Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Conversation 25: Author and Neuroscientist Apryl Pooley



Hello, all, and welcome back to Clockwork Conversations!

Today I am pleased to have as my guest author and neuroscientist Apryl Pooley. 




She didn’t send me a bio with her interview so we might as well jump right in! But first…

Possible trigger warning: My honored guest today is a courageous survivor, in multiple senses of the term. This interview discusses topics which may be sensitive or triggering for some readers. Please be advised.

Q1: At what point in your life did you realize you wanted to become a scientist?

AP: Being a scientist was an unexpected discovery for me—like many great scientific breakthroughs! I began college in 2004 at Eastern Illinois University to study music composition. I had been taking piano and music theory lessons for the past seven years and spent every moment of my free time writing, playing, and listening to music. I was excited to continue these studies in college and dreamed of conducting a symphony at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Sadly, just a few months before I was to begin college, I was raped and something within me changed. I could no longer play or write music—it was like my brain was broken. I still pursued my degree in music, but after my first year of college, I found that my passion and ability for music had vanished.

Inadvertently, I decided to take a genetics class in the Biology Department to fulfill my required science credit, and I unexpectedly fell in love with science. I had never been exposed to the innerworkings of the human body before, and I couldn’t believe I had been living with my body for nineteen years and had no idea how it worked. I had to figure it out, so I signed up for a general biology class the next semester. I was intrigued and in awe of the intricacies of all the organ systems and molecular mechanisms that controlled every movement, thought process, emotion, sensory interpretation, and environmental response within a person. I was especially fascinated by memories and emotions and what makes a person an individual. The deeper my understanding of the beautiful structural and functional complexity of the human body became, the closer I got to finding the answer to a question I had not even fully formulated yet.

In my second year of college I officially declared my biology/pre-medicine major and took every class related to human biology that was offered. When I took my first neurobiology class, I realized that the brain may hold all of the answers—and the questions—I was looking for. Everything that intrigued me about the human body was somehow controlled by the brain, and I had to learn more. After receiving my bachelor’s degree in 2008, I continued on to receive my master’s degree under the mentorship of my neurobiology professor, and next year I will be receiving my Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Michigan State University.

I didn’t consciously realize this until after I had been in college for eight years, but I was looking for answers as to what had happened to my brain and body when I was raped in high school. It was like a switch was flipped, and overnight, I became an entirely different person inside an entirely foreign body. And this is how I ended up researching the effects of trauma on the brain.

Q2: How does being a neuroscientist change the way you view humankind in general? Has it done so?

AP: Studying neuroscience has made me a more compassionate person. Researching the neurobiology of trauma has especially given me empathy and kindness, as I know that most people who do horrible things to other people have had horrible things done to them—nobody is born a rapist or a killer, and I hope that we as a human race can find a way to break these violent, hateful cycles by helping one another. Having a scientific understanding of addiction and mental illness, particularly in light of how trauma exacerbates these problems, helps me to understand that people with these issues aren’t lazy, crazy, attention-seeking, or selfish—labels society often places on these individuals—but that we all have a story, a history, that has brought us to where we are today and we need to take into consideration a person as a whole being, not just their labels or their actions, in order to understand life from their perspective.


Q3: In addition to your work as a neuroscientist and being an author, you are also a visual artist. I was looking at your artwork on your website and found it to be raw, beautiful, and fascinating. What made you decide to choose broken glass as a medium to work in?


AP: Well, thank you! My “official artist statement” is this:

Inspired by the unpredictability of a shattered life, I employ the volatility of shattered glass to transform a destructive pattern into constructive works of art.  By destroying something that was once itself destructive, I aim to release the grip of addiction to reveal the beauty underneath the grime of distress.


I know those artist statements can sound so pretentious sometimes, but this broken glass series was another unexpected endeavor. I was in the first few months of recovery from alcoholism, and I had just begun to talk with my therapist about being sexually abused as a child. Talking about this abuse for the first time in 20 years triggered such intense pain and grief within me that all I wanted to do was drink. I was pacing around my apartment, weighing the pros and cons of going to the liquor store, and when I saw the empty liquor bottles on top of my refrigerator that I had not yet recycled from my drinking days, I just wanted to throw them against the wall. Immediately, I thought “what if I filled them with paint and smashed them onto a canvas?” and that was the beginning of that. It’s a great release.


Q4: What do you hope to be able to accomplish through your writing and artwork?

AP: Simply put:  just to help people. That’s all I want to do. If I can keep one person from feeling so alone and hopeless, or one person from taking their own life, then everything I’ve been through would have been worth it. I want people to know that your history of abuse, addiction, eating disorder, mental illness, your sexual orientation, etc. is nothing to be ashamed of. These things don’t define who we are as human beings, but they do shape who we are as individuals, and everybody deserves to be loved for who they are.


Q5: *bonus question for everyone* Do you collect anything? If so, why?

AP: Music, books, and movies. Throughout my entire life, these things (especially music) have shaped who I have become and will continue to do so. They help me feel my feelings, get a view of the human condition from someone else’s perspective, and understand the world around me. I cannot imagine my life without this kind of art—being able to bring a piece of someone else’s experience and creation into your home and into your mind is just a beautiful thing.

~*~

Thank you, Apryl, for sharing your incredible journey through recovery and education with us today! I am in awe of your accomplishments, grace, and courage.

You can find out more about Apryl Pooley, her writing, and her artwork by visiting her website at: www.aprylpooley.com

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