Five Questions With HealthTech Futurist Nataša Lazarevic

Name: Nataša Lazarevic
Job: eHealth PhD Fellow, STEM Advocate, and Illustrator
Country: Germany, Serbia, Botswana, UAE, Australia
Age: 25

Nataša Lazarevic is completing a PhD in the fields of digital health, machine learning, and anatomy at the University of Sydney, where she previously obtained an Honours degree in Immunology and Infectious Diseases. She is a co-founder of Visibility STEM Africa, which promotes the visibility of Africans in STEM and provides them with opportunities to flourish. Nataša loves interdisciplinary projects, and thoroughly enjoys teaching anatomy and histology to undergraduate and medical students, sometimes creating funny memes about science and technology. She is passionate about promoting underrepresented groups in STEM, coordinating public health outreach projects, and science communication. Connect with Nataša on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Nataša’s explains her research in emojis. She uses machine learning to improve healthcare.

On her diverse background and experience:

“Hello, I am Nataša (pronounced Natasha). I have been fortunate enough to live in five different countries, but that also means that I find the concepts of nationality, identity, and sense of belonging a bit tricky. According to my passports, I am both Australian (as of recently!) and Serbian. But I was born in Germany, then lived in Serbia, grew up in Botswana for most of my childhood, the United Arab Emirates for my teenage years, and now I live in Australia. A sense of culture and identity is so much more than what our passports reveal. 

I am a PhD student at the University of Sydney, and I work on an interdisciplinary project that combines the fields of digital health, machine learning, and anatomy. The project is about applying new technologies and our understanding of the human body to create technological solutions for monitoring our bodies and health remotely. I also enjoy teaching anatomy and histology to medical and undergraduate students. Everything about the body and how it works fascinates me.

I am passionate about promoting the equality of underrepresented groups in STEM, so I co-founded Visibility STEM Africa (VSA) with my dear friend Nathasia Mudiwa Muwanigwa. To learn more, follow VSA on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn!”

A science artist and illustrator, Nataša drew the background of this photo.


On how society can make technology more inclusive:

“When I was younger, I used to pretend and behave as though I did not understand how to use technology. I believed that a girl behaved in this way, and the more I played dumb, the more attention I received from boys I liked. I found myself fitting into the stereotype, and I decided that I did not want to be that person. What helped me get past this was to believe in myself and be courageous enough to challenge stereotypes.

I realized that I often stopped challenging myself because I felt like an imposter. I’ve sometimes struggled with ‘imposter syndrome’ – the feeling that you are not good enough or that you do not belong. Opening my mind to the idea that I can overcome my fear of failure through hard work has been helpful. Also, changing or re-framing my mindset has helped tremendously.

We are overloaded with amounts of information. To cope, our brain filters much of this information or creates short-cuts (known as heuristics) to make the world easier to understand. Forms of heuristics, particularly involving the use of emotions to assess situations, are sometimes referred to as having a ‘gut feeling.’ Heuristic learning can often be the basis for forming stereotypes. Stereotyping can, at times, be positive where the person being stereotyped is glad to be regarded in that light. For instance, older adults are wise and loving. However, I think the stereotype that older populations are incapable of using and understanding technology is widespread and can prevent older adults from trying to learn or have confidence in the things they have learned. While it is true that as we age, some people lose dexterity and cognitive flexibility, we must not blindly reinforce this stereotype. Sometimes these stereotypes prevent people from even trying.

Hear from Nataša about utilizing medical data to reshape Africa’s health sector.

Efforts should be made to promote the engagement of the older adults with technology and the use of mobile devices. Efforts should also be made to make use of technology more accessible and user-friendly. Features that could make technology or apps more user-friendly to older adults and other populations include

  • simplistic design navigation
  • use of voice activation to navigate the app
  • use of larger images and texts for easier readability
  • use of larger touchable buttons to assist with dexterity issues
  • terms and conditions related to privacy and security of user data being explained in lay terms.

The majority of these features would be helpful to the general population, and at no point should these further exclude the older community. I think what would contribute positively is to create spaces where older people can openly learn about, use, and discuss technology. After all, today’s young adults are tomorrow’s older adults.”

