Five Pandemic Transitions

Five new PBS faculty members joined the department in and around the time of the pandemic. No doubt everyone experienced the upheaval in their own unique ways. But those joining the department shortly before, during and after the pandemic took on the challenges of moving to a new city (or country) and starting a new job at a time when daily life as we knew it had come to a halt. Here is a glimpse into their experiences.

Istvan Katona

Professor Istvan Katona, the Naus Family Chair in Addiction Sciences, arrived in February 2020 from Budapest, Hungary. He had come ahead of his family to find a house and organize the details of their new life, while his kids finished the school year back in Hungary. He had just settled into his new home, when the pandemic arrived. He would spend the next three months “completely alone with a table, four chairs and a laptop," he explains. A blackout after a big storm left him for three days without electricity. “Not exactly a jumpstart on our life,” he observes. He flew back to Budapest in May, but it was not until September that he and his family made it to Bloomington.

Now settled, along with four of his lab members who came with him, he has come to see Bloomington as “an oasis in the midst of all the turmoil in world. It’s also a world-class community,” he contends, nothing short of “another Oxford or Heidelberg.”

As a researcher his long-term goal is to link molecular and cellular studies in mice with functional studies in humans and to build up collaborations in the department to make translational research as strong as possible. His expertise in the cannabinoid system will also enable him and his lab to extend their studies to opioid addiction. A recent discovery in their lab revealed the mechanism by which a new drug used for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression acts on the brain, binding to a little understood brain region called the Islands of Calleja. He hopes their work will put a spotlight on this brain region, he says, “so we can find out what the Islands of Calleja are doing."

Dorainne Green

Mid-pandemic, in the fall of 2020, Dorainne Green began her career as an assistant professor of social psychology in PBS. She was no newcomer to Bloomington. She had been at PBS since 2016 as a postdoctoral student in Mary Murphy’s lab and subsequently as a research scientist. So she was on familiar ground when she started. But finding your way as an online teacher in a state of quarantine, “transitioning into the faculty role without the informal interactions in hallway,” she says, felt like she was missing a part of the experience. Yet, as she developed her online teaching strategies – finding out, for instance, early on “that students find it really awkward to have their professor drop into their breakout room” – she quickly gained her footing. By now, she has “tweaked her system” enough to make it work, even opting to teach more online courses, given the value that they have for many students.

Born in Jamaica before moving to the British Virgin Islands and then to Puerto Rico, she studied psychology at Rice University in Houston as an undergraduate. She now studies the impact of social inequality on people’s emotional reactions, physiological stress responses, and performance in school. Her work also offers a close look at how people manage their emotions in the face of discrimination.

Her advice on starting an academic job in a pandemic: She does not recommend it. However, she conveys endless enthusiasm for the many colleagues who have “all been very intentional about involving me and making sure I get connected.”

Krista Wisner

Assistant professor Krista Wisner, a clinical psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist, began working at PBS in August of 2019. Her first semester of teaching went smoothly, and she was looking forward to solidifying her classroom strategies in the coming months alongside recruiting participants from the community for her in-person research studies. Halfway into the second semester in March of 2020, however, her classrooms took a new virtual form and the prospect of participant recruitment came to a sudden halt due to COVID-19. The idea of "hitting your stride in the third semester,” as she was told was the norm, evaporated. Nonetheless, Wisner recently expressed that the challenges from the pandemic strengthened and expanded her approaches to teaching and research in ways that will benefit her in years to come.

Wisner is a co-director with PBS professor Bill Hetrick and professor emeritus Brian O’Donnell of the Clinical Cognitive Neuroscience Center. She collaborates on research related to psychosis, cannabis use, and autism, bringing her own particular focus on people's emotional processes and how individual differences in life experiences such as trauma may influence presentations within these clinical groups. In the CCNC, Wisner leads clinical studies examining cognitive processes, such as decision-making, stress reactivity, and interoception (the 'sense' for awareness of physiological changes in the body). She is most excited to test theories about how dysfunctions in interoception, and its major neural substrate in the insular cortex, may contribute to impairments in higher-order emotional processes.

Her research methods involve interacting closely with people through personal interviews, neuroimaging studies, measures of skin conductance and heart beats, as well as even saliva for certain investigations. Wisner is grateful to have been able to "get back up to speed" in recent months and is cautiously optimistic about exciting new studies that will begin this fall.

Norbert Hajos

Like Katona, Professor Norbert Hajos came to Bloomington from Budapest, Hungary. He arrived for a job talk, visit and interview in March of 2020. His return flight was one of the last international flights to leave the U.S. before the travel bans took hold. “There were more flight attendants on the flight than passengers,” he notes. “The country closed the very next day.” It was not until May 2021 that the U.S. embassy in Hungary reopened. He and his family soon received word that they could make their move to the U.S. Three days later, they left Budapest for a new life in Bloomington.

Hajos is a neuroscientist who studies the connections between the amygdala (the brain center with a critical role in social behavior, anxiety and fear) and the higher-order functioning of the prefrontal cortex. Mutual connections between the two regions play a role in pain processing and decision making. They are also crucial to the mechanisms underlying autism. On these topics and others, he has longstanding collaborators at PBS, but is thrilled to be forming new PBS collaborations as well.

Spencer Dawson

The more recent arrival last summer of Spencer Dawson as clinical assistant professor and associate director of clinical training meant that his first order of business was transitioning the clinic back to offering in-person therapy sessions. During the pandemic, the clinic had taken an 18-month hiatus during which student therapists saw clients through telehealth only. Dawson is also responsible for training students in cognitive behavioral therapy and teaching a variety of courses.

A sleep science expert with board certification in behavioral sleep medicine, Dawson occupies a unique niche between mental health therapists and medical practitioners, whose knowledge of sleep disorders is usually more limited. When the pandemic began, Dawson was setting up a private practice in behavioral sleep medicine focused on insomnia and other sleep disorders. He also serves as an at-large director of the Board of Behavioral Sleep Medicine and a scientific adviser for the advocacy group Save Standard Time.

While practicing therapy online during the pandemic could be done with minimal difficulty, virtually teaching an otherwise hands-on lab course was a bigger challenge. Yet with the help of Ben Ramsden, PBS director of undergraduate neuroscience teaching labs, Dawson was able to adopt the digital tools needed for his online lab course on sleep and circadian science.

Science Writer