Name: Joy S. Reidenberg, Ph.D.
Specialty: Anatomical Sciences (anatomy, Histology, Embryology, Imaging, Comparative Anatomy, Evolution)
Current position/s: Professor, Center for Anatomy and Functional Morphology, Department of Medical education, Icahn School of Medicine
- Can you describe what inspired your interest in science?
My interest in science, particularly anatomy, probably began as a child. I liked examining natural objects I would find on the beach or in the forest. I definitely enjoyed looking at live animals. Examining dead ones in the kitchen, however, gave me my first opportunity to see them up close (e.g., gutting and cleaning fish, preparing a turkey with giblets, separating chops from rack of ribs). I can’t say I ignored road kills, or dead things on the beach – I definitely enjoyed collecting bones and shells (the snails and clams were long dead before I got to appreciate their shells). I also liked drawing what I observed in nature. My liking for animal structure intensified in college, particularly through courses in anatomy. I even took my boyfriend on a date to see a public dissection of a porpoise. Who does that for a date? Luckily, he wasn’t scared away and we did get married! I spent a college summer dissecting fish and making drawings for a dissection manual. During that experience I realized that I could combine my fascination with nature (specifically animals) with: my interest in anatomy, my skills as an artist, my nerdy desire to ask lots of questions, and my adventuresome spirit to seek discoveries. These beautifully meshed into a career called comparative anatomy.
- What engages you the most about your research?
Our research is focused on animals adapted to extreme environments, such as marine mammals. I am excited every time I am inspired by nature. I hope to use that inspiration to develop new protective gear for humans, or help us treat diseases or prevent injuries. Some human diseases mimic the environmental extremes that these unusual animals are adapted to. Can we harness those adaptations and apply them to humans? Humans might be in an environmental situation, artificial or natural, where they might struggle to survive – unless they can adapt by using something we’ve learned from studying animals. For example, one of the reasons we look at whales is that they’re adapted not only to living in the water, but they’re also diving animals, and that means they can withstand huge changes in pressure. One of the areas we’re trying to find solutions for is how to help humans withstand pressure changes. I’m not only talking about changes that might occur while going into space or living deep in the ocean. Our soldiers and construction workers experience changes in pressure when they’re dealing with explosives. The danger from explosions isn’t just the shrapnel and metal flying around – it’s the pressure wave that emanates from the explosion. That causes a huge amount of damage to the body. The areas that compress the most are the air-containing spaces. My specialty happens to be the respiratory tract, which of course contains air (e.g., in the lungs, ears, or sinuses). So if diving animals could handle the pressure changes of an explosion without damage, could we perhaps learn from their adaptability, how to make protective gear for our soldiers and construction workers so that they, too, can withstand those changes. That’s just an example. We’re looking at lots of applications, and have a lot of diverse projects going on. Why are we looking at all these weird animals? It all relates to “Can we learn from nature? Can we mimic something that nature’s already developed, and co-opt that into a treatment or a prosthesis for people?”
- Do you currently have a mentor? Describe how a mentor has been of professional and/or academic assistance to you as you’ve strived to fulfill your career goals
Yes. My mentor is Professor Jeffrey T. Laitman, here at Icahn. He was my Ph.D. dissertation advisor, and when I graduated and took a job here, we became very close colleagues and friends. He still today is my academic advisor. Everyone needs an advisor – a “go to” person that they can bounce ideas off of, get honest and critical feedback from, get career advice from, and even someone to “vent” to when you’re angry and who can also give you a fresh, new perspective on the situation.
- What is one of your more challenging career experiences?
I was asked, at the last minute, to fly to Ireland to perform a dissection of a freshly dead fin whale. The purpose of the dissection was to make a documentary for television called Inside Nature’s Giants. I had to make a split decision about whether to go or not. Getting there was a challenge, as it was arranged at the very last minute, and I had to get my passport and get to the airport in around 3 hours. One I got there, I faced more challenges, ranging from driving on the wrong side of the road without directions in a storm, to negotiating access to the whale carcass from the Minister of Health of Ireland. Once we got permission (and that is a very long, but funny story – for another time!), we had to fight the weather. It was not only freezing cold, but also raining and hailing on us, 60mph winds, and we were out on a little sand bar, that meant we only had four hours between tides to work – as the sun was going down. Low tide was about 4:30pm, so we didn’t have a lot of light to work with. We had all these factors working against us, plus the politics of the situation – rival towns were fighting over who got to keep the whale’s skeleton and even involved theft of parts from the whale during the night. So there was a lot going on. That was by far the most difficult dissection I’ve ever done. Plus, I didn’t have my research crew with me, or all my normal equipment. I had some equipment there, but it wasn’t the right equipment. The stuff that I really wanted to use wasn’t the stuff I could get onto an airplane with a few minutes notice. Going to Ireland was a very interesting experience. Nobody else there had ever done a whale dissection before. Wonderful people from the Whale and Dolphin Group came to help me, and were very enthusiastic, but they had never cut open a whale before, and also they weren’t comfortable with some of the big tools they were using. So trying to direct them in the middle of a storm was also a challenge.
- What advice would you give to other aspiring female scientists?
Being a scientist is not a sex/gender related activity. Therefore, my advice is the same for everyone. Follow your passion. You should love what you do, because you will spend most of your life doing it. Hopefully, you won’t be saying “I’m going to work,” but instead saying “I’m going to play.” Ideally, you will end up in an environment where people will accept you for your own special talents, and you will not feel you have to defend what you do because of your sex/gender, or any other characteristic you can be labeled for.