Nataša designed this worksheet for her first Skype a Scientist session with children aged 6 to 7 years.

On why Africans in STEM lack visibility:

“A reduced number of Africans are pursuing higher degree education in STEM fields. This is partially due to a lack of opportunities (for example, scholarships, postgraduate programs, funding), focus on non-STEM disciplines, insufficient investment by governments toward STEM education, and workforce development. It has led to the global research output of merely 1.4 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa and low levels of peer-reviewed citations.

The pandemic has illustrated the importance of having research facilities and skilled individuals in local African communities to respond, to be self-sufficient, and not as reliant on international support.

Africans in STEM both in industry and academia are doing brilliant work in both Africa and the diaspora, and these contributions to STEM fields should be promoted. There is a lack of mentorship by Africans in STEM to younger generations to inspire them and make them feel as though such a career is possible at all. There is power in having mentors that look like you and come from the same region.

The pervasive stereotypes of Africans only being poverty-stricken and malnourished in many western countries has in some cases, led to the lack of representation of African contributions in STEM. Africa is often viewed as being one country, but in reality, the continent consists of a melting pot of diverse cultures, languages, and people. We must start changing the narrative surrounding Africans in STEM and provide them with opportunities to share their stories. Visibility STEM Africa aims to promote the visibility of Africans in STEM and provide opportunities for them to flourish in their scientific fields and communities.”

On practicing self-care especially during COVID-19:

“I am getting better at practicing self-care, and the pandemic forced a lot of us to reflect upon our current situation. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I regularly would put myself last. For instance, a deadline is more important than my sleep. During the pandemic, I have tried to focus on getting into a better sleeping routine and on my mental well-being by practicing mindfulness and regularly meditating. I still find it difficult, but the more you do, the easier it will be to form habits. I am passionate about exercise and its effect on mental health, so I regularly do Zoom exercise sessions with friends and family. I was able to get in touch with many friends I grew up with via video call. This was both helpful and nostalgic because I appreciated my social support network.”

During the pandemic, she taught anatomy and histology using Zoom, with her science illustrations in the background. Nataša also draws scientists, especially women in STEM

On getting older in today’s world:

“I sometimes feel that people tend to treat the older population unfairly and almost as though they are a separate group. This age divide has been evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. I have heard younger people make comments like, “But it only affects older people, so it is not that big of a deal.” I feel that to some degree, such responses stem from younger people being subconsciously fearful of becoming older themselves as they inevitably will. As a society, we do everything in our power to counter the aging process, and many industries greedily profiteer from this obsession. I sometimes feel that some people view aging as an internal cell decay time bomb.

At my current age, I do not fear aging nor the existential anxiety commonly associated with the awareness that death is inevitable. I feel that it is more prudent to stop being anxious about phenomena that we cannot control. But, ask me when I am 60 and perhaps my response will change because the onset of age-related health consequences will have occurred (Like menopause! I am not looking forward to that).”

I sometimes feel that people tend to treat the older population unfairly and almost as though they are a separate group.

Nataša Lazarevic, BSc (Hons)

Five Questions With Software Developer Ova

Name: Ova Ceren
Job: Programmer and Web Designer
Country: England and Turkey
Age: 38

Ova Ceren is a SharePoint specialist with 15 years of experience in development, technical documentation, configuration, migration, administration, support, and end-user workshop training for the SharePoint server. Previously, Ova worked as a Senior SharePoint Developer for Anglia Ruskin University, where she developed SharePoint websites, performed user interface development, and aided with best practices on configuration. She has a Master’s in Business Administration from Dokuz Eylul University and Bachelor’s in Computer Science from Ege University. Connect with Ova on her website, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram.

On herself, hobbies, and passions:

“I’m Ova, a software developer and a big reader. Lover of cats, the color yellow, traveling, music and art. I’m a summer child, I adore Harry Potter, I’ve been raised by a book lover, and I believe in a bit of magic. At work, I write mostly front end code, and create workflows and forms, on SharePoint. As a blogger, I love creating content on Instagram, and the response I get from people all around the world is so motivating.”

Ova loves different cuisines, finding beautiful scenery, and spending time with her family.

