As a molecular physiology professor at UNC Chapel Hill, Sarah Street is interested in the big questions of how the brain works: What is perception? What is reality? What is agency? In addition to having implications for how people of faith process spiritual experiences, Sarah hopes her work can also show that people’s emotional experiences have impact on their physical health.
You went to BYU as an undergrad on a full scholarship for swimming, and then you moved into molecular physiology. Would you tell us about that career trajectory, how you decided on that initially, and where that has taken you since then?
When I was an undergrad at BYU, I was originally thinking about physical therapy or medical school or something like that, but I had a few professors at BYU who were outstanding teachers, and they taught me how to think scientifically. I did research in an organic chemistry lab at the time, and also I did a lot of tutoring. So all that inspired me to change my career trajectory and do something that would put me in academia, where I would be able to teach and do research. I decided that I was going to forgo medical school, or at least put it off. And instead I applied to PhD programs, thinking that I was going to do some research having to do with women’s health –women’s cancers such as breast cancer and endometrial cancer — and why rates of those cancers are so much lower in women athletes, which was obviously something I was interested in since I was a swimmer. But then when I actually got to grad school, the very first course I took was a physiology course, and the first section of that was on membrane physiology and action potentials and electrical impulses that enable our brain to do what it does. And that swept me off my feet. I just completely fell in love with it. And I didn’t even look back at the cell biology and molecular biology aspect anymore. I just really got into neuroscience and that’s what drove my interest and my choices from that time forward. So, now I’m a neurophysiologist and I study circuitry in the brain: how these electrical aspects of neurons enable us to do what we are able to do.
So you are teaching and researching now, as you always hoped to, but just not in the area of expertise that you anticipated.
Right, exactly. I didn’t really think ever about neuroscience as an undergrad. At the time BYU didn’t have a neuroscience program at all, so I just did exercise physiology, and I really had no idea what neuroscience was all about until I came to grad school. So that was a little bit surprising.
I want to go back a little bit first and talk about how you got to the point at BYU. What were some of the most important influences for you growing up that gave you the confidence and the drive to know that you could study this kind of complex science?
Well, my mom and dad are both very education-driven. My dad was the first in his family to ever go to college, and my mom started going to school right after high school and she sort of has never stopped. As long as I can remember, my mom has been taking classes, or doing an extra degree, or getting an extra certificate or something like that. My mom so loves education. That was just totally instilled in the three of us. I have two sisters. It was just very much instilled in us from a very young age. I remember thinking about college back in elementary school because my mom would talk about it so much. College was something that we all just assumed would be in our future because my mom was constantly taking courses and challenging herself.
I remember when she wanted to get recertified in math. She was taking a fairly advanced calculus class at the university in the town I grew up in, Pensacola, Florida. And she was talking about how all the kids in her class, who were obviously much younger than her, were just mad because she kept breaking the curve. My mom was just a very confident woman and she loved learning. That was just how my sisters and I grew up. I don’t think it was ever a question of whether or not we could do it. We saw my dad work his way out of, essentially, poverty that he grew up in, and my mom continued to learn no matter what situation her life was in. I think that we assumed everyone was like that. So it wasn’t anything I ever thought twice about.
And did your church experience confirm that in you? Was there anything ever that you felt was at odds with each other or did they work together?
I think that early on I didn’t realize that there was conflict because I was so into activities. I was in swimming and that took up most of my time. As a high schooler, I spent the majority of my time outside of school swimming. I never really put together that maybe some of the messages I was hearing in Young Women were at odds with what my mom was teaching me by example. My mom was such an example that you can do what you want as a woman, that I never really internalized the messages in Young Women that were contradictory to that.
For the most part, church focused on the scriptures, and seminary, of course, focused on the scriptures. And lot of the cultural aspects, more of what maybe other women in my ward might have felt, they didn’t have as much of a space to come out and be discussed as often. I also remember that if there ever was a time that I was kind of put-off by something I heard at church, I would go home and talk to my mom about it. And she’d be like, well you know, we’re all different. Whatever messages I might have gotten at church that would be anti- to me being able to do whatever I want, either I just didn’t even pay attention to it because I was like, that’s obviously not true because my mom’s doing everything, or I might talk to her about it. I remember this one time when I was getting ready to go to BYU, I was talking about getting married and dating and all this stuff. I think it was pretty uncharacteristic of me because my mom looked at me kind of puzzled, and she’s like, “Sarah you’ve got a lot to give this world outside of marriage. Don’t dismiss these other things that you’re going to be able to contribute to the world with all these talents that you’ve been given.” I think I was like, huh. That’s more the environment we grew up in.
