Finding hope in science
The inspiring journey of Staff Scientist Dr. Lily Iskhakova
s a child growing up in the Republic of Uzbekistan in the Former Soviet Union, Lily Iskhakova used to sit in her grandmother’s family medicine clinic watching in fascination as she treated her patients. It was then, Lily says, that she fell in love with medicine—a love that later turned into a passion for research.
Now the staff scientist in charge of Prof. Rony Paz’s lab in the Department of Brain Sciences, she reflects on her journey to become a neuroscientist, her work at the Weizmann Institute, and how her experiences as a refugee helped her to get where she is today.
In 1991, fleeing religious persecution and threats of violence towards business owners, Lily immigrated to the United States with her immediate and extended family and settled in Atlanta, Georgia. She was 12 years old.
After high school, she decided to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps and enrolled in a pre-med program at a local university in Atlanta. A little while later, her grandfather suffered a stroke, and Lily, frustrated by the limits of what could be done medically to aid his recovery, asked his neurologist if there was anything else they could try. He told her about a collaborative study between two Atlanta institutions—Emory University and Georgia Tech—through which her grandfather could receive special therapy for stroke victims, and where she would be offered her first research internship. Little did she know, this position would spark a whole new passion in her and change the course of her life.
“I felt like there was so much more potential in research to give people hope for new ways to treat their illnesses,” she says. After another internship, this time at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Lily decided to follow her curiosity even further—changing course from medical school to graduate programs in neuroscience, and she’s never looked back.
Upon completing a fast-track PhD program at Emory, she reviewed patents for an intellectual property firm in Chicago, and later taught biology at a local university. But her love for research pulled at her, and she found herself missing the lab. She began applying for postdoctoral positions in America, and then in Israel. Much to her surprise, she soon received an invitation to interview at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with Prof. Hagai Bergman, known for his tremendous contributions to Parkinson’s disease research. She was accepted, and three months later, in June 2014, moved from Atlanta to Jerusalem with her husband and two small children.
A fine dance
Towards the end of her postdoc, as Lily began to look for her next position, Prof. Bergman ran into his colleague, Prof. Rony Paz, at a conference. Prof. Paz, then Head of Weizmann’s Department of Neurobiology, mentioned that he was looking for someone to run his lab, and Prof. Bergman said he knew the perfect person for the job. After a brief interview process, Lily was offered the position and, in October 2019, stepped into her role as the Senior Intern in Prof. Paz’s lab in the Department of Brain Sciences.
Her job is dynamic and multifaceted. Every day, Lily juggles her time between overseeing the daily needs of 16 graduate students, managing the teams studying the dynamics of neuronal networks during learning and memory formation, supervising laboratory experiments, coordinating with the units on campus that support research activities, and, finally, running her own studies.
“I like the fast-paced, high-stress nature of the job because it makes me feel alive,” she explains. “Being in a place where we are able to do cutting-edge research, and working in an environment where every day comes with a new set of challenges, is perfect for me.”
Despite all of these responsibilities, Lily finds the time to care about both the professional and personal wellbeing of her students. “It’s a fine dance of mentoring students and then stepping back to allow them to make and learn from their own decisions,” she says. Students and postdocs also come to her for advice on topics outside of the lab. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, they wanted to know how to keep their families safe, or, in the case of foreign students, whether to travel home or not.
She says her personal experiences as a refugee and an immigrant have helped her overcome challenges and connect with the many students and scientists on campus who come from different cultures, have different values, and see the world differently. Drawing strength from her past, Lily explains, “Being a refugee makes you really resourceful, teaches you how to figure things out when you don’t have all of the information.”
Lily also dedicates time, when she can find it, to her own research on neuroplasticity, or the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through learning and reorganization. These changes, she explains, can occur either through individual neurons making new connections or the modification of cell group activity within neural networks. Lily studies the parts of the brain responsible for processing positive and negative emotional information, assessing the extent to which these networks are hard- or soft-wired. Findings from her research could help identify therapies for psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder—areas of growing importance in the age of the coronavirus and global instability.
When asked what she likes about doing research at Weizmann, Lily simply answers, “Weizmann is an oasis. You see a different atmosphere around you—green everywhere.”
“It is a place where people are constantly looking to the future and working to improve life as it is now, where PhD students are starting their research careers, and building families,” she continues. “It is a very hopeful place.”
She also lauds the incredible built-in support system that exists on campus to conduct excellent science.
“When you are putting together an experiment, everything has to be just right,” she explains. “We always have an expert on campus we can ask, to figure out a small but important detail in the experiment design. Weizmann provides me with everything I need to just do science.”
At the end of the day, Lily says, getting good data is the key. “Anyone can conduct an experiment, but can it be designed and executed in a way that the results are actually meaningful? Can the findings be used as a puzzle piece to understanding humanity? Someone with good computational skills can take a dataset and ‘turn sand into gold’. But what if gold is your starting material?”