Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women making a difference to society. Molecular biologist Madeline Lancaster has spent her career researching the human brain – and her research could have a huge effect on how we understand our own minds.
Forget the Bermuda Triangle, the disappearance of Flight MH370 and the location of Cleopatra’s tomb: when it comes to hard-to-crack mysteries, the human brain is one of the most puzzling of all. With around 86 billion nerve cells and trillions of synapses, there is still much that scientists don’t understand – or can’t agree on – about how our brains work, from why we dream to where our personalities come from. And devastating neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, are notoriously hard to treat precisely because of the brain’s complexity.
One of the major reasons that brains are so fiendishly difficult to research is that scientists are not, reassuringly, allowed to crack open our skulls while we’re still alive. And while studying animals can be useful when researching physical diseases such as cancer and diabetes, it’s a much less effective method when it comes to investigating neurological disorders and mental illnesses.
“It’s really, really hard to give a mouse schizophrenia as a way of trying to understand what’s wrong there,” explains molecular biologist Dr Madeline Lancaster. “[Mental illness] is a condition of being human, really, so it’s very difficult to investigate it in an animal model.”
That’s why, for the last several years, Lancaster has been on a mission to grow her own human brains. In her lab at MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, the Utah-born scientist spends her days researching brain development by studying cerebral organoids, colloquially known as ‘mini-brains’.
Mini-brains are tiny clusters of human brain tissue, grown from stem cells in petri dishes, that offer a rough approximation of a growing brain. They’re not brains – you couldn’t pop one in your head and hope to wake up in the morning – but they’re close enough to offer groundbreaking insights into how our minds really work.
“It gives us a tool to investigate how neurons are made, how the nerve cells of the brain are made, and how they establish connections with each other,” Lancaster says.
Eventually, she hopes, mini-brain technology will be able to help us “understand really key questions about what makes us human, and what is special about our brains compared with other animals”. She’s also optimistic that it will get us closer to finding treatments and cures for devastating neurological disorders.
Much is made of young girls’ lack of interest in STEM subjects, but science was always Lancaster’s passion. “I wanted to be a scientist for as long as I can remember,” she says. “I don’t think I ever wanted to do anything else – except maybe be an astronaut.”
After high school she went on to study at the University of California, San Diego, where undergraduate psychology classes sparked her fascination with the inner workings of the human mind. But the subject wasn’t quite right for her.
“Psychology gets into the not-so-concrete aspects of how the brain works, and I wanted to understand what’s actually happening inside the brain,” she says. “I felt that if we want to understand it, we have to understand how it’s built.”
She received her PhD in neurodevelopment and moved to Vienna to work at the Austrian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Molecular Biotechnology, before relocating to Cambridge in 2015. Lancaster heads up her lab there, and is aware that as she progresses in her field, the number of equally senior women around her is beginning to drop off.
“Neuroscience is pretty male-dominated, but developmental biology is about 50/50 [in terms of gender],” she says. “But the real concern is that even in developmental biology, where there are lots of women, the higher levels are still male-dominated.”
The same is true for psychology, she says. “That’s actually a female-dominated field, but still the people at the top – the ones who end up being interviewed for things and credited for various discoveries – tend to be men.”
Ultimately, Lancaster says, the lack of women in senior positions in science shouldn’t be attributed to a lack of interest. “Whenever somebody asks me why there aren’t more women in science, my answer is: well, I don’t think it’s really about the women anymore,” she says. “I think women want to do this; they want to get into it.”
Instead, she points to the need to create a culture where women are able to conduct demanding scientific research while also raising families. She has two young children, and attributes part of her professional success to the fact that her partner takes on his fair share of childcare duties.
“My work means that I have to be able to come in on a Saturday evening and take care of my experiment, because my mini-brain doesn’t know that it’s Saturday!” she says. “I need to be flexible, and I have to have a partner who’s supportive of that.
“We’ve done a lot for women in science and technology in increasing their positions in different fields, but women can’t do it all,” she continues. “If you keep giving more to women, you’ve got to take something away, right? So I think now we have to focus on making it more acceptable for men to be involved in family and all that stuff.”
Lancaster also thinks it’s important to get schoolgirls interested in science and other male-dominated subjects from a young age. “I have a five-year-old, and she’s already talking about how she just wants to be a princess. I try to tell her: it’s great to wear a pretty dress, but it’s more important to be smart. We need to get young girls excited about more than just princess dresses.”
Mini-brains seem like a good place to start.
The Woman of the Week series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. Find out more about the campaign here, and see more Visible Women stories here.
Images: Courtesy of Madeline Lancaster /