Helena Yardley takes such a deep and unabashed dive in the pursuit of life that she might make you a little envious.
As a joint student in the Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience departments as well as the Institute for Behavioral Genetics, Helena’s research extends across these diverse disciplines. The major question driving her studies asks how to link specific behavioral traits, such as loss of inhibition or impulsivity, with their underlying genetics.
Helena thinks the answer might lie in what’s known in the field as an ‘endophenotype’. Endophenotypes tie genetic variation to a physiological process, like signaling patterns made by neurons in the brain, that represent a behavior. Using an endophenotype, she can then ask to what degree genetics is driving these signaling patterns, and furthermore, to what degree these patterns cause the behavior. Making connections between genetics, neural signaling patterns, and behaviors could reveal novel therapeutic avenues.
Most of her research these days involves tediously analyzing brain images to find an endophenotype. With this information in hand, she’ll then overlay genetic evidence from genome-wide association studies. Genome-wide association studies identify slight variations in a person’s genetic makeup, a single typo among millions of letters, associated with a particular trait. The merging of an interesting endophenotype with genome-wide association studies brings together a physiologic phenomenon with its genetic root.
Perhaps surprisingly, Helena’s technical skills go hand-in-hand with the demands of life on the ranch where she lives. Both realms require an eye for detail, a somewhat meticulous and exacting attitude toward carrying out tasks, aptitude for problem solving and quick-thinking resourcefulness.
Much like life in the lab, life on the ranch has its ups and downs. Challenges certainly arise when you’re the caretaker for a herd of goats, roost of chickens, two horses, and three livestock-guarding dogs. Not to be left out, Helena’s pup joins ‘The Mayor’ of this expanse, a gray tabby cat intent on ruling the land while ridding it of murine vermin.
Though research can be stressful, circumstances on the ranch can very quickly lead to a life or death situation. It’s breeding season and many of the goats are pregnant. One goat carries triplets, her belly extending like over-inflated basketballs on each side. If all goes well, many of the goats will be giving birth any day now, a process that is not exactly hands-off for a ranch hand like Helena. Kids are frequently breached, a malady that cannot be left unaided. Helena must turn the kids around so they come out the right way. After almost four years, she’s now an old hand at this and other ranch duties, like preventing infection of a horse’s deep neck laceration and moving an 800 pound feeder from one field to another. For Helena, the physicality required for life on the ranch is a stabilizing counterpart to the mental grind of academia.
When asked about the stress of graduate school, Helena emphasized- “This balances me.”
Even with so many demands, Helena still carves out time for a stress-relieving, daily yoga practice. Don’t be fooled however. This is not the restorative, gentle yoga. Helena jumps into core power to “sweat [her] face off”, yielding to complete exhaustion, and impermeability to daily stressors.
Helena’s ability to juggle the disparate aspects of her life without dropping the ball is impressive, and likely a result of her attitude.
Helena lives life by a Paulo Coelho quote – “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” Thinking about graduate school, she says, “You either do it and you love it, or you do something different,” a sentiment she carries with her beyond the ivory towers and the ranch.
By Roni Dengler