Sans [ceuticals] | Melissa Lee, Neuroscientist & Creative

Melissa Lee
Neuroscientist & Creative

Melissa Lee

30 - 05 - 24

Melissa Lee first caught our eye for her beautifully-curated Instagram, peppered with interiors, plants, food, and occasional cats. But it’s her work in the field of neuroscience (something Sans founder Lucy loves to nerd out on) that made us want to get to know her even more. Here, we pick her brain about, well...brains! And other things that make this New Yorker tick.

Photographed by Nastassia Brückin

Melissa Lee

Sans Woman

We have been following you on Instagram for some time and are mesmerised by your world. Tell us a little about what you do…

I’m a PhD candidate studying neuroscience in NYC. In most of my “about me” descriptions, I list that I am a scientist and “sometimes other things,” because I like to try on lots of other hats. Right now, I’m taking a lot of photos.

We are fascinated by neuroscience. What drew you to the field and how do you work within it?

Of all of the systems of thought that humans have come up with, the scientific method is the only one that has any sort of predictive ability. I think sometimes we forget how incredible that is—we can actually use the scientific method to (somewhat) accurately predict the future. I find that neuroscience is, at its centre, focused on the same basic questions that every other field—scientific and artistic—has been asking for basically all of human existence: Who are we? Why are we here? What does it mean to be human? To me, to the extent that these questions can be addressed by science at all, the brain is the core of this. And I feel so lucky to be alive at this time of amazing convergence—we are developing so many new, incredible tools that allow us to precisely chip away at little tiny bits of these questions in a scientific way. My research focuses on how the brain develops. PhDs in the biological sciences are very minimally about coursework—I spend 95 percent of my time in the lab. I use a mouse model of developmental dysfunction to learn about disease (in this case, a genetic form of autism) and about the biological processes that underlie both normal and abnormal brain development.

What are some recent findings or studies in neuroscience that most excite you?

This is so hard to answer, because I know what I’m excited by very likely only excites the 50 or so other scientists that work in my subfield. In general, I’m very excited that glia, the non-neurons of the brain, which make up about half of the brain but were for a very long time thought of as just boring “support cells” (the term ‘glia’ literally comes from the Greek word for ‘glue’) are finally starting to get their due as cells that are interesting and important in their own right.

What else are you currently excited by?

My boyfriend and I are in the process of buying and renovating an apartment (well, he’s buying and I’m renting—a graduate student salary doesn’t get you too much in NYC unfortunately!), so I’m spending a lot of time on Pinterest right now.

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What is your ritual for productivity?

Romantic-era classical music always helps me focus. Liszt, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff are my favorite. I have a Liszt playlist on right now. It really helps!

Do you have a ritual for creativity?

I wish I knew the answer to this—I’d be a lot more creative. In general, I find that creativity takes a lot more work than I wish it did—the same things that help productivity help creativity. So, back to Liszt…

Ritual for rest and repair?

Honestly, I reread the Harry Potter series at least once a year. This is probably the closest thing to a ritual that I have. But it’s really comforting to escape into this familiar other world. And, frankly, the themes feel really relevant right now.

Ritual for calm and order?

I’m lucky in that my work actually has quite a few meditative elements to it. Lab work can be quite repetitive—for example, I spend a lot of my time operating a machine that lets me cut brains into very thin (on the order of tens of microns) sections and then collecting these sections. So, performing these rote tasks give me a lot of time to sit calmly and think (and/or listen to a podcast—I listen to a lot of podcasts).

Ritual for self-care?

This is something I am trying to be better about. Right now, I have to admit that I’m still working on the basics—eating healthily and exercising regularly. I’ve been going indoor bouldering recently and just committed to buying my own pair of climbing shoes, which feels like a good step forward.

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What is the current soundtrack to your life?

I can’t stop listening to the new Lorde, Bleachers, and Arcade Fire albums. Also, Leon Bridges.

Do you like to cook?

When I have the time and space, I like trying new recipes and doing things like making pasta from scratch. But that’s pretty rare. I eat out (or, more likely, order in) much more than I should, just out of convenience. I order pho at least once a week.

You’re a fervent world traveler. What are some of your recent favorite trips?

I am always on the look out for a place that feels like home, and Copenhagen was one of the first places that has felt like that for me in a while (Berlin is another). I can’t quite put my finger on why. But, it is a beautiful city that feels very livable, and I really want to return in warmer weather (I visited in January). And it’s so cliché, but Venice in the winter is incredible. There are way fewer tourists and the tones of the city fit the winter gray perfectly. I have never felt a city so charged with what I can only (feebly!) describe as magic. It feels like a whole other world.

What’s coming up next for you?

I’m about halfway through my PhD, so I’m just going to keep chugging along. In the meantime, I’m excited to start apartment renovations. And, I might be visiting India for the first time in December. And, I might get another cat. That’s obviously the most important thing.

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