Farran Briggs profile photo

What influenced your decision (personal and professional) to become a scientist in this field?

It sounds silly, but I was seduced by the "last frontier" aspect of studying the brain – I always wanted to be some sort of explorer and neuroscience seemed like the best arena for exploration. I became fascinated with neuroscience in high school and kept that in my line of sight through college. When I interviewed for graduate schools, I was most excited about the work that Ed Callaway was doing mapping local circuits in the brain. Back then, the idea of mapping all the connections in the brain seemed like the best way to understand the brain. When I got part way through my PhD, I realized that one can't just understand the wiring diagram, one needs to also understand the information encoded in neurons, which is why I moved into in vivo electrophysiology. Systems neuroscience and electrophysiology was then, and still is, heavily male-dominated, but I always gravitated toward challenges so that didn't hold me back. If anything, I enjoyed the challenge of having to work just a bit harder to prove myself.

What are your greatest achievements thus far?

There are a lot of things I'm proud of. I'm proud of the projects I've devised and completed, techniques I've developed, results and papers I've published. I'm proud of getting my PhD, earning some prestigious awards and grants, etc. I was proud to get my first faculty position because I wasn't sure I could get that far. Now looking back, the thing I'm most proud of is watching my graduate students transform into scientists. My first two PhD students joined my lab on the same day and then 5-ish years later, defended within 24 hours of each other. Watching them defend their theses was the best day of my career as a scientist for sure, and my proudest 24 hours.

What do you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?

There are a lot of projects I'm really excited about. In the next 10 years I'd like to make even more headway at understanding what corticogeniculate feedback does and how attention works. I've gotten to the point in my career where I want, and have some qualifications, to try some riskier projects like cell-type specific optogenetic circuit manipulation in behaving subjects. Naturally, a lot of my looking forward involves scientific projects. But I am also excited to train another cohort of students and postdocs and hopefully pass on some knowledge along the way. I also hope that in the next 10 years I start doing more as a leader at UR and in the greater neuroscience community. And I'd like to keep learning new things! One of the best things about being a scientist is that we can always find a way to get back onto the steep part of the learning curve. I'm not sure what I will want to learn next, but I'm sure it will germinate from one of our ongoing projects or collaborations.

What were the biggest professional obstacles you had to overcome? Did you ever have the impression that it would be easier/harder if you were male?

I've honestly been pretty fortunate to have amazingly supportive mentors, family, and friends along the way so I don't think I've faced obstacles like many have. Probably my biggest obstacle is imposter syndrome (i.e. me not believing in myself as much as I should). I did struggle a lot during my first faculty position. I was at a small institution with very little neuroscience so while my colleagues did what they could to support me, there really wasn't anyone around with whom I could collaborate or share ideas for projects. The environment also became quite toxic as money issues dominated the discourse and people were fearful for their jobs. Fortunately, my team was doing great so we focused on our own work and got through.

There are certainly many times when I know it's harder as a woman. People assume I don't know what I'm talking about, especially when I delve into theoretical/computational methods (basically, anything "math-y") – sometimes they might be right, but not always. There were people who resented me for getting my faculty position (they thought I only got it because I was a woman). There are lots of "micro-aggressions" that I think women just get used to. It's an unfortunate aspect of the job and I think I've habituated to a lot of it. But things are definitely better now than they were for our predecessors (I've heard awful stories). And things will probably improve as there are more women at all levels of academia. What helps tremendously to get through these negative interactions is talking about them with my female friends who are also faculty. It is so critical to have a support network! No woman can or should have to go through this alone.

Do you serve on any committees/hold leadership positions within and outside the University of Rochester (UR)? What is your impression of being a female leader in this environment?

Much more so than at my previous institution, UR makes a real effort to promote and support women in leadership roles. I think if women are interested in learning more about leadership, there are avenues here to truly support them in that endeavor. The departmental leaders I've worked with have also been extremely supportive in that regard. So, my impression is quite good here.

Personally, I've been given lots of somewhat "low level" leadership responsibilities (organizing seminar series, faculty search committees, etc.), but this is appropriate for my stage. Serving on faculty search committees affords women some real influence within the institution, for example. Outside UR I run a relatively well-known summer course and I'm now a reviewing editor at J. Neuroscience, so I get recognition for those things. I'm also not shy about reaching out to people with questions, to organize symposia, etc., so I think I have some level of recognition in my field/community. I think if you are a good colleague (within and outside your institution), people see that and it's reciprocated.

What strategies do you use to manage both a career and private life?

I face less challenges here than many of my colleagues because I am not married nor do I have children. I have more freedom to manage my time or work odd hours. I am protective of my personal (and sleep) time. But I am also thankful that I can take advantage of off hours to get work done. So, I can't offer a lot of strategy in this area for those with more to balance. I will add that there is a significant stigma attached to being a single woman of my age in academia and this presents a whole host of personal/professional challenges. I don't have the secret to managing this, but managing the stigma is easier when you know yourself, do what you need to do to be happy, and make sure you have a really supportive network around you.

In your opinion, what changes are needed in your field, in academia, and in science in general to be more attractive to women+ in neuroscience and possible future scientists?

Awareness and support are big ones. I think we need to be having discussions with women+ graduate students from the start of their careers and we need to keep having those conversations throughout. I think we need to bring more people into these conversations (not just women+). Obviously, we need more women in leadership positions and I think universities and institutions are realizing this. There are probably little things we can all do in our daily work experiences too, like not interrupting each other, making sure women's ideas are echoed and not coopted in meetings, calling attention to micro-aggressions, being aware of our own biases and working hard to overcome them. Sadly, women are often just as hard if not harder on other women than men, so we need to be keenly aware of our own behaviors. A lot of these fall under the bigger umbrella of being a good colleague/mentor/peer and we probably all can work harder to put aside whatever is bugging us on a given day and try to treat each other well.

What advice would you give to your younger self and to future scientists?

For myself: Try to learn a bit more patience. Trust more that good things happen when good people get together and do good science. Listen more, interrupt a lot less. Be more graceful.

For others: Try to quiet that "I'm an imposter" voice. Read the literature. Ask questions. Get a support network. Challenge yourself to learn new things outside your comfort zone – never stop learning.