Questioning the questions: Neural Science with Cindi Morshead

In the process organizing Blue Ceiling dance's first Art + Science Evening, I chatted with Carol Walmsley, who works at Swansea Town Hall where our A+S events are happening. Our conversation started with rental rates and event themes and ranged to local scientists we know. Carol spoke highly of her friend Cindi Morshead, a University of Toronto professor, Chair of the Anatomy department and a most excellent public speaker. Carol introduced Cindi and I through email and several months of arranging our schedules later, Cindi and I finally sat down together.  

Inspiring, funny and frank, Cindi is a wonderful storyteller and a formidable scientist. You can join us at Blue Ceiling dance's second Art + Science Evening, June 14th, 2019 at 730pm at Swansea Town Hall, where the company will show excerpts of our new work-in-progress and you'll get the full, glorious impact of Cindi, as she will be speaking about her work. Read on for a taste.....


LR: I've explained to you a bit about my curiosities as a choreographer and my reason for doing these interviews -- to learn more about how scientists see their work and their creativity. So I guess a good place to start is with your vision for yourself as a scientist.

CM: I don't really have a vision. My level of creativity is how to design, how to ask a good question.

Cindi Morshead

LR: That has come up a lot in my interviews: the importance of the question. How to ask a good one. Along those lines, I am going to be really awkward in asking you about your work with the cadaver lab at the University of Toronto.....

CM: As a Professor at U of T that's part of my work. There's the balance between teaching, research and administration. A big part of my administrative work, as the Chair of Anatomy, is the Willed Body program. It's really spectacular. Lots of levels of complexity. Families, grieving, but also they are doing something wonderful for students. Sometimes we have to refuse some bodies because they are not suitable for teaching, for the lab. A lot of dimensions. Some families want the whole body back, some will let us take certain parts for teaching. We have to respect all of that.

LR: I never thought of what happens after the use of the body in study. 

CM: We have a burial service every year for all those who donated. We have four or five a day to make sure that all the families have all the people who want to there.

LR: At the University of Waterloo, where I studied Dance and Music, for my dance degree I had to choose between a kinesiology class working with cadavers and a biology class in which you dissected a cat. I felt I could deal with the human situation better, although my mum had passed away not too long before and I knew there was potential for me to be quite emotional. But I was so grateful for two things. 

The first was to see, up close, how the body is connected, how the muscles and tendons and veins and arteries and nerves are put together. I still use that knowledge on a daily basis. The second was the professor: his passion for the respect and ethics of working with the cadavers. He was impressive and stoic, he made it clear that if you did anything disrespectful or questionable, you were out. We signed contracts agreeing to this.

CM: We have 2500 students who come through cadaver labs every year. We have spectacular students, high expectations, world class professors. We can't take the chance of bad behaviour. Most are very respectful. I cannot remember an incident in my time as chair -- almost ten years. 

LR: That's an incredible number of students taking part in the program.

CM: It's such an important way to learn.

LR: There were so few of us that ever actually worked with the cadavers at the University of Waterloo,. And I don't know any other dance programs that integrated that option. I feel very lucky.

So tell me more about your work. I am always curious about how do people come from being 5 or 15 or whatever age they have a sense of what they want to be when they grow up to being in neural anatomy?

imaging of brain cells

CM: Neural anatomy is what I teach. My research is neural stem cells, regenerative medicine, combining those two things. 

My story isn't so great. When I went to university,  all my friends knew what they wanted to do -- and they are all doing those things now! -- I had no idea. I thought about medicine. If you liked life science, medicine was what you thought about. I worked at a  sports clinic -- they don't even have sick people there -- but I didn't like the setting, the hospital setting wasn't for me. My whole life has been by exclusion. I didn't really like that. And I didn't have any compassion for law. 

So I thought I'd quit, but in 3rd year I took neuro-psycho-pharmical with Mack Burnham, who's still at the university today, and it was a turning point for me. After that I took any course that had neural or spinal cord in it. I thought I'll just keep doing this til I don't like it anymore and here I am. It's hard to tell my kids that I didn't know. There's so much pressure on them to know exactly what they want to do.

I have a son in business at Western. He doesn't really like numbers but it was a default. I've asked him what his favourite course is and he's said the environmental studies, the history, the philosophy. I've told him that's what you should do then! But he's staying the course in business.

LR: That's something I worry about for my son. This pressure to pick something that leads directly to a job. I used to work at U of T in History. In this storage closet of an office, doing academic counselling for students -- what courses they needed to take to complete a major or a minor in history  -- and they would ask "But what job can I get with a history degree?" And I would say to them "You can do just about anything with a history degree. What do you want to study about history and then what do you want to do with that information? Teach? Create? Research? Curate? I know historians who wound up as costume designers for film and theatre......

My parents -- well let's just say that  I didn't know that university wasn't mandatory til I was 16, when friends of mine said they were going to drop out of school and I thought that was illegal. My parents never said anything specific, it was just always part of the plan: to go to university. But at the same time, there was never any pressure to know, they wanted my sister and I to go and learn about the world so we might figure out what we wanted to do in it.

