A Unique Research Career Inspired by a Medical Diagnosis
Laura Germine’s diabetes diagnosis inspired a unique career combining mental health and technology
September 27, 2020
Laura Germine, PhD, thought that a chronic disease wouldn’t just affect her personal life. She also feared it would derail her career as a neuroscientist and researcher.
Instead, her Type 1 diabetes diagnosis opened a new opportunity in which she would combine her skills as a software developer with her experience as a patient to chart a new path exploring the intersection between physical and mental health.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition that typically develops in childhood or young adulthood and has no known cure. People with Type 1 diabetes have to take insulin injections to manage their blood glucose.
“When you receive a major health diagnosis, you sort of go into shock. You don’t really know quite what to think,” said Germine. “All these dreams that I had about being a researcher and ultimately a professor, they were just gone.”
Building a New Future
The foundation of her eventual path was formed while she was working in a lab exploring developmental prosopagnosia (face blindness), a rare offshoot of a disease that usually only affects people who have sustained a brain trauma, like an accident or a stroke. As part of that work, Germine developed a web-based screening test in 2005, a time when the internet was just beginning to be considered as a research tool. The program, which later evolved into TestMyBrain, was initially designed as a face recognition test that screened users for participation in the research project.
Fast-forward two years to her diabetes diagnosis—and questioning how managing a disease that requires constant monitoring is compatible with an academic research career. The answer, to her, was through technology—by figuring out a way to harness public interest in science as a way of collecting data for research studies.
That realization led to the development of TestMyBrain as a research platform that could collect high-quality research data and provide a public good at a pace she felt was compatible with disease management.
“The thing that I think was helpful about having this chronic illness experience was the fact that I then really shifted my thinking away from a traditional approach and toward how to do things scalably,” she said.
She also shifted her focus toward tools that could be delivered to patient communities sooner rather than later.
“In science, often the good that you’re going to do is 5, 10, 15, 20, 30 years away. This illness gave me a sense of urgency to do something that could have an impact now.”
Ironically, diabetes is at the leading edge of using sensor technology to monitor and treat disease.
Germine has a glucose monitor implanted in her leg that transmits blood sugar readings to her phone, enabling her to prevent hypoglycemia and make better decisions around insulin administration. These sensors are increasingly used for so-called “artificial pancreas” technologies to improve the health of people living with Type 1 diabetes.
Such sensors are also a key component of a National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases grant she won to understand how cognitive functioning varies with blood glucose levels.
“So, in a strange way, the disease that I thought was going to end my career has ended up being a foundational part of my career.”
Her diagnosis also helped her appreciate the critical connections between physical health and mental health.
“I don’t think it’s possible to develop a chronic health condition or even acute health condition and not have it affect your mental health,” she said. “We have this dichotomous view where if you can explain it physiologically, then it’s not a mental health issue anymore. We’ve created a system where instead of mental health being fundamental, it’s almost completely isolated in a way that I think is damaging not only for patients, but also for the advancement of science.”
Pushing the Boundaries of Technology
This year, Germine will organize McLean’s fourth annual Technology in Psychiatry Summit (TIPS). Germine, who serves as technical director for the McLean Institute for Technology in Psychiatry, will oversee this increasingly popular event, which draws hundreds of researchers, clinicians, and representatives from the worlds of health care, data science, technology, and engineering. These leaders will come together virtually to learn about the new ways that digital technology is transforming treatment for psychiatric illnesses. This year’s summit will be held remotely on October 28-30, 2020.
Join Us at TIPS 2020
Some 300 individuals representing 11 countries attended last year’s TIPS. The summit provided opportunities for learning, networking, and debate—all designed to push the boundaries and find new tools to tackle long-standing problems. In addition, TIPS 2019 event presentations were livestreamed, allowing attendees and people around the world to engage with the meetings through the conference app.
Thanking Our Donors
The TIPS conference is made possible thanks to sponsorship from individuals and organizations, including the AJ Trustey Fund, Blackthorn Therapeutics, and The Ride for Mental Health.