Let’s go back to your research. Is there a specific project or a specific interest you’re working on that you could explain to us in lay terms?
My projects have been widely varying throughout the years. I started off studying the auditory system. I remember this epiphany I had while I was writing my dissertation. There are these channels that are expressed in the neurons, which are our main cells in our brain that communicate all of this information. These proteins called channels enable sodium and potassium to exchange places along the membrane of these cells, which enables us to have these electrical impulses that then give us the ability to talk and walk and think and do all the things that we do. There are thousands of different channels that enable these small ions to move back and forth across the membrane. Any small changes in their function can lead to large changes in how these electrical impulses actually work. I remember sitting there thinking, wow. This is amazing that such little things can cause such changes in these electrical impulses that essentially make us what we are. They make us be able to think, be able to walk, be able to hear. They really underscore our perception of the world.
And so that started me thinking about just how different people might be because of the changes or small differences that might exist in the channels that enable us to have these electrical impulses. It started me really thinking about, what is perception, what is reality, what is agency? To even have a bigger picture. These are the molecular mechanisms that make us human, that enable us to act, so to speak. If these little channels have such a big impact on the information coding that essentially enables us to do all these things, then what implications does that have for what I’ve been taught and what I know about our ability to make choices and be able to carry them out? So those are kind of the big picture questions I’ve had.
Recently I did a post-doc studying how the circuitry in our brain that controls our eating behavior, our drive to eat, our drive to not eat, how that can change with obesity. My current research is focused on pain and how our perception of pain is determined by the circuitry in these channels that are expressed in pain neurons and how that can change with experience, and how that changes in neuropathic pain and chronic pain. It’s actual changes in the neurons and the circuits themselves that cause people to feel as much pain as they feel. And then how do you actually create treatments that can take advantage of the fact that we are starting to understand how these circuits and how these molecular mechanisms work so that people will experience less pain? In the midst of all of this, I think I’ve really gotten interested in how our brain interacts with the environment and how the environment interacts with our brain that really shapes these circuits. For instance, we have a lot of new information coming out about epigenetics and how people that are involved in a stressful environment, that can actually change how their genes are expressed. Not just in them, but then in their children as well.
Would you define epigenetics?
Yeah. Epigenetics is just the changes in gene expression that are on account of something that’s happening outside of one’s body. In the environment itself. It’s changes in gene expression that are due to something that happens outside of the genome itself. We know that the brain is already very sensitive to the environment. The way the circuits are set up is so much based on the experiences we have. And so I’ve really become interested in how experience then alters our neuronal circuits and our synapses in a way that either can make it more difficult for us to cope with life, or make it less difficult for us to cope with life. And now we have all this new information about, well, it’s not just our environment that’s changing our circuitry and our synapses. It’s also changing our genome itself.
That’s really hard to study in a mouse. Because you can’t really ask a mouse, is it more difficult for you to cope with depression or less difficult to cope with depression, because we put you in a stressful situation? So essentially what I’m doing now is I’m making the transition to human research. And the way that I’ve decided to do that, from getting out of mice, is I’m actually going back to medical school to learn how to do clinical research. After talking to a lot of people, and determining it’s really difficult with just a PhD to do clinical research because you always have to rely on a clinician who’s going to have a patient population, I decided it’s just time to go back to medical school to learn how to do clinical research and actually look at how these changes in our brain actually affect health outcomes. So that’s the plan.
So where are you in that process?
I’ve been accepted here at University of North Carolina, which is more than likely where I’ll end up.
Oh good! Well I would hope they would accept you. You’re already on their faculty.
Yeah, I wasn’t going to take it for granted. I wasn’t going to just assume they would, but they did, so that was good.
Can you expand your research to an understanding of how we understand and experience faith?
I think that certainly experience is going to determine our perception of faith. Our whole premise of our religion is based on the idea that testimonies come with experience. The idea is that you have experiences which change the normal circuitry in your brain, then that’s going to lead to your ability to have more faith in these experiences. I like to think of it as a way Heavenly Father instilled in us the ability to continue to grow in faith and have more faith, because our brain is going to adapt to the experiences that we have.
So when we have faith promoting experiences, things change in the way that our neurons and synapses work to be more open to future experiences?
What do we understand about people who have sudden conversion experiences or something that they necessarily weren’t conditioned for? Is that something that you can explain using your model?
