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An Inspiration for Neuroscience Research: Amelia Gallitano, MD, PhD

By Nayeli Guzman, Associate Editor, Arizona Physician

Photography by Ben Scolaro, scolarodesign.com

Photography taken at Arizona Biomedical Collaborative 

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From Print Issue - Fall 2022

A passionate, dedicated, and self-driven woman of Italian descent, Amelia Gallitano, MD, PhD, has broken both generational limitations and societal disparities throughout her journey in medicine. Her father, a first-generation surgeon and son of immigrant parents, influenced Dr. Gallitano to pursue her degrees in medicine and research. Such training prepared Dr. Gallitano for her dream job of studying the human brain and mentoring the next generation. Born and raised in the outskirts of Boston, she first became inter­ested in cognitive experiences during high school. “We weren't in the middle of wars, and we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic. Now, we see the impact that these kinds of stresses have on the mental health of kids and teenagers,” she states.

 

She’s a board-certified psychiatrist and neuroscientist, Associate Professor at the University of Arizona, College of Medicine— Phoenix, with two decades of experience in academic medicine. Dr. Gallitano is passion­ate about advocating for and researching mental health and, most importantly, break­ing the stigma that surrounds this topic. Mental health has been misunderstood for centuries, although it can affect anyone and everyone. According to her, only a person that knows someone that suffers of a mental health prob­lem will have sympathy and understanding. This raises awareness of how misunderstood the topic of mental health really is. Two generations ago, psychiatric hospitals once viewed mental illnesses as being caused by “demonic possessions” of one’s conscience.

 

According to Dr. Gallitano, schizophrenia was thought to be caused by bad mothering in the 1960s and 70s. Because of scientific advances, we now have a more accurate understanding of schizophrenia and its impacts on the human mind. These advances, however, come at a price, and acquiring funds for mental health research can be challenging. “Mental health problems affect a huge proportion of people in our country. And yet, we get a much smaller percentage of research dollars going toward mental health disorders. Cancer affects a lot of people, but they get a huge portion of the research dollars,” says Dr. Gallitano. In the same way that cancer is caused by a biological predisposition, mental health disorders can also be caused by it. Gallitano argues that society has a hard time recognizing mental illness' complexity.

 

“Mental health problems affect a huge proportion of people in our country. And yet, we get a much smaller percentage of research dollars going toward mental health disorders.”

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JOURNEY IN MEDICINE

The decision to attend medical school didn't come until her undergraduate studies. Biopsychology research was the focus of her work in a lab. As a result, she applied to MD-PhD combined programs and developed a passion for research. Dr. Gallitano discovered that only 30% of the students in her MD-PhD program were female. Even though she never let this discourage her, she is now a great leader and inspiration to women in research and medicine. She states: “…graduate students have been about 50-50 for decades now. Yet we still don’t see that translate to equal numbers of women faculty. And at each level, as you go up the hierarchy, the percentage of females is reduced. Even when you consider racial ethnicity, women still make less than men in every racial and ethnic group…So there’s a major persistent problem in; rates of promotion, advance­ment, leadership positions, and pay. And so, the battle still must be fought.”

Due to the high cost of medical school, Dr. Gallitano believes that the debt burden medical students carry impacts their career choices. “National Institutes of Health, and the government have created funding to address that. The cost of medical school is so enormous now that if you get out with debt from paying for it all yourself, it’s very hard to ever pay that off. If you focus on research, you don’t get paid nearly as much as if you did clinical work.” For Dr. Gallitano, a big salary isn't the goal. Her desire to pursue research was driven by passion.

 

She learned the value of time through sacrifices she made in pursuit of her dream career. According to Dr. Gallitano, it can be quite challenging to maintain a research lab, obtain grants, and perform the research. The grant submission and review process is very competitive. However, she states, “There are many benefits to having a job that is constantly intellectually stimulating, where you can be creative and you can think of cool ideas, have fas­cinating discussions with people… it’s very satisfying. And there’s lots of other cool opportunities that come with it, like, you get to travel to other countries and present your science at conferences and meet other scientists from all over the world.” She has been presenting her research in Japan recently.

THE IMPACT OF A FEMALE LEADER/MENTOR

Dr. Gallitano gives recognition to her research col­leagues for being “tremendous mentors”. At that time, her PhD thesis advisor, a new professor, introduced her to a topic she never imagined she would ever study. They worked on drosophila; “…a set of genes that enter your posterior axis in the drosophila embryo, which is essentially, tiny specks that you can barely see on your bananas when the fruit flies lay the eggs. And I thought, “Why would I wanna study fruit flies?” You know? And after meeting with him for about an hour, I came out so excited, I thought, “Why would anybody ever wanna study anything but fruit flies?” That advi­sor has always been an inspiration when it comes to communicating science and relating it to things that people will find interesting and engaging.

 

The strong mentorship Dr. Gallitano received is something she carries forward for her students. She is heavily involved with the program Women in Medicine and Science, teaches classes, and serves as an advisor for masters and doctoral candidates. According to her, she is passionate about guiding the next gen­eration, “trying to help them get excited about science, and medicine,” she states. As a female leader in her field, Dr. Gallitano serves as a role model, and appreci­ates the value of female scientists. She states, “I’ve done a lot of work, and being a woman in medicine and science, and I do feel that seeing somebody that looks like you helps you think, “Oh, maybe I could do that, too.”

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RESEARCH AND CLINICAL PSYCHIATRY

Her current research focuses on genes that are expressed in the brain in response to environmental events. Such genes play an essential role in memory formation. She says, “I got very interested in the idea that because they are responsive to the environment, that they could mediate both a gene and environ­mental influences on risk for mental illnesses.” Her summarized hypothesis is the following: “… the activity of the genes that we study, that also get turned on in response to stress, help to balance that. Because they regulate the sort of protective arm of stress. These genes that are activated in response to environment and stress confer a resilience to the negative consequence of stress and allow us to live in balance. And if you have a genetic predisposition, an abnormality that disrupts the function of these genes, if you’re a person who’s had a tremendous stressor in your life, you may be less resilient in response, and that the negative consequences of that stress won’t be properly balanced.”

 

For almost nine years, she worked at the VA clinic, specializing in PTSD. The purpose of her research was to understand how a stressful event can activate these genes, thereby responding to stress and forming memories. Her current research focuses primarily on schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and other mood disorders. According to Dr. Gallitano, psychia­try is limited by the fact that it still diagnoses mental illnesses by asking questions and then by identifying the symptoms the patients are experiencing. She states, “We don't have any bio­markers. We can’t do a blood test, take a biopsy, do a physical exam test, nothing like that, or a brain scan. We’re hoping that this work will lead us to that. To be able to have a sort of a biomarker that can say, “Oh, this is likely to be schizophre­nia.” She looks forward to the new technological advancements in medicine.

 

CONCLUSION

Dr. Gallitano's research will help shape the future of mental health, set up potential diagnoses, and gene therapies for generations to come. We will be able to address mental health more effectively as empowered lead­ers like Amelia Gallitano, MD, dissect its complexity. It is only when we understand these intricacies that we will be able to treat both mental and physical health equally. Through researchers like Dr. Gallitano, I feel hopeful that more female physicians in research will be solving key healthcare issues for future generations.

 

LEARN MORE:

Interested in learning more about Dr. Gallitano's research, please visit her website, https://gallitanolab.medicine.arizona.edu/ or email her at amelia@email.arizona.edu.