CM: Same for me. In retrospect I think I might have been depressed in my first year of university. I listened to the same music over and over -- Culture Club. I wore the same clothes.  My mom noticed I wasn't right and said "school is not for everyone and it's ok if you decide not to stop." It was like a weight came off me and I thought "Ok, I can do this." My attitude changed.My vision of the process of university was different.

LR: Did you grow up in Toronto?

CM: North York, very middle class, all good. But I kept doing science and I keep doing science because I like it. I have my ups and downs.

LR: We all do. This "do what you love" mantra is annoying to me. Some people think it's a dream to be an artist, an indulgence, a font of creativity and self-expression. I love being a dancer but sometimes I don't want to go into the studio. It's just as mundane as sitting at a desk. Sometimes work is fun and sometimes it's not. Curiosity and a desire to keep learning are crucial.

CM: That's true for anybody, no matter how passionate you are about your work. Sometimes it's a slog.

LR:  That makes me think of something biologist Marc Bekoff wrote:  "Passion fuels the curiosity that is essential for scientific inquiry."  (from The Emotional Lives of Animals)

Something that has come up with other scientists I've spoken with, a commonality with artists, is the dependence on public funding, grants and fellowships etc, and the way politics can influence that. I wonder if you have encountered any  problems ever, given that you are working with stem cell research and regenerative medicine, and historically there have been some intense political divides about these fields.

CM: In Canada it was less controversial than it ever was in the States in terms of the beliefs and the morality. It is a concern and its highlighted. It's less of a concern now. In the beginning it was embryonic stem cells, which are those that come from a fetus and the only way to get them is to destroy the fetus. So that is a problem and always will be. But now we can make those cells out of things that are somatic or fully differentiated The ability to do that has revolutionized how excited people have become about regenerative medicine. I can take a skin cell and turn it back into a cell that can make all the parts of my body -- which we can do, at a very low frequency. 

I can take a skin cell turn it into a heart cell and put it back. It's not feasible right now but that's where we're going. There are lots of questions. One group asks how do I turn a cell into a heart cell? And another group is asking how I can increase the efficiency of making it into that heart cell. Everyone is taking a little part of that investigation. But not all diseases are conducive to this approach.

brain cell imaging 

If I have multiple sclerosis, my body, my brain is killing my own cells so the idea that I will take my own cells, remake them and put them back in is maybe not such a great strategy since my body killed them the first time, it may reject them again. You have to know the pathology of the disease in order to know what we need to make.

With ALS -- devastating, terrible, horrifying.  Short duration, terrible prognosis-- people think of it as a spinal cord disease. They think the neurons that spread out to innervate the muscles, they die. It turns out there are these long projection neurons from the brain down to the cells and those cells play a big role in saying oh i'm not getting any innervation down there and they die, but if we can save the cells up in the brain maybe we can regenerate those ones to rebuild. There's much to know, before I can design a good regenerative strategy. Communication amongst the researchers is so important.

LR:  Can you elaborate more on this collaborative approach?

CM: I love collaborating.  It is the best way to find out how other people ask the same question that you have.  There are a number of fundamental questions that people want to ask and find answers to yet the approaches can be very different, which is something you get to appreciate when you collaborate.  I learn so much from other people and it's fun because it teaches you how to think another way. You also get to share your expertise and usually, two heads are better than one. Trainees benefit immensely from collaborative efforts and this is one of the goals I take seriously as an academic.  We need to train the future scientists and leaders.  

But you asked me about funding originally!

LR: Oh, this is far more interesting. It's related...there's this idea that stem cell research now is the same thing that got everyone upset in the beginning. A lawyer friend told me not long ago that there have been so many changes, the general public doesn't realize that embryonic stem cells are no longer the focus, but we can let those people protest as they may, and quietly go about the new research with new approaches and new information.

CM: Exactly. And there are still ethical considerations. Originally embryonic stem cells were found in a mouse. You could grow them in a dish. It was earth-shattering. You could take stem cells from two mice and develop new tissue. We weren't exactly making chimeras but ....But how do you test human stem cells? Do you put it in a mouse? Does the mouse develop human characteristics? Not that we expect them to speak or anything. But these are questions coming up as we work with non-embryonic stem cells.  Can we make a mouse-human chimera? Maybe not. There's so much out there in the public now it's scary. 

LR: We know the genome, we can manipulate it. But we've been doing that forever, unconsciously, through evolution, through attraction, making choices about the potential features of our babies.

CM: There's all sorts of rationale behind those things. But testing is different. And now CRISPR babies.

LR: I can't quite wrap my brain around it. Editing the genome.

CM: It's too easy to do. To make changes to the genome without effecting other things. It's just so unethical. It's actually not allowed. It's illegal. There's a lot of hope and hype around stem cell biology. It is the future of regenerative medicine. But we have to remember it's not going to make Christopher Reeve walk.

stem cells

LR: That was the great hope. What a symbol to have Superman walk again.