On practicing self-care during COVID-19: 

“The COVID-19 pandemic is hard on everyone, and it took us some time to realize that it’s okay not to be okay. I try to stay more relaxed by spending my days in activities that I enjoy, which is limited when you are stuck at home, but things like reading work for me. I used to cook almost every night, but I now feel that it’s fine to have cheese on toast for dinner! With a young child at home, it’s impossible to do everything, so I take it easy by giving myself room for flexibility, and not sticking to a routine, especially when it comes to homeschooling. The important thing is trying to enjoy small things. It could be the sunset, a stroll with my bike, a cup of tea, or just sitting in the garden under the sunshine.”

On starting in information technology and web development:

“My first advice would be discovering what they want to do. What kind of value do you want to add, to yourself and others? IT work has such a massive variety, you could be a developer (even this has so many branches within), a database administrator, system analyst or a technical architect. They are all different and there are endless career opportunities. I think it’s important to find out what makes you enjoy the work you’re doing. For me, this is SharePoint: as an application, it has so many layers and functions and there are always multiple ways to solve a problem or accomplish a task. I love discovering new functionalities and aspects of it during my work time.”

Ova also loves doodles, which are simple drawings that can have concrete representational meaning.

On encouraging people to embrace reading and books:

“I don’t think I can convince people to read. If someone is attracted to reading, they will find their way into being a reader. But If I’m convincing enough, I’ll say, books offer orgasms- literally. An example is Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories. Every story in that book blew my mind. I remember reading The Werewolf, and from the first sentence, I was disconnected from my surroundings and entering into the world of Carter. Good writing has this effect on me. So, it’s always a good idea to discover fictional worlds because the greatest books are written by possibly the greatest minds.”

On her strategy for creating content on Instagram:

“I have only one strategy: being spontaneous. It’s more like, “what shall I post today?”. I also don’t spend more than 10 minutes to write a post unless it’s a book review, and I love being creative with it. I buy my books from either bookshops or online. My local Heffers bookshop is where I do my walk-in shopping, and my online shopping is done on eBay, Book depository, and I use Amazon for a different edition of classics. I just recently discovered hive.co.uk, which allows you to shop from independent bookshops within the UK.”

The important thing is trying to enjoy small things. It could be the sunset, a stroll with my bike, a cup of tea, or just sitting in the garden under the sunshine.

Ova Ceren, MBA

Why More Millennials Are Becoming Caregivers

Millennials often get stereotyped as lazy, entitled, and self-involved, but did you know that about one out of six millennials in the United States is a caregiver for someone with dementia, and with an average age of 27 years? Nor is it a problem limited to Americans. One in four young Canadians provides care to a family member or friend.

In 2019, Global Health Aging was proud to author a report with the Center for Healthcare Innovation titled Social and Financial Costs of Millennial Dementia Caregivers. The report evaluates the social and economic implications of the shifting U.S. demographics on dementia and caregiving in vulnerable, at-risk populations.

There is a lack of research about the experiences of young people living with a parent or grandparent with dementia. As the number of people with dementia is expected to increase to 82 million in 2030 and 152 million in 2050, the hope is that more case studies and published research become available. One groundbreaking resource is ‘The Dementia Diaries’ by Matthew Snyman, an award-winning filmmaker based in London, and Emma Barrett Palmer, the founder of HumanKINDER located in Chamonix, France.

A novel in cartoons, this award-winning project looks at dementia from the perspective of a young person by following four real-life young people dealing with dementia in their grandparents. In 2016, Global Health Aging organized a giveaway featuring The Dementia Diaries for Dementia Awareness Week.

Alzheimer’s and dementia are still a largely hidden problem in many countries. Even when awareness is present, confusion and memory loss are considered an inevitable part of aging, rather than signs of a degenerative disease. One of the goals of Global Health Aging is to change that perception through education and media.

Are you a caregiver for someone with dementia? If no, do you know another caregiver or anyone with dementia?

