AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 28, Number 4, 2019


A Rejuvenating Sabbatical

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Editor’s Note: Within academics, taking sabbatical is common practice – an opportunity well  into one’s career to gain new skills, explore new avenues, enhance networking and sustain a long and often arduous career. Few in medicine take the opportunity. Given the amazing experience related by Dr. Duhaime (and the remarkable potential of the work she completed) this should be a more sought after experience.

If going back to college to do an independent study with no grades and no tests sounds like fun, then you will understand the appeal of taking a year as a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. Each year, the Radcliffe Institute accepts just 50 people in diverse disciplines from around the world – artists, filmmakers, poets, judges, composers, historians, journalists, scientists – and gathers them together so that each pursues a proposed project. My project investigated the crossroads of neurobiology as it impacts climate change and, ultimately, health. The only requirements for the fellowship are to give one talk and attend everyone else’s. The Institute provides a salary, an office, access to libraries and resources, a small fund for expenses and undergraduate research assistants to help with research.

I wanted the full immersion experience and this was my opportunity. My husband and I moved into the on-campus apartment building in which most of the other fellows lived. This optimized interaction with the other fellows – one of the most enriching parts of the experience. We ate together most days (Radcliffe provided wonderful lunches) and just hung out, talked and exchanged ideas. All of this is very reminiscent of those long, intense conversations you had in your dorm in college. Some of the friends I made include a:

  • Brilliant composer from Hiroshima
  • Filmmaker from Paris who had been mute as a child
  • Judge exiled from her country for anti-corruption activism
  • Scholar of Sharia law
  • Husband and wife team of cosmologists
  • Biologist investigating the genetics of aggression in fruit flies

A famous author whose books focus mainly on food was working on a new book on hallucinogens. A journalist writing about the National Security Agency knew all kinds of secrets. An anthropologist studied the use of animals in scientific research, while a New York choreographer made new works blending science and history. It was a pure gift: an intellectual and cultural mix-up in which to brainstorm and learn.

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Dr. Maroon: Four Questions about Wellness and Burnout

I spent my year investigating the neurobiology of environmentally sustainable behavior. Many neurosurgeons are drawn to nature; the brain is the ultimate expression of biologic design and truly a thing of awesome mystery and fascination. Neurosurgery provides a front row seat to study this marvel up close – to observe how it responds to insult and how it recovers as well as how a person’s essence is manifest in this amazing product of evolutionary engineering. 

I believe that environmental degradation and climate change have become the biggest public health threat we face. While another catastrophe might supersede this threat, climate change is one we can see coming inexorably towards us. As a pediatric provider, I felt a conflict between expending enormous resources on the small number of children we treat, while not doing more to protect their future. As a student of behavior, it seemed logical to me that the explanation for both the problem and the key to any possible solution rests in the thing we treat every day – the brain itself. I was interested in connecting the dots between brain evolution, the human reward system and its inputs and modulations. How might this shed light on why this particular problem has occurred so insidiously because of our evolved behavioral tendencies? Even when technologic solutions are found to help mitigate climate change, it remains crucial to change human behavior. As we know from public health issues like addiction and obesity, behavior change – which ultimately means changing our very brains – can be extremely challenging. Which behaviors actually matter the most with respect to environmental impact and what is the evidence for what works to change these behaviors?  Finally, as a “test case,” I hoped to bring these ideas back to the health care arena to see what the impact would be of designing a new kind of hospital as a prototype and laboratory with these principles in mind. Health care contributes 10 percent of the greenhouse gases in the U.S. and is the second largest industry contributor to climate change. Could we do better?

During my fellowship, I found a publisher for a book that is nearly complete. Another thing I learned was how difficult this task is, compared to writing a scientific paper! I also became a Faculty Associate for the Harvard University Center for the Environment, which has allowed me to continue to learn and grow this interest. Finally, my hospital is supporting my role in designing a new pediatric facility that we hope will embody some of the principles I learned during this amazing and genuinely transformative experience.  

More Information

The Harvard Gazetter – Turning the brain green

The Boston Globe – Mass. General explores possible new ‘green’ pediatric hospital

Harvard Business Review – Our Brains Love New Stuff, and It’s Killing the Planet

The Boston Globe – Why is it so hard to stop buying more stuff?

Harvard University – The Neurobiology of Sustainable Behavior (video)

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