First DOOR lab PhD Student Defends!

May 18, 2023

The first PhD defense in any lab is a momentous experience. Yael Grossman’s defense in the DOOR lab in 2017 is so much more than that. It is a story of perseverance and resilience, a story of a mentee and mentor beating the odds, and a story of love–the love of science–conquering all.

Lab Principal Investigator Dani Dumitriu, MD, PhD, built what eventually became the DOOR (Developmental Origins of Resilience) lab from scratch with limited resources, but couldn’t have done it without Yael. In 2011, Dani noticed Yael’s potential, and approached her about joining before the lab was off the ground. “Yael thought that the research we were doing was exciting,” she recalls. “The science was going to drive her even though she had no real guarantee at that point.” 

During her [number] years at DOOR lab, Yael accomplished a great deal. She took Dani’s advice to study coding and became the best coder in the department. She was resourceful in acquiring much-needed equipment from other labs that were closing. She shepherded a team of ever-changing volunteers that included undergraduates, students between medical school and residency, and even high school students. And after completing her PhD, she was admitted to her first choice institution, Duke, as a trainee. 

At first, Dani had been worried she would “mess up” a promising young scientist’s career by asking her to join a then-nonexistent lab. But their perseverance, resourcefulness, and shared passion for science enabled them to overcome the odds. “I’m extremely proud,” says Dani. “When you’re a PI your trainees become like your children. The fact she was so successful and admitted to her first choice just makes me incredibly proud.”

Studying the pre-existing neural circuits in dendritic spines that mediate resilience during stress, Yael performed almost all the lab’s early experiments from [year] to [year]. These yielded preliminary data for a grant from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation (formerly NARSAD) and later NIH and NIMH funding. Dani credits Yael with being instrumental in the eventual success of the DOOR lab. “We didn't have an easy time”, she says. “Lots of experiments didn't work out. We didn't have any funding for a long time, and there was a lot of strain. But she has so much ingenuity and motivation.” 

Dani describes the journey she and Yael took together in building the DOOR lab in an inspired Twitter thread.  “I started my (Schrödinger) lab while pursuing Peds residency with $20k startup money for one tech,” she writes. “The idea of figuring out how pre-existing connectivity contributes to stress response seemed immensely impossible and improbable under these circumstances. But there was one brave soul — the bravest, most brilliant, most motivated scientist I’d ever met —who decided to join me as my grad student: @YaelGrossman. For YEARS it was just Yael & I (mostly her since I was in clinical duties), crunching numbers to stretch $20k long enough to get data for a grant.” But in her first and final year of residency, their dedication paid off, and Dani became the first female resident in the US to get RO1 designation during training, just weeks before Yael defended her thesis. The paper resulting from their collaboration over a decade of multiple experiments was finally accepted in 2021.

Eventually a sought-after academic, Yael’s own research aimed to expand our understanding of the neurobiology that contributes to depression. Titled “Pre-existing cognitive, functional, and structural circuit differences predict behavioral response to acute social stress”, her dissertation research sought to describe differences between the brains of mice that become susceptible to stress versus those who don’t succumb to maladaptive behaviors. Her work has contributed to depression research that could form the basis for novel preventative treatments.

But Yael’s commitment to Dani and the DOOR lab didn’t end when she defended and was accepted at Duke. “The other impressive thing about Yael is that she agreed to stay with me for a little bit longer after she defended,” says Dani. “We’d just achieved R01 funding as she was walking out the door but she agreed to stay a little bit longer to train the next generation. That way I wouldn't have to start from scratch.”