A Woman In Science

Portrait of Dr Marian Diamond (1926-2017), a founder of modern neuroscience

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At the aftermath of this International Women's Day, I want to paint the portrait of Dr. Marian Diamond. She doesn’t describe herself as a feminist but as a woman who wanted to do science at a time when only few women could. She was the first female graduate student in the department of Anatomy at UC Berkeley in 1949 and she obtained her PhD four years later.

In 1964, she broke the dogma of a static and unchangeable brain. Marian demonstrated that rats living in enriched cages with toys and rat mates have a thicker cortex than rats living in normal, unenriched conditions. These findings prove that the brain is plastic and influenced by the environment. When she presented her results at the annual meeting of the American Association of Anatomists, a man shouted at her: “Young lady, that brain cannot change!” But she calmly replied: “I’m sorry, sir, but we have the initial experiment and the replication experiment that shows it can.” Always believe in your science!

In the 1960s, it was rare to work with female neuroscientists and Marian had to fight for her position on her first research paper. Her name was last in a list of four authors and within brackets; although she had run most of the experiments. When she discussed this with the responsible senior author, he simply replied that he had never written a paper with a woman and didn’t know how to proceed. She suggested that he “treat it like another name” and her name deservedly became the first.

Marian claimed that the brain can change at any age due to five factors: diet, exercise, challenges, novelty and love. And her famous mantra about the brain is “use it or lose it”!

She created the “Enrichment In Action“ program to apply the benefits of enrichment on very impoverished orphans in Cambodia. The program improves their diet, education and social interactions. It helps a lot of children to progress in many ways and some are now fluent in English and/or learn computer skills.

Marian was under the spotlight in 1984, when she received four blocks of Einstein’s brain. She said that the pieces looked like “little sugar cubes”. Her work revealed that Albert Einstein had more glial cells per neurons on average, and the biggest difference was in the lower parietal region, a region associated with mathematical and language functions. This was an important finding for research in glial cells. Later, she found that enrichment modifies the neuron/glia ratio and could explain the increased thickness of the cortex.

Marian also had a passion for teaching. In 1955, she was the first woman instructor at Cornell University to give lectures on human biology and comparative anatomy. Five years later, she returned to Berkeley University to teach integrative biology. She was notorious for carrying a preserved brain in a flowery hat box, on the campus, for teaching purpose. Her lectures, posted on YouTube, have attracted more than 4.6 million viewers.

Marian’s life and work inspired the filmmakers Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimburg for a documentary “My Love Affair with the Brain: The Life and Science of Dr. Marian Diamond”. Don’t hesitate to watch it, it is really worth it!

Link to the documentary trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCh29GWQbYM&t=39s

Written by Isabelle Arnoux; Edited by Radhika Menon. Featured Image: NGC/Design.

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