Catherine Dulac, PhD, to present 41st Mildred Trotter Lecture

At this event, which recognizes International Women’s Day, Dulac will present her latest findings on the neural underpinnings of social isolation and sickness behaviors.

Catherine Dulac
Catherine Dulac, Higgins Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Harvard University

Catherine Dulac, PhD, recalls an event years ago at Harvard University that invited industry professionals to meet with faculty. Flanked by two male colleagues, Dulac watched as guest after guest entered the conference room and shook the men’s hands, generally ignoring her. Eventually, she took action; when the next person arrived, she stuck out her hand before he could pass her by and announced her title: faculty member at Harvard. Instantly, the exchange shifted.

It wouldn’t be the last time Dulac felt overlooked in favor of the men around her, although by now she’s a household name among neuroscientists. Renowned for her discoveries on pheromone receptors and the neural circuitry of sex-specific behaviors, Dulac has been recognized with numerous accolades, including the Liliane Bettencourt Prize, Ralph W. Gerard Prize in Neuroscience, the Scolnick Prize, the Pradel Research Award, and the Breakthrough Prize. She was the first woman chair of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. On March 7, Dulac will visit Washington University to present the 41st Mildred Trotter Lecture. The event, timed to recognize International Women’s Day (IWD), is named in honor of longtime faculty member, Dr. Mildred Trotter, who was the first woman full professor at Washington University School of Medicine. IWD is a global celebration of the achievements of women in all sectors of society, and also a call to address inequities.

“We are still basically inheriting this lack of expectation about women,” says Dulac, “but the field is making huge efforts. There is a desire to do better. We are all fighting this inheritance of prejudice and stereotype. For me as an educator I feel my role is to instill confidence in students, especially women and those who come from underrepresented backgrounds in science.”

“We are thrilled to host Professor Dulac for the Mildred Trotter lecture in the Department of Neuroscience at Washington University School of Medicine,” said Linda Richards, PhD, Edison Professor at Chair of the Department of Neuroscience. “Professor Dulac is an inspirational leader, scholar and educator who has contributed significantly to the Neuroscience community through her leadership and service. Notably, she co-led the US Brain Initiative working group 2.0 which mapped the potential future research directions of the NIH Brain Initiative.”

Dulac says her upbringing was largely spared the influence of sexist stereotypes that others experience. Her parents were both scholars and shared parenting and household responsibilities equally. “For me the expectation was quite different from my peers in school who had a father who was working and a mom at home,” Dulac says. Dulac felt encouraged to pursue her interests in biology and earned a PhD under the mentorship of developmental biologist Nicole Le Douarin. She then trained as a postdoc in the lab of Richard Axel and was the first to isolate a mammalian pheromone receptor.

I think it’s super interesting, as there are many more women working in this field it becomes absolutely expected that you would look at behaviors of both males and females.

Catherine Dulac, PhD

It wasn’t until she was a junior faculty member at Harvard that her gender took on prominence in her science. At the time, behavior research focused nearly entirely on males (and was also conducted largely by men), the reasons being either that females are too complicated because of the estrus cycle or any results in males will translate to females. Dulac notes that these excuses are not only contradictory, but false. As a woman neuroscientist interested in social behaviors, Dulac wanted to understand females too. In investigating male and female animals, she made breakthrough discoveries on the mechanisms governing sex-specific behaviors. She found that the neural circuitry underlying parenting and mating behaviors exist in both male and female animals. This work reshaped the view that brain wiring for these functions is fundamentally different in males and females; rather, the networks are the same, it’s the regulation of network activity that varies.

Dulac’s Trotter Lecture will present work from her lab on two lines of research into the neural circuitry of behaviors that took on critical importance during the pandemic: sickness behaviors and social isolation. During bouts of illness, people tend to seek warmth, rest, and eat less—all of which have adaptive value. One other behavior is the sick person tends to avoid others, and healthy people tend to avoid the sick. “We got some really interesting results recently” on how the brain orchestrates this response, says Dulac. In related work, Dulac’s lab has identified the neurons that encode the state of social isolation in mice and another set that encode reunion.

Dulac says there are sex differences in these responses. This work—like much of science nowadays—includes both male and female mice. “I think it’s super interesting,” she says, “as there are many more women working in this field it becomes absolutely expected that you would look at behaviors of both males and females.”

The Washington University community is invited to attend Catherine Dulac’s Trotter Lecture on Thursday, March 7 at 4 p.m. in the Jeffrey T. Fort Neuroscience Research Building Auditorium.