Five Questions With Social Entrepreneur Andrew Dowling

Name: Andrew Dowling
Job: Founder and CEO
Country: Australia and United States
Age: 51

Andrew Dowling is the Founder and CEO of Stitch, the world’s leading companionship and activities community for over 50’s. Andrew wrote his Master’s thesis on social enterprise a decade ago — long before most people had even heard of the concept — and has spent the last ten years building businesses designed to have a social impact. He is currently working to address social isolation and loneliness for older adults at Stitch. Andrew has over two decades of experience building successful technology organizations in Australia, India, China, and the United States. He has served in multiple businesses in a wide range of roles and specialties: CEO, CTO, strategy consultant, software engineer, advisor, non-executive director. Connect with Andrew on LinkedIn.

On older adults staying socially connected during COVID-19:

“The COVID-19 crisis has meant this question is relevant not just to older adults, but pretty much everyone around the world right now. Many people have been finding creative ways to stay socially connected, particularly through the use of video platforms that allow people to get together “virtually” for everything from happy hours and dinner parties through to Pilates and exercise sessions. 

For older adults, the answer has been remarkably similar. We’ve been amazed by the enthusiasm with which Stitch members have embraced virtual events and activities as an alternative way to connect socially. Most of the virtual activities scheduled on Stitch each day are booked out within minutes, and we are seeing a big increase in the number of members who are connecting with each other online, where in the past they would be meeting face to face.

Of course, depending on where you live, there is still some degree of in-person interaction happening too. Certain activities, particularly going for walks or other forms of exercise, are still allowed provided they comply with social distancing rules. We are seeing “coffee walks”, or activities like golf, taking place in the community, although the number of participants for those events is obviously much smaller than it was previously.”

On improving access to technology for older adults:

“At Stitch, we are often finding that preconceived notions about older adults not being able to access technology are often over-exaggerated. We have members who are in their 90’s, and it’s been inspiring to watch those who are comfortable with technology help those members who are still just learning. The suddenness of the COVID-19 crisis has seen a massive increase in the number of older adults who are suddenly willing to try something new like video calling, which is something we have observed a lot over the last few years: once older adults have a reason to adopt new technology, they are often far more adept than many people expect. 

Having said that, there are of course many older adults who do not have access to technology or else face other barriers. For us, the solution comes from recognizing that’s always going to be the case for a certain percentage of the population, and finding ways to address it. Some of our members, for example, act as “buddies” for other members who struggle with technology. They will give them a phone call to let them know when there is an activity they would like to attend, and often help with things like transport (which is another barrier that many older adults face). The key here is building community connections that help support those people who may struggle, for whatever reason.”

On what he’s learned since starting Stitch:

“I sometimes think I have learned more since starting Stitch than I did in my entire previous professional career. If I were to point to one thing, however, it has been how my greater understanding of the importance of social connections on our mental and physical well-being has had an impact on my own personal life. Until I started on the Stitch journey, I think I took my social connections for granted to some extent — at least, I never previously thought much about the impact of my social connections and my sense of community had on my own well-being. Being an active part of the community has highlighted how important those things are, not just for me, but for my kids and my family, and that’s been an unexpected gift.”

On increasing social connections as people get older:

“As we get older, we often face increasing barriers to social connections, including access to technology and transport, as previously mentioned, but also support for disabilities, affordable housing, and health. Organizations like Stitch are working to address those barriers, along with plenty of community organizations, local government groups, health organizations, and not-for-profits. It’s a big challenge and one that is only getting bigger as we all live longer lives.

Having said that, we have seen time and again how resilient our members are, particularly when they are been given an opportunity to be part of the solution themselves. In Stitch’s case, the most important members of the community are those members who help create social outcomes for all other members. By creating solutions that older adults themselves can create and nurture, rather than coming up with services that need to be delivered to them, we can end up creating far more sustainable outcomes for everyone.”

On his insights about loneliness and aging:

“There is a persistent stereotype of the lonely older adult, which paints a picture of inevitable loneliness as we age. In reality, the evidence tells us that older adults are less likely to feel lonely than their younger counterparts, and it is young people today who identify as the most lonely generation. 

The role that aging plays, however, is an important one, and it’s why we chose 50 as the age for people to be allowed to join Stitch. When we are younger, life brings us new social connections automatically, whether that’s through school, college, work, or even parenting. This means we can go through much of the first part of our lives without ever thinking too hard about how we build meaningful social connections. 

