Growing Up In Science: Tamara Hershey (WashU Psychiatry)

July 14, 2022
4:00 pm - 5:00 pm
McDonnell Sciences 928 (Medical Campus)


Growing Up In Science is a global series dedicated to sharing the personal narratives of scientists, with a focus on the hidden challenges of becoming and being a scientist throughout all stages of one’s career. We’ll feature scientists at WashU via in-person talks at 4pm in McDonnell 928, typically on the first Thursday of the month.

Full schedule, Growing Up In Science

If you have questions or are interested in getting involved, please contact Julia Pai.

Official story:

Tamara Hershey received a BA in Psychology from Earlham College in Indiana and a PhD in Neuropsychology from Washington University in St. Louis (mentor: Suzanne Craft, PhD). She performed a clinical internship in neuropsychology at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center / Hillside Hospital, and postdoctoral position in clinical neuroscience and neuroimaging within the Neuroimaging Labs at Washington University School of Medicine (mentor: Joel Perlmutter, MD). She then took a tenure track faculty position in Psychiatry at WUSM. Currently, she is the James S. McDonnell Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, the Director of the Neuroimaging Labs Research Center in the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology, and the Director of the James S. McDonnell Center for Systems Neuroscience. She has also been a past Co-Director of the Neuroscience PhD Program and past President of the Academic Women’s Network, all at Washington University School of Medicine. Her research is in the fields of cognitive and clinical neuroscience and has been supported by numerous foundation and NIH awards. She uses a range of neuroimaging, pharmacological and cognitive techniques to understand the impact of metabolic and neurodegenerative conditions on the brain across the lifespan. For example, her lab is exploring the neural underpinnings of cognitive and mood dysfunction in disorders relevant to dopamine and the basal ganglia (e.g. Parkinson disease), the effects of diabetes and obesity on the brain, particularly within development, and the neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative impact of a rare monogenic diabetes, Wolfram Syndrome. This work is highly interdisciplinary and she collaborates with faculty across diverse areas of medicine and neuroscience. Through her career, she has mentored numerous undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and junior faculty in clinical neuroscience fields.

Unofficial story:

I grew up in Swarthmore Pennsylvania, with an astronomer/research faculty father and an elementary school teacher mother. As a high school student, I was studious, but pretty normal, and liked Latin, English Literature and tennis. As a college student, I leaned towards English, but took a last minute swerve to Psychology. The deciding event occurred when writing a paper on Hamlet, I went to the library and faced down a wall of books dissecting every imaginable aspect of the play. It was clear then that, while amazingly fun, there was no really new knowledge to discover. In contrast, in my experimental cognitive psychology classes, I was designing and conducting experiments, analyzing data and writing up findings that had never been reported before (as far as I could tell – this was pre-internet!).

Following graduation, I was given the advice by a favorite aunt to ‘do something interesting’. Having no interesting offers in hand, I went to California with my partner and did temp work while looking in the newspaper (remember, no internet) for ‘interesting’ jobs. When I found one specifically asking for Psychology majors to work on brain imaging in psychiatric populations, I harassed a very sweet PI until he finally broke down and hired me. One of my first tasks was to stay up all night with depressed people to make sure they were sleep deprived for their PET scan the next day. However, I much preferred organizing and analyzing the data and finding out the answers. The experience got me hooked on studying brain-behavior relationships in clinical populations.

At the time, neuroscience programs were not known for focusing on clinical neuroscience research, so I chose a PhD program in clinical neuropsychology at Washington University. Following a required clinical internship year in NY, I was done with clinical work, and wanted to devote myself to research. As part of a two career couple, we looked for joint opportunities. As we pondered, an irresistible offer came from the new chair in the Psychiatry Department at WUSM — return to St. Louis, do whatever postdocs we wanted to do, and pending success in those roles, move into faculty positions. I found a great opportunity to work with Joel Perlmutter in the Neuroimaging Labs studying Parkinson disease, dopamine and the basal ganglia using PET. From that platform, and the generous guidance of the senior faculty in the NIL and beyond, I was able to grow my independent lines of research and take on additional leadership roles. We had two children, one was born when I was a postdoc, the other when I was a brand new faculty member. They are now full-grown adults – one just graduated from college (with an English major), and the other is a rising senior in college (Environmental and Political Science). Now, in between grant deadlines and leadership roles, there is time for some new activities, like pickle ball, chickens, book club, and involvement in local governance.

It is an interesting exercise to think about how things worked out. I never planned to wind up where I did, and never aimed at the most gratifying roles I have taken on, nor the specific research I’m doing now. I credit serendipity, flexibility, comprehensive support from family, and the menagerie of amazing physicians and scientists that I have had the honor to work with.