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Laura Germine, PhD, calls herself a tinkerer. “I’ve always been messing around with technology—coding, building things,” she said.
Fortunately for McLean—and the field of psychiatric research—Germine has moved far beyond tinkering. By combining her academic training in molecular biology, experimental psychopathology, and psychiatric genetics with her passion for technology, she created TestMyBrain.org. An innovative online platform for testing cognition and behavior, TestMyBrain is considered to be one of the first online neuropsychology laboratories. Attracting nearly two million research participants to date, the site allows Germine and other researchers to collect meaningful data on cognitive behavior, data that is used to advance the diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric diseases.
Currently the technical director of the McLean Institute for Technology in Psychiatry and director of the Laboratory for Brain and Cognitive Health Technology, Germine said that her career path was “certainly non-traditional.” As a graduate student in a clinical psychology program, she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, a setback that encouraged her to move to a more research-focused program in experimental psychopathology, the study of causes, characteristics, and treatment of mental health conditions.
Germine paired this new focus on research with her preexisting fascination with technology. “I was always messing around with building web software to support the research I was doing, and that led to the development of TestMyBrain,” she said. Only a few months after TestMyBrain went live, Germine noticed that the site was getting a significant amount of traffic and collecting meaningful data, a realization that she described as being “kind of magical.”
Despite the success of TestMyBrain, Germine faced skepticism and setbacks, mostly related to her being a young woman in the male-dominated world of technology. “When I was a graduate student and a post-doc, I was asked questions that my male colleagues were never asked,” she explained. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked ‘who developed the site?’ or ‘who does the coding for you?’, and the answer was always ‘I did the programming. I built the site.’ Still, some people didn’t seem able to process that and would just repeat the question.”
Germine says that attitudes about women in technology are changing, but old stereotypes die hard. “If people realized how their questions came across, they would be embarrassed,” said Germine. “What is changing is that people are more careful about what they say, but young women working in technology still have to face stereotypes.”
In her current position as a leader and innovator, Germine hopes to guide and mentor young women seeking technology careers.
“It’s very important for me to be a mentor who is both supportive and honest,” she said. “I want to encourage women to pursue technical interests, particularly in mental health. But I also want them to know that if there comes a time that they feel that they aren’t being taken seriously or they are dismissed, they are not alone. It’s a structural problem that many women have experienced. We need women to be better represented in the field for that to change.”