At a certain point, however, opportunities for those new social connections stop or decrease. And the process of aging means our social circles then will inevitably start to shrink — driven by factors such as relocation, illness, divorce, and death — unless we proactively develop new social connections. 

This is why one of the biggest things we can be doing right now to address isolation in older adults is through education. Being “lonely” today is still considered a stigma, something very few people feel comfortable admitting. They often feel that doing so is to admit there is something wrong with them.

On the contrary, it’s a natural part of life for your social circle to shrink, particularly once you reach 50 and beyond. The more people understand that, and understand that the only way to address it is to constantly open themselves to new connections, the happier we will all be as we age. 

Being “lonely” today is still considered a stigma, something very few people feel comfortable admitting.

Andrew Dowling, MBA

Are You Afraid Of Getting Older?

If you have a fear of getting older, then you are not alone. Globally, just one in three are looking forward to old age, according to a 2019 Ipsos study. America falls slightly above the global average at 40 percent. Other countries feel much more positive about old age, including three quarters (73 percent) in India and two thirds (67 percent) in Turkey. Still, there’s room for improvement.

Better representation in the media, more inclusive design to solve social problems and better preparation for later life are needed to reduce the fear of getting older.

Aging is still viewed negatively in different societies. The fact is that we are ALL aging – from the moment we take the first breath to our last. Researcher Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology and psychology at the Yale University School of Public Health, states that thinking positively about aging can improve our health and longevity.

Research focusing on rapid increases in longevity shows why we do what we do – sharing information and educating both older and younger audiences, who are current and future older adults! We started Global Health Aging to empower people to take charge of their longevity by exploring what it means and will look like for them. Our previous work mostly focused on today’s older adult, and while that is still a core part of our mission, we expanded it to include younger people. Aging happens to all of us, and the earlier we practice healthy habits (this will look different for everyone), the better. It’s still never too late to live a healthy lifestyle. For example, learning about menopause is crucial for both older and younger women.

Younger women should not lack awareness and education about an inevitable condition until they are older. In fact, did you know that menopause can start earlier, before age 40?

We’ve always said that issues affecting aging (nutrition, caregiving, menopause, etc.) are not only for older adults or initiatives focused on older people. For instance, some caregivers are children, people in their 30s with dementia, etc. It’s all about inherited genes or if there’s a life event like caregiving. Our “Five Questions” interview series is one of several projects that features people of different ages in their quest for a longer and healthier life. Let’s challenge our stereotypes around aging by exchanging and engaging in scientific and social dialogue!

What, if any, are your fears about getting older? Tell us!

A Poem About Covid-19

Together Apart by British artist Banksy

Lockdown
Yes there is fear.
Yes there is isolation.
Yes there is panic buying.
Yes there is sickness.
Yes there is even death.
But,
They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise
You can hear the birds again.
They say that after just a few weeks of quiet
The sky is no longer thick with fumes
But blue and grey and clear.
They say that in the streets of Assisi
People are singing to each other
across the empty squares,
keeping their windows open
so that those who are alone
may hear the sounds of family around them.
They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland
Is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.
Today a young woman I know
is busy spreading fliers with her number
through the neighbourhood
So that the elders may have someone to call on.
Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples
are preparing to welcome
and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary
All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting
All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a new way
All over the world people are waking up to a new reality
To how big we really are.
To how little control we really have.
To what really matters.
To Love.
So we pray and we remember that
Yes there is fear.
But there does not have to be hate.
Yes there is isolation.
But there does not have to be loneliness.
Yes there is panic buying.
But there does not have to be meanness.
Yes there is sickness.
But there does not have to be disease of the soul
Yes there is even death.
But there can always be a rebirth of love.
Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.
Today, breathe.
Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic
The birds are singing again
The sky is clearing,
Spring is coming,
And we are always encompassed by Love.
Open the windows of your soul
And though you may not be able to touch across the empty square, Sing.

Brother Richard Hendrick is a Capuchin Priest living in Ireland.