I don’t know if I’ve ever even thought about that. It seems like it’s a rush of oxytocin and dopamine and these types of neurotransmitters that give us such a good feeling, that are then going to of course solidify whatever the activity was that they were doing at the time with those positive emotions. So I don’t know if any research has been done on that in particular. Most of the research in neuroscience along the lines of faith has been done with meditation and the benefits of meditation.
And what are those benefits? I’m assuming they’re similar, in that they increase those good feelings.
Yeah. Essentially they look at what your brain looks while you’re meditating and then how that then affects your brain long-term. They look at the types of brain waves that are elicited during meditation. Also people have tried to see if meditation can help people with attention deficit, stress relief, and mood disorders. The results are preliminary, but in general, they have shown positive findings that meditation is potentially helpful.
So how has this changed your own faith over the years, to understand the physiology of it? Has it taken away the mystery of faith or has it made it more appealing to you?
Certainly for me it’s made it more appealing because I have this tendency to believe that at the end of the day we’re all studying the same things. What I do in church is not outside the lines of science. There’s got to be some scientific, reasonable explanation for how I feel and what I’m experiencing there. For me, it’s never been a question of, is there a purpose to religion or is there a God? It’s just something that I accept and then of course God would understand the same scientific rationales and principles that I’m learning as a scientist. I’ve never seen any conflict with those two things. It’s just one and the same journey, so to speak. It’s the search for truth, whether that be through spiritual means or scientific means. It’s one and the same. I think it’s fun to think about how our brain works and how Heavenly Father uses those mechanisms to speak to us and to give us revelation. He’s going to work through those physical means to guide us. I think it’s just more fun to think about, not that I ever think I’ve come up with any of the answers. It’s just fun to see possibilities and how these two things interact.
What would be a culmination of your career as a researcher?
That’s a really good question. I really would like to show that experiences that people have are going to either positively or negatively influence how their physical body works, whether that be how their brain works or whether that be how the rest of their body works. And there are a lot of social justice implications in that: the fact that there can be an embodiment of social and structural violence. I think that’s really important to be able to show that people that grow up disempowered, or poor, or grow up feeling that the world is set up against them, that that actually is going to have real physical effects on their well-being, whether that be their ability to learn and think, or whether that be their ability to have their heart pump right, or for their body to fight off disease processes.
I’ve felt really lucky in my life that I’ve had loving parents, I’ve been surrounded by people who’ve told me I can do whatever I want. That definitely has had an effect on my well-being, it’s had an effect on how my brain is set up, and what I’ve put into my brain as messages from what other people are telling me. I can’t imagine what that would be like if you grew up as a kid surrounded by messages that you’re not worth anything, you can’t do anything and the world is against you, look at all the things you don’t have. Those actually have physical implications. So what I’d like my work to do is show actual effects of those that are not just health outcomes because people were poor and didn’t get early enough care, it’s actually effects of the world we live in, effects that it’s having on their health that would happen regardless if they saw a doctor or not.
What tremendous work. Shifting gears, you are single. What do you think has been the greatest challenge for you as a single woman in the Church? What have been some of the benefits in pairing your membership in the Church with the opportunity to pursue this career?
I think that I’ve had a lot of the similar struggles that other single women have had in trying to figure out where you fit in a church where almost, on a weekly basis, you hear about the importance of family. Women’s value is definitely, in very real not even trying to hide it or make it symbolic sense, associated with being a wife and a mother. I certainly have struggled with that from time to time, because above and beyond just being single and not having the chance to get married, I’m not interested in being married to a man. I don’t work that way. That’s even a lot more difficult in that for whatever reason I’ve never had the desire to be a wife and a mother. At all. What’s probably been more difficult in hearing that message over and over again, that this is your destiny and this is what’s going to be your greatest contribution in life, isn’t that I’m not dating or I haven’t had the opportunity to be married, it’s that I don’t want to be.
And yet there’s this expectation that you have to get married and you have a family in order to be like Heavenly Father, and all that made me wonder why He even created me then, because I don’t have that. Because I’m not dating, because I’m not getting married, the ultimate end of my salvation is at stake, where I don’t have the ability to make it to the highest degree of the celestial kingdom. So that was very difficult for a long, long time. But the good thing that came out of all of that is that it forced me to develop my own relationship with Heavenly Father. It forced me to ask Him myself. Because I was mad at Him for a long time. You know, why am I like this? If you made this whole plan so that I can be like you, and yet I don’t even have the desire to do the main thing, which is going to make me like you, then why did you create me like this? But then through lots of prayer and lots of pondering and lots of visits to the temple, what ultimately I realized is that He loves me exactly how I am, and He’s going to figure out a way to help me. Whatever the end goal is, He’s going to find a way to get me there. That’s how Heavenly Father works. He loves His children so much no matter who we are. Eternity is a long time for Him to work with us. What exactly it looks like on the other side is still pretty ambiguous. So that’s been the good thing about all of that.
