Ackland Visitor Talks About Her Pyramidal Neuron Tattoo

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Photo of a woman from behind showing the pyramidal neuron tattoo on her back while standing in front of a drawing of a pyramidal neuron

Jane Tandler has a Masters of Science in Neurobiology and works at a Durham nonprofit. Like our previous Cajal-tattooed interviewee, she chose the iconic The pyramidal neuron of the cerebral cortex. The Ackland’s Ariel Fielding talked with her about her Ph.D. research, her affinity for the work of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, and life after neuroscience.

I’m so happy to be talking with you, Jane! A colleague shared a photo of your tattoo from the day you visited The Beautiful Brain, and I’ve wanted to interview you ever since. In the meantime I heard about another local resident with a Cajal tattoo, Vincent Boudreau, and it was when I posted my interview with him that I found you. How many times did you visit the exhibition?

Just the once. I was really excited to hear that it was coming, and it was beautiful. I went with some scientist friends of mine.

Did you have a favorite image in the show?

I mean, I’m biased toward the one I’d chosen for my tattoo, The pyramidal neuron of the cerebral cortex. That was the most exciting one to see. I was in a neuroscience Ph.D. program at Duke, so I’ve looked at these images for years and years. Being able to see them in person was really very cool.

Tell me about your work in neuroscience.

I came to the Cognitive Neuroscience admitting program at Duke in 2015. This is sort of a long, circuitous story, but I’ll try to make it brief. I was going to study PTSD and embodied cognition, thinking about how the symptoms of PTSD reflect the physical experience of trauma. Then I switched gears, because it’s a rotation program—you rotate through different disciplines and pick whichever one seems most interesting. I ended up in developmental psychoneuroimmunology, which is how the immune system formed in utero affects the brain, specifically linking immune insults by air pollution to eventual development of autism.

Whoa, so interesting!

I know! I totally fell in love with that idea and that topic, and then that mentor moved to Harvard. I don’t know how much you’re aware of the structure of Ph.D. programs, but you’re tied to your mentor. After a long back and forth about whether or not I was moving with her, I ended up staying at Duke and joining a different lab, studying the immune system and how it interacts with the retina, looking at glaucoma and other neurodegenerative diseases, and how immune cells play a role in perhaps accelerating neurodegeneration. And then, a year later, that mentor left to go to the NIH. I ended up in another lab looking at drug development and developing tools for neuroscience halfway between neurobiology and biomedical engineering. By this point I was in my third year, and after a year in that lab—which was great, I really enjoyed working there, and they were doing amazing work—the work that I was doing with a bunch of nonprofits in the area doing pro bono consulting was much more fulfilling to me than being bounced around from lab to lab. I ended up switching gears, and I work now at a local nonprofit in Durham called Senior PharmAssist, where we help older adults obtain and better manage needed medications and health insurance. That’s my autobiographical spiel. I’m the Development and Communications Director here.

I got my Cajal tattoo in 2016, because I had wanted it for five years, and I told myself, “If I want it for five years, I can get it.” That was my deadline, I met it, and I have no regrets about it at all. Neuroscience has been a big part of my life, even though I’m no longer in the field.

How did you pick that particular image, The pyramidal neuron of the cerebral cortex?

I spent a lot of time looking through the images. There aren’t a lot that are super scalable; many of them are larger than one might want for one’s first tattoo. There are a lot that are intricate and interwoven, so it’s hard to separate out distinct elements. This one was just so clean-cut, and it fit so perfectly in this particular space on my back that I’d picked; it seemed so nicely framed. It was a pretty intuitive choice. I kept coming back to it, which was a good indication to me that it was a good idea.

Do you remember the first time you saw a Cajal drawing?

I think probably when I was fifteen. I read this book called Second Nature, by Gerald Edelman. He has some Cajal drawings in there; that might have been my first sighting. The other thing is that I grew up obsessed with the Spanish language and Spanish culture. I spent a lot of time in high school learning Spanish and travelling to Spain. I did an immersion program, and I T.A.’d in college. So it was a very nice tie-in to have such an important neuroscientist be an important part of Spanish history as well. My second mentor, the one who’s doing glaucoma research, gave me an early copy of Cajal’s autobiography, which is an extremely cool thing to have.

Do you still maintain an interest in the topics you studied with your mentors?

Yeah, it helps that I formed some really close friendships in graduate school. I have the squad that I went to the Cajal exhibit with, who are passionate, intelligent people who are also lovely and great to spend time with. That’s helped me to stay in constant communication with the field. I get to hear about their work. I’m still on a bunch of email lists, and I follow the research, but honestly it’s been nice to get a little bit of space from it. You feel like there’s less pressure on the day-to-day to solve Parkinson’s or something. I’m glad that really smart people are doing that, and I’m going to be over here trying to get seniors the medications they need. It’s just a little more tangible.

Photograph by Brenda Yang