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March 25, 2015

Juli Wade: Hooked on research

March 25, 2015

Juli Wade, professor and chairperson of MSU’s Department of Psychology, is a behavioral neuroscientist whose federally funded research investigates how structural and biochemical changes in the central nervous system regulate behavior. Members of the Wade Lab work with zebra finches and green anole lizards.

I started down my career path because I wasn’t so happy with my job in the kitchen of a restaurant at Cornell University, where I was pursuing a bachelor’s degree. The people I worked with were terrific, but it was hot, messy and exhausting. The best part was drinking the remnants of chocolate shakes when we “accidentally” made more than the glass could hold.

A friend from the marching band got me a position in a lab in the psychology department that conducted research on hormones, brain and behavior in birds. My first duties included preparing material for zebra finches to create nests – this involved cutting sheets of burlap into squares and pulling the threads apart so that the birds could weave them together again. I also spent hours checking the fertility of Japanese quail eggs and reaching into the nests of doves to determine whether a pair had one or two offspring (this last job resulted in my hands being pecked an awful lot).

While these first jobs were not very glamorous, they gave me a taste of the research enterprise, and I was hooked. I became more involved in experiments on both the zebra finches and quail, and eventually completed an honors thesis that investigated the behavioral effects of a particular region of the quail brain.

zebra finches on a wire

I moved from Ithaca, New York, to Austin, Texas, for graduate school, where I investigated the relationship between brain structure and function in two closely related species from the southwestern desert. These whiptail lizards are fascinating, as about one-third of the species in the genus are all female and reproduce by cloning. After doing a postdoc at UCLA on zebra finches, I came to MSU in 1995.

Here, I was excited to open my own lab that used both lizards and songbirds to investigate hormonal and genetic factors that regulate changes in brain structure and function. These species have the potential to not only increase understanding of the evolution of the processes regulating behavioral differences, which have commonly been studied in mammals, but also to address the ubiquity of the mechanisms employed in diverse situations.

A current focus of our work involves investigating the roles that particular sex chromosome genes and steroid hormones play in facilitating the survival of neurons. This line of work has been funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health since 1996. It has implications for understanding normal developmental mechanisms and has the potential to aid in recovery after brain damage or disease.

My goal is to integrate information obtained across multiple levels of analysis and to utilize the differences and similarities across diverse vertebrate systems to facilitate our understanding of factors controlling nervous system structure and function.

One of the great pleasures in conducting this work is having the opportunity to mentor terrific graduate students and postdocs. My career has benefitted tremendously from their enthusiasm, creativity and hard work, and they have made my time at MSU enjoyable. During the last five years as chair of the psychology department, I have turned some of my attention to mentoring junior faculty. Here too, it has been wonderful to see the success of these individuals as they have advanced in their careers.