Five Questions With Neurobiologist Nathasia Muwanigwa

Name: Nathasia Mudiwa Muwanigwa
Job: Neurobiology PhD Researcher and STEM Advocate
Country: Zimbabwe, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Cyprus
Age: 26

Nathasia Muwanigwa is currently pursuing a PhD in neurobiology at the University of Luxembourg. Her research focuses on stem cell based modeling of Parkinson’s disease at the Luxembourg Center for Systems Biomedicine. Nathasia has a Bachelors in Human Biology, summa cum laude, from the University of Nicosia (Cyprus) and a Research Master’s in Molecular Mechanisms of Disease from Radboud University (Netherlands). She is an early career panelist for Neuro Central, an online hub that delivers high quality content uniting neurology and neuroscience. Nathasia is a dedicated advocate for underrepresented individuals in STEM, particularly Africans in STEM who lack visibility on the global STEM landscape. She is a Co-Founder and Director of Visibility STEM Africa, an initiative changing the narrative surrounding African contributions to STEM. As a result of her advocacy, she was profiled in Forbes Science. Find her on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Facebook

On her research about Parkinson’s disease:

“My research focuses on Parkinson’s disease (PD), the second most common neurodegenerative disorder globally. PD is characterized by the loss of a specific type of brain cell (dopaminergic neurons) from the midbrain. Symptomatically, PD patients present with tremor, muscle rigidity and slow movement amongst other symptoms. For my research, I make use of stem cell derived “minibrains” (aka organoids) that mimic human brain development. The aim of my research is to use these minibrains to model the changes that occur in the brain during the progression of PD in order to discover new molecular pathways that can be targeted for therapeutic interventions and drug discovery.”

On whether people with Parkinson’s can have good quality of life:

“One of the most challenging aspects of Parkinson’s is it is a progressive disorder, meaning symptoms worsen over time. This can make maintaining a good quality of life challenging as the condition progresses. Some PD patients are responsive to drugs that slow the progression of the disease, but for many, these drugs may not have any effect. There are lifestyle changes that PD patients can make that can prolong their mobility. Regular exercise at early diagnosis is important in maintaining mobility and balance. Maintaining a healthy diet and staying hydrated can be helpful particularly in avoiding some of the gastrointestinal issues associated with PD. There is substantial research going into improving early detection of PD and researchers are exploring various therapies, which will help in slowing down the progression of the disease.”

On how Zimbabwe treats older adults:

Generally, in my experience, Zimbabweans hold family to high importance. Family is at the backbone of Zimbabwean culture. When family members get older, it is quite common that they may move in with their adult children. Otherwise, in some cases people will hire caregivers for their parents when they are unable to care for themselves. However, given the current economic challenges in the country, much of the older population is not receiving sufficient medical care and support, despite their family’s efforts. Limited resources and a poor healthcare system has rendered the older populations quite vulnerable.

On her thoughts about aging gracefully versus cosmetic treatments:

“To me aging gracefully is entering your older years with confidence. How you achieve that is entirely up to an individual. I think there is nothing wrong with getting cosmetic treatments if that is what you want and it makes you feel good. I am a big believer in people having autonomy over their own bodies and making informed decisions that suit them. I think what is most important is having a good understanding of what the cosmetic treatments do and have realistic expectations. There are steps people can take to “age gracefully” without cosmetic procedures too. For example, starting a good skincare routine in your 20’s and 30’s is beneficial for healthy skin as well as eating well, exercising and self-care.”

On her future goals:

I definitely want to continue in science, although time will tell whether I will remain in academia or pursue other avenues, such as science communication. I am excited about the future of Visibility STEM Africa (VSA). The initiative aims to give visibility to Africans in STEM both on the continent and in the diaspora in order to provide visible role models for young Africans interested in pursuing STEM careers. To learn more, follow VSA on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn! I also serve on a board of directors the Biotech Institute (Zimbabwe), a private hybrid academic-biotechnology research institution that focuses on both basic and translational research in the areas of biomedicine and agriculture.

Aging gracefully is entering your older years with confidence. How you achieve that is entirely up to an individual.

Nathasia Mudiwa Muwanigwa, MSc, PhD Candidate

Five Questions With Pharmacologist Monica Javidnia

Name: Dr. Monica Javidnia
Job: Experimental Therapeutics Fellow
Country: United States and Iran
Age: 31

Dr. Monica Javidnia is a neuropharmacologist and Experimental Therapeutics in Neurological Disease Fellow at the University of Rochester Medical Center. She earned both her Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in Neuroscience at the University of Texas at Dallas and her Ph.D. in Pharmacology from Georgetown University. Her work focuses on pharmacological and non-pharmacological management of motor and non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, disease progression modeling, and patient outcomes. Find Dr. Javidnia on Twitter and LinkedIn.