Presumably when you were at BYU, in your early marriageable years, you didn’t know that you were going to have this great purpose in your work, that really, in some ways, could only be possible without a family. What advice would you give to other single LDS women, who might not have an interest in or the chance to get married, but also don’t feel like they have the kind of career purpose that you do?
That’s a really good question because I have so many friends who get to those years and they’re like, okay, the marriage didn’t happen or I don’t really have the desire to do it. And they don’t have anything else because all they’ve been told their whole life is that the most important thing you’ll ever do is be a wife and a mother. I don’t know if I have any good advice. I think the only advice for anything that’s ever worked in my life is have a good relationship with Heavenly Father and believe that He can guide you to find what it is that He wants you to do. I firmly believe that He has a mission for all of us, that all of us have some kind of contribution He wants us to make while we’re here and some type of very specific lessons that we can learn while we’re here that’s going to make us better human beings and more fit for whatever he has in store for us after this life. I think the only way we figure that out is through a personal relationship with Him.
I’ve thought a lot about this, and I think that at the end of the day there are very few of us who fit the bill of the nondescript, homogenous Mormon woman. I don’t know very many people who are like that. I think that looking for other people to have the answers to something that’s so personal for your own life is something that very rarely works. I think you have to force yourself to go to God and ask Him what it is and then be willing to accept whatever it is He tells you and be okay with it. I think what I’ve done in my life is just have an open-ended vision of what it is that I’m going to be. Knowing that I have this interest in science and knowing that I really like teaching, those are things that developed over time. I don’t think I started liking science in high school, but it was college when I really started to excel in it. Certainly my love of teaching developed in college. Paying attention to those things and then taking those to Heavenly Father and being like, what do I do with this? You have to act along the way, but then you do it with this mutual relationship with Heavenly Father to help Him guide and shape what it is that you’re supposed to do. I think the only thing that’s been helpful in my life is to have an open idea of what’s possible in the future. Knowing that I want to do good and I want to make the world a better place and I want to develop whatever talents I have, but then counseling with Heavenly Father on what the best way to do that is.
All the revelation that I’ve gotten and the direction I’ve gotten in my life has come kind of incrementally. But always, or at least for a long time, I’ve had this belief and this confirmation that Heavenly Father loves me, and He does want me to do good in this world, and He does have – whether or not it’s a specific mission, I think that He wants me to feel like I’m contributing to the kingdom, contributing to the world, contributing to make it a better place. And so He knows best how to help me do that within the confines of what I like to do. Not to be too deterministic about it. That’s the thing. It’s more of this mutual give and take I feel like it’s been with Him and me. But it’s all come down to having that relationship. When you hear things at church that are like, well that doesn’t apply to me (which most of it has not), I can be like, okay. What’s the principle underlying that, and then how do I make that work in my life? How do I hear the voice of God for me in these other things that people are speaking of at church from their own experience?
It all goes back to this idea of synapses. We all have these different synapses, and that’s how they see the world. But then what’s the principle that’s good for all of us no matter what our neuronal brain map happens to be? And how do I fit that into my understanding and perception of the world?
I can just imagine you listening to someone who you don’t quite agree with and analyzing in your own mind how her synapses are working to have caused her to say those things.
Exactly. That’s what it all is. And it is freeing in that sense because I can be like, that’s great that that’s how it works for her, and then I really search for what it is that I need to hear from that. What is it that she can teach me from her experience? What is the principle that I can learn from that? And that’s a very difficult thing to do, but it’s certainly helped with this idea that I have to live up to these other people’s expectations. Their life isn’t my life, their brain isn’t my brain, their body isn’t my body, so it’s not going to work exactly like that. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all gospel. At all. There’s not a one-size-fits-all life. Literally, physically. Physiologically it doesn’t make sense.
At A Glance
Location: Chapel Hill, NC
Marital status: Single
Schools Attended: BYU (B.S.), UNC (Ph.D.)
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “Lead Kindly Light”
Interview by Neylan McBaine. Photos used with permission.