Investigator, Section on Neuronal Structure, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Growing up in Argentina, Dr. Veronica Alvarez saw the easy access her country had to cocaine from Bolivia, and she experienced the shock and fear of watching people lose control to the drug. Shaped by these experiences, she earned a PhD in neuroscience and came to the U.S. for a two-year postdoctorate to study opioid receptors and drug tolerance. Seventeen years later, Dr. Alvarez studies the effects of drugs and alcohol on the brain at the world’s foremost medical research center, the National Institutes of Health.
Describe the culture at NIH.
NIH is a large community of bright, diverse, passionate people, which is critical for scientific advancement. Each of our 1,200 investigators sees a problem from a different angle. On my team, I have investigators with diverse backgrounds representing seven different countries. You learn so much by just talking to each other in the hallway – it makes you think about your work in a different way.
What has been your favorite lab project so far?
In my lab, we do research to understand how drugs alter the brain. We exposed animal models to cocaine and compared the small percentage of animals that developed addictive behavior versus animals that were exposed but did not become addicted. We found that some animals do not become addicted due to synaptic changes in the brain associated with resistance—some animals had more restraint, and had a lower level of motivation to get the drug. By discovering this, we could go and selectively activate or inhibit neurons in the brain that control perseverance. Understanding the changes in the brain that contribute to compulsive drug use and the vulnerability factors of becoming an addict are crucial for improving treatment and prevention of this disease in humans. Maybe I’m optimistic, but I think we can train and strengthen this brain pathway through exercises that help inhibitory control.
What sets the NIH apart as an employer?
The NIH understands how important diversity is for innovation and discovery. Additionally, we have many resources at our finger tips; it’s a privilege to work here. The NIH is a hub for scientific research turning discovery into health. There’s really no better time—or place—to be involved in science.