On her neurodegenerative and aging research:

“My work largely focuses on Parkinson’s disease, treatment and progression, and I’m interested in how we can use digital tools to monitor response to treatment. I’m fortunate to be working in the Center for Health + Technology and Department of Neurology with many innovative researchers and collaborators. With the addition of virtual study visits, telemedicine, and remote assessments, the team is bringing research opportunities and clinical care to people who may not have previously had access. One such program is Parkinson Disease Care New York, a state-wide telemedicine initiative that provides specialist care to people with Parkinson’s. Sometimes, the closest specialist is hours away, and driving or getting a ride can be a huge burden. With telemedicine, p­­­eople can see a neurologist from the comfort of their own home.”

On a surprising fact about Parkinson’s disease progression:

“When I learned about Parkinson’s disease through descriptions in a textbook (for example, average age 65, predominantly male, primary drug levodopa), I didn’t understand just how different things can be in real life. For about six months, I shadowed a movement disorders clinician once a week to learn more about Parkinson’s. It was eye-opening to see the range in ages, symptoms, other conditions they have, response to treatment, and more.”

On her work with 1000 girls, 1000futures:

“The New York Academy of Sciences 1000girls, 1000futures program pairs women in STEM with girls interested in pursuing STEM careers. In addition to the one-on-one mentorship, the program has message boards which are a great way to engage with people around the world, ask and answer questions, share articles, and participate in “Ask Me Anything” sessions. I have participated for two years now, and it has been wonderful getting to know the girls and other mentors.” 

Image

On her outreach and science-communication (SciComm) efforts:

“I try several methods to get my message out to the masses: Letters to a Pre-Scientist, Twitter, 1000girls, 1000futures program, Skype a Scientist, seminars, talking to people with Parkinson’s and their care partners, slipping some science in to my yoga classes, directing a science communication course at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and answering as many questions as I can. I started working with Ellen Wagner, a user-experience (UX) specialist, and it has definitely changed how I get my message across. Given my fields, I get a lot of questions from friends, family, and people I just met on all types of topics. I try to create a space in which they feel comfortable asking questions, gauge their background knowledge, respond clearly without excessive jargon, and hopefully leave the door open for a follow-up question or discussion. I don’t think I am perfect at SciComm, but I am definitely a better communicator than I used to be, and it just takes practice. As a side note, I applaud SciComm folks like Dr. Efra Rivera-Serrano, who have active social media accounts, post regularly, and maintain a large reach. I wish I had their skill and energy!”

On her future goals:

“Too many to count! Aside from my research goals, I want to provide personalized yoga practices for people with Parkinson’s. I believe yoga has the potential to improve symptoms, help prevent falls, and may also be beneficial for their care partner.”             

Watch Skype A Scientist Live Q&A session with Dr. Javidnia!

I believe yoga has the potential to improve symptoms, help prevent falls, and may also be beneficial for their care partner.

Dr. Monica Javidnia, PhD

Five Questions With Neuroscientist Dennis Eckmeier

Name: Dennis Eckmeier
Job: Science Editor and Communicator
Country: Germany, USA, Portugal
Age: 41

Dennis Eckmeier supports scientists who are preparing manuscripts and funding applications. He is further establishing himself as a podcast producer in science communication. His podcast is about the role of science and academia in society. The project resulted from his engagement in the March for Science in Portugal. Dr. Eckmeier has a university degree in biology and a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Originally from Germany, he spent a total of 13 years conducting research in Germany, the USA, and Portugal. In 2018 he quit the academic career path and moved back to Germany as an independent scientist. You can find him on Twitter and his website.

On his fears about getting older:

“My fear of advanced age is the threat of poverty. Spending 20 years in academia has left me with sub-par retirement funds.

