banner by Helen Richard

The Pitt Pulse Spotlight: Dr. M & House of Mind

by Cassidy Power

“When I started, there was nobody like me,” says Dr. Millie Rincón-Cortéz, or Dr. M as she’s more commonly known on social media. After finishing her undergraudate eduction at the University of Puerto Rico in March of 2010, she created a tumblr account to fulfill the previously untouched niche of neuroscience blogs. “The blog has pretty much grown up with me,” she tells me, laughing. It’s evident in the way her content has evolved that her blog, House of Mind, truly has matured along with her. House of Mind has chronicled her career in neuroscience, from graduate school at NYU to a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh.  The first post, dated March 23rd, 2010 is titled simply ‘Neuroscience’ and is accompanied by a brief definition. At this point, House of Mind wasn’t much more than a study tool. Today her latest posts include bits and pieces of many aspects of her life as a neuroscientist such as discussions on scientific studies, answers to fan mail, updates on her career, and selfies in graduation attire. These are all components of how Rincón-Cortéz seeks to give back to the community.

She doesn’t want to be “one of those scientists that just took, took, took and didn’t give anything back.” To Rincón-Cortéz, being a scientist, especially doing government funded research, involves a responsibility to communicate findings and information to the public. With most research locked behind paywalls, the public oftentimes doesn’t have access to the research funded by their taxes. Science communications, or ‘sci-comm,’ is a field that attempts to bridge that gap. Science communicators run social media accounts, write articles, and give interviews focusing on providing scientific information in terms laypeople can easily understand and enjoy. It’s a common field for scientists who leave academia; fifty percent of the scientists that Rincón-Cortéz knows are now science communicators. Rincón-Cortéz herself at one point had sci-comm in mind as a backup career.

When she started House of Mind, there were very few in the field, but in 2013-2014 the sci-comm community boomed. It grew to the point that conferences would hire science bloggers and social media connoisseurs to cover the events. The Society for Neuroscience has hired Rincón-Cortéz for many years as a conference blogger. While she doesn't directly make money off her blog, positions like this allow her to network and generate exposure. She’ll get invited to cover events through Twitter and will be compensated in items such as lab equipment. It’s been an extremely useful career tool to the point that she includes her blog on her resume.

While House of Mind has garnered a small portion of followers within the scientific community, most of its audience is high school students and undergrads trying to decide if the science world is right for them. That’s where Rincón-Cortéz built her following. One of her most popular posts is from her grad school years, called “Things I learned during my PhD.” Rincón-Cortéz gives advice about the realities of being a PhD candidate, discussing how to cope with impostor syndrome and the ever-looming PhD defense. “I try to be objective and portray my life like it is and hopefully that will steer some people towards neuroscience and feed people’s curiosity.” In addition to giving advice and discussing studies, Rincón-Cortéz hopes that being a visible Latina scientist will encourage women and people of color to remain in science. “The issue is not getting [minorities and women] in.” Women outnumber men in most biological science undergraduate and graduate classrooms, yet there are scarce numbers of women with careers in academia. As a member of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology Minority Task Force, Rincón-Cortéz is able to quickly rattle off a variety of ways to improve these numbers. “The first step is awareness and the awareness is already there.” What comes next? Rincón-Cortéz suggests giving maternity leave and enforcing laws that state it’s illegal to ask a woman in a job interview if she’s pregnant, married, or if she intends on having children.  Addressing the wage gap and implicit bias are also key components of helping women to stay in academia. “This is the only thing we can see ourselves doing so we’re willing to fight that fight,” Rincón-Cortéz tells me of life as a woman of color in academia. She says that she’d like to see more men and white people going to training sessions and doing the work to help level the playing field. “We already know we’re at a disadvantage,” she says. It’s time that others chipped in. Rincón-Cortéz describes how science societies often claim to want more diversity, but that they need to put their money where their mouth is. She believes that if they pledge to increase the diversity of the recipients of their grants and scholarships, they need to choose a percentage that will go to various disadvantaged groups.

Rincón-Cortéz says that most of the hateful comments her blog has received occurred when she no longer was anonymous on House of Mind. When people saw her for the first time, they commented “What the fuck, you’re a girl?” Others were angry that they had been “listening to a Latina.” Readers assumed that since she ran a science blog, she must be a white male. Rincón-Cortéz is passionate about the relationship between the public and the scientific community. As a scientist on social media, she is innately aware of the public perception of scientists. “Most of the public can’t name a living scientist,” she tells me, when in reality, they probably know quite a few people in academic science. Often times people will have an idea in their head of how a scientist is supposed to look or act, which can cause many scientists to describe their profession as ‘professor’ or some other derivative. Due to academic hierarchy, many scientists don’t feel comfortable identifying as a scientist until after they’ve achieved a doctoral degree. All of this compounded can add to the general public mistrust of science. As a science communicator, Rincón-Cortéz says that in order to strengthen the public perception of science, “people need to own the scientist label.”

Rincón-Cortéz uses her social media to humanize scientists and break down some of the stereotypes. She doesn’t want to be perceived as someone who only does science. However, this blurs the lines between her public image and her private life. Because her twitter and blog have her name attached, she has to filter herself, leaving no real place to vent. Yet she states that “in academia you kinda have to be a positive person to succeed,” so she doesn’t miss that aspect of anonymity. Rincón-Cortéz goes on to say that being a scientist isn’t just a career, it’s a lifestyle. The way to be successful, she claims, is to give up that personal side.

To Rincón-Cortéz, research provides an excellent career. She cites flexible hours, ability to travel, and the community as key aspects of careers in science. She also talks at great length about the feeling she gets when she’s in the lab, generating data, and realizes that she’s the only person in the world that possesses that knowledge. Yet Rincón-Cortéz always circles back to the community to which she belongs. “You create your own tribe, you grow up together… these are people that are smart, brilliant. You have this cohort of friends,” she tells me, describing the atmoshphere in which she works. She contrasts this with other industries that require frequent location changes that make individuals need to start their life over. Her blog provides further ways to connect with what she calls her ‘cohort.’ Rincon-Cortez’s reach with her fellow burgeoning neuroscientists is exemplified by an encounter in a lab during graduate school. She sent one of her blog posts to her classmate, as it was relevant to what they were working on. Much to her surprise, the classmate recognized House of Mind, and was apparently a huge fan. In addition to the community, Rincón-Cortéz says one of the best parts of her career is when she gets a grant funded. She describes it as “getting paid to do cool stuff, which is a privilege.”

Rincón-Cortéz’s next steps are to become an independent investigator and hopes that she will keep updating her blog through her job search and into her life as a professor. “My dream is to have the blog stick around long enough until I get a faculty job…so that it would literally be the entire history of neuroscientist me.”