have only symptoms or in some cases we could even prevent it. That’s what we all wait for and that’s what we always work for.
I think it’s been harder than anybody expected. People thought that once we knew what we know now it would be easy to treat but it’s not because it’s so complex, and that’s true for all of the diseases, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Huntington's, all of those.
Is it true that we still know so little about the brain?
We know little, but I think we know a lot in terms of treatment. We don’t need to know everything. We will probably never know everything. But think about aspirin or morphine, which has been a miracle pain reliever for centuries. People have relieved pain with them for years without understanding the mechanism at all. People don’t die in childbirth as often as they did 100 years ago.
It’s such a rapid change.
When you look at what medicine has accomplished in terms of infection, in terms of cancer, it’s amazing. I have many friends who are cancer survivors and they would not have survived if they had it when I started doing this.
What is the best piece of advice you could give?
I had just had my son and I was in standing in line and a woman friend asked me, “So, how are you doing? How are you surviving?” And I said, “Well you know, day by day.” And standing in the line was this absolutely wonderful woman, a winner of the National Medal of Science, who turned to me and said, "Never let anybody tell you that you can't have a family and be a scientist, because women have much longer careers than men."
It was so nice of her to say that. It completely resonated. Don’t let anybody say you can’t have a family. And that’s really why I am so passionate about explaining to young women that they can do it.
Another thing I learned especially for women is…. I cannot say this is in a sentence but I will tell you the anecdote. When I was at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, I became the president of a learning society, which is a local society at the university where physicians and scientists meet several times a year. They have cocktails and they listen to a couple of talks. They had not had a woman president, so they picked me. So I decided that at each function there would be a man and a woman doing the talks.
They usually showcased young faculty members that had just been hired. At that time it was not electronic so I would get paper files of candidates. There was one remarkable woman after the other. So I would contact one man and one woman for each month. Every single man said, “Oh, yes. Thank you very much. I am honored to do it.” Every single woman said, “Oh, maybe I should do it next year when I will have more data? Maybe I should go a few times first so that I know what to do?” That was really an eye opener. Women can’t push themselves to be affirmative enough and those were extraordinary women. I really had to convince them to do it. The guys saw the opportunity.
I had this exact conversation with another woman featured on Bird, Lauren Rosenberg. A guy will see a job and just go for it but a woman will see a role and think she’s not experienced enough.
It’s exactly that. It’s exactly the same thing and not being confident in yourself as a woman. It’s interesting that this woman had exactly the same experience and it’s too bad that it’s still like that.
I think we are in an interesting time now where we’re seeing a lot more collaboration amongst women and hopefully with that will come confidence.
It’s important to not to shy away from supporting other women. A phenomenon that’s well known is that if you have a man and a woman going for an election, usually not too many people vote, but the woman will be elected because other women vote to make sure that they support the woman.
What does science mean to you?
It’s the only thing I could possibly imagine doing with my life.
Photography by Magdalena Wielopolski ©