In Germany, the current working generations – Millennials and Generation X (my generation) – pay the retirement of the current retired generation (Baby Boomers+). For this “generation contract” to work well, however, the working population needs to be larger than the retired population. But the German population is shrinking because of low birth rates. 

Currently, the retiring baby boomer generation is the largest age-group in Germany; they are also the first generation to enjoy retirement for 20 years on average because of increasing life expectancy (81.41 years in 2020).

Image result for germany life expectancy 2020
Learn more about the population of Germany here.

This means, our growing population of retirees needs to be financially supported by a shrinking working population, which is already causing problems. In response, the government is encouraging us to buy private retirement plans in addition to paying for public retirement insurance.

Subsidized private insurance plans were conceived. I couldn’t buy one before I left Germany – and still can’t – but they have proven insufficient, anyways. Many cases were made public where the insured are lucky to get out what they paid in. On the other hand, interest rates in Germany are currently lower than inflation, meaning that saving money in the bank will shrink rather than grow your wealth.

Being an academic prohibited me from paying even average amounts into retirement plans. The amount of money you receive from the German public retirement insurance depends on the years and the amounts you paid into it. But as an academic, you usually don’t pay into it until after graduation. So, most workers have already paid for a decade before academics even begin. This is supposed to be offset by a higher salary that academics are expected to earn. But, academics in the public sector in Germany aren’t paid particularly much – and good long-term contracts are rare. As a Ph.D. student, I only got a 50 percent part-time contract despite working 50 hours per week. Colleagues who received a fellowship did not pay retirement insurance since fellowships are tax-free. That sounds great until you realize that fellowships are so low, that after paying mandatory health insurance, they have less money than those who have working contracts with the university (where health insurance is included).

In addition to the four years part-time contribution to my public retirement account, I have a 401(k) from my time in the USA (4.5 years), and I am entitled to some retirement funds from Portugal. But my 401(k) only received minimum rates, and the median income in Portugal is quite low. So I can’t expect big returns from either.

I’m now 41, and despite having earned a Ph.D. and having worked at top research institutes, my retirement savings are below average. And I’m currently not paying into my retirement plan at all, because I just started my own business.

The uncertainty further increases, as German politicians struggle to find a good solution for the failing generation contract. They are raising the retirement age to decrease the ratio between working and retired people, and they are discussing how many years you need to have paid into retirement to receive full retirement pay.”

Learn more about his expertise on his website.

On how academia can help improve quality of life:

“Where retirement is purely a private responsibility, salaries must be sufficiently high for graduate students and postdocs to not only live a middle-class lifestyle in that area but also ensure they have a proper retirement plan. In some regions, it may even be worth considering building houses specifically for postdocs to live in. In countries where fellowships are tax-free, but also mean no contribution to public retirement insurance, this must be changed. People should receive the same rights and benefits regardless of who pays for the salary. Where there are special rules for academia so that worker protection regulation is being circumvented, this must stop. There is really no reason to have special rules for academia that allow them to exploit early career researchers the way it is happening right now.”

On his financial struggles as a postdoc:

“After I graduated in 2010, I was advised to go abroad for international research experience. I spent 4.5 years in the USA at a top research facility in Long Island, so my pay was relatively high for a postdoc in the USA. I even had a 401(k)! However, while other employees received payment to their 401(k) at nine percent of their salary, postdocs only received one percent – the minimum for having a 401(k) at all, as far as I know. It was justified by claiming that postdocs were only temporarily – even though most postdocs stayed for more than five years. And despite the relatively high salary, I could not afford to pay into retirement, since living in Long Island is very expensive. Also, as a postdoc abroad, I needed my savings for the next move. I later moved to Portugal for a second postdoc, where I had a tax-free fellowship, so I didn’t pay into their social security system – except for a minimum voluntary amount.

On his future goals:

“I am currently in the process of building a business for Science Editing and Science Communication. I hope to, at some point, be able to retire without ending in poverty.”

On his healthy habits for self-care:

“I try to reduce stress by choosing work I can enjoy, and by getting some physical activity in.”

Where retirement is purely a private responsibility, salaries must be sufficiently high for graduate students and postdocs to not only live a middle-class lifestyle in that area, but also ensure they have a proper retirement plan.

Dr. Dennis Eckmeier, PhD

past lessons, future directions