CM:  The New York Times reported that after stem cell discovery that Parkinson's would be cured in 5 years. And the money came in for research but it was never realistic.

LR: Parkinson's worries or scares a lot of people right now.

CM: And Michael J Fox has been its symbol of hope.

LR: He's done so well.

CM: And that's great and he's been a great face for it. The money has come in for the research but then there's the expectations. Not everyone is going to have Michael J Fox's experience with treatments. The famous face to the disease is a catch-22.The expectations are so high.

LR: Is ALS one of your main areas of research?

CM: At my lab it's a lot of animal models. Mostly we work on stroke. Stroke is one of the leading causes of death and disability, of economic burden on caregivers. We work on neonatal stroke, which is an underlying cause of epilepsy and cerebral palsy, a very understudied area. There aren't a lot of good models for it. Adult stroke as well. Different ways of enhancing the neuro-plasticity. How do we get the host brain to make better connections? Can we make new cells to make the right connections? As we know -- the wrong connections, you can end up with autism or something else.  We don't even know what cells we even need.

I use this analogy when I give public talks (I do a lot of them because I think it's important since people don't really know what stem cell research is now):  If you have a lawn that has no grass, you can plant the seeds to make new grass -- that would be putting stem cells in -- or you can use fertilizer to make the environment better the grass will grow in. We don't really know which we do make new cells or give them fertilizer to stimulate the cells that are there.

LR: It's a beautiful image.

CM:  It's probably a combination of the two ideas. There's no silver bullet.

LR: And that's what everyone wants.

CM: Because it's easy to grasp. And people are vulnerable. There are people who will $120,000 to go to China and have fat cells injected into their spine. Adipose cells. There's no follow up. There's no controls. There's desperation. There's not proof that it makes anything better.  And it could actually make things worse.

LR: I  can't imagine. But these anecdotes and stories are important. It feels like a fairly new aspect of science -- the emphasis on storytelling. A new concern about telling good stories about the science that your'e doing in order to communicate it to a wider audience. To get people to care. It feels new, to me.

CM: I think it the importance of it is new. The first thing to go in the government budget is science.

LR: And art.

CM: Those seen as being up in the ivory towers. It's important to communicate the excitement of it and also the reality of it. What's happening and what's not going to happen. Whenever I give a talk there are always people in the audience who ask about their uncle's condition, will this cure him. And I have to say probably not. Not right now. It's not feasible yet, but we're working on figuring it out. They have to know. It's not a silver bullet.

LR: You said earlier that your creativity is in coming up with good questions. If you don't have a good question to start with ...

CM: ....You're not going to have a good answer.

LR: I"m not sure how it has come about for me as an artist. I certainly never had a class in how to ask good questions. Perhaps it was from the research in other subjects that drove that --  but I wondered, how did you become such a good question former?

CM: I had a good mentor for my Phd. He said there were no bad questions and don't believe everything you read. Once my mentor gave me three papers to read and come back to discuss with him. I read them and memorized every fact. Then he asked me "what do you think?" I realized I had been asked before "what do you know?" but never "what do you think?" Only in a philosophy class was I asked that. Never in science. So now I tell my students that critical thinking is key to asking a good question. Don't believe everything you read and question yourself "why don't I believe that?" It leads to more questions and more. Then it snowballs into your own question.

LR: And you need the time to get there with that snowball.

CM: It's true. No one reads enough. we're just doing. We have to read across disciplines.  I'm doing a small sabbatical next year and I'm not going away -- maybe a few conferences -- but I'm going to read, all kinds of things. 

LR: Different perspectives stimulate different insight into an old question or problem you're trying to solve.

CM: Every time we think we have an answer, we have another question.

LR: There's darkness, you see a little light and you walk into that little light and then realize there's more darkness just past it and so you walk into that dark too

CM: That can be daunting. Students have to remember that they don't have to answer all the questions.

LR: We joke in dance that it attracts perfectionist because it's the perfect storm. You work towards perfection and when you get to that place where you think perfection is you see there's so much more to figure out that you just keep going.

CM: That's science.

LR: Curiosity is crack for perfectionists.

CM: It's a great analogy.

LR: What is the next “dark spot” for you — the next unknown? 

CM: I think that neural repair is in fact, the last frontier in regenerative medicine.  Of course there are other HUGE questions like the role of AI in society (for example)....

LR:  Do you have any thoughts about the ways art and science can and might support each other? 

CM: Art and science need to collaborate - it will be a big part of sharing science and informing society in general.  Making science accessible, which includes through the arts, is as big a challenge and important an endeavour as any other.

Photos courtesy of Cindi Morshead and the Morshead Lab.

For more on Cindi and her work:

Art + Science interviews are made possible with the generous support of the Chalmers Family Fund Fellowship program, administered by the Ontario Arts Council.


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