Discovering what makes us tick

By

Emma Greguska

On paper, Candance Lewis seems to have it all — including a Bisgrove fellowship and a Fulbright scholarship. And having successfully defended her dissertation in June, she can now add “Dr.” to her title. All at only 28 years old.

But the two-time Arizona State University alumnus — Lewis earned both her master’s and her doctorate through the Department of Psychology’s behavioral neuroscience program — wants other students to know that “every step along the way was peppered with self-doubt, failures and heartache.”

The child of a mentally ill parent, Lewis experienced what she calls a disadvantaged childhood. That experience ultimately stoked her desire to understand the factors that shape who we are, and to help those who suffer from abnormalities associated with them.

Candace Lewis portrait

After receiving her bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Alaska Anchorage, Lewis (pictured left) left her native state for the “innovative biomedical research environment” in Phoenix.

Lewis’ Bisgrove post-doctoral fellowship will be carried out as a joint appointment with ASU’s Department of Psychology and the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen).

“I am thrilled the Bisgrove fellowship allows me to continue my training in this community,” she said.

Specifically, she will be combining state-of-the-art genetic research at TGen with an ASU-faculty-led twin study that aims to determine how both genetics and environment affect childhood health and cognitive outcomes.

“I am ecstatic for the opportunity to receive training from Dr. Huentelman at TGen, an internationally renowned genetics research center on the cutting edge of translational research. I am astonished and humbled by my team of mentors and their expertise. I could not ask for a better post-doctoral experience as measured by my mentors and the extensive and diverse training I will receive,” she added.

For her Fulbright Scholarship, Lewis will be researching the effects of psilocybin, the psychoactive component of “magic mushrooms,” as a treatment option for depression and anxiety disorders.

Read on for a fascinating glimpse inside the mind of a dedicated scientist.

Question: What initially sparked your interest in the relationship between genetics and behavior?

Answer: I am a child of a mentally ill parent and experienced a disadvantaged childhood. These experiences led to an intense curiosity concerning if the sum total of a person is more a product of their biologically inherited genes or of their collective experiences throughout life. This is commonly referred to as the nature vs. nurture debate. This is not only a philosophical question, but is quite pertinent to understanding the etiology of psychiatric illnesses.

To further obscure the answer, research shows the cause of most psychiatric illness has both a genetic and environmental component. I am ecstatic to be an emerging researcher during a time I can investigate the interaction between genetics and environment.

Q: What do you hope to learn from studying that relationship?

A: Both fields are crucial to understanding the human condition, but my interest lies in the intersection of how experiences have the ability to alter genetic expression that in turn influences behavioral and physiological systems implicated in mental health.

Q: What was your reaction upon finding out you had been awarded both a Bisgrove award and a Fulbright Scholarship?

A: Silent and still astonishment followed by deep gratitude and misty eyes.

Q: How is your Bisgrove post-doctoral research on twins unique?

A: This type of work, in the field of epigenetics, is nothing short of a paradigm switch. Instead of wondering whether genes or experiences assert greater influence over one’s health, we can now measure how biologically inherited genetics and experiences in our environment interact with each other to influence health-related biological systems and behavior. This area of research may lead to novel behavioral and pharmaceutical treatments for various psychiatric conditions.

Q: Why is your Fulbright Scholarship research especially timely?

A: Current treatment options for major depressive disorder and anxiety-related disorders are dismal. This research seeks to understand if psilocybin-assisted therapy may produce drastically better outcomes for certain patient populations. Recently, top research universities such as UCLA and NYU have published promising preliminary results demonstrating long-lasting antidepressant effects from one psilocybin-assisted therapy session. While this may seem a controversial technique, to me it is not, because the patient outcome is what truly matters. Ultimately, I chose this career to use neuroscience as a tool to help improve the quality of life for people who are suffering.

Q: How do your Bisgrove research and your Fulbright research compare?

A: On the surface, they seem vastly different but at the core they are related. Our understanding and treatment of mental illness has virtually been at a standstill for decades. Both of my projects use modern techniques, such as neuroimaging and second-generation genetic sequencing, in conjunction with novel approaches and ideas about how we can conceptualize and treat mental illness.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish through your research?

A: My sole driving force to conduct research in this field is to bring relief to those suffering.

Q: Any advice for students struggling to find success in their field?

A: I want younger students to know that every step along the way was peppered with self-doubt, failures and heartache. One must find a support system and keep trying when the academic road becomes treacherous. Always remember that every “no” you receive is an opportunity to find a better “yes” somewhere else.

The Department of Psychology is part of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.