Dr. Linn Norbom
In this refreshing interview detailing her path to becoming a neuroscientist, Dr. Linn Norbom tells us how her early passion for the brain moved her away from the clinic and into a thriving research career at the forefront of developmental disorders.
Where are you right now (both physically and professionally)?
Physically, I am in my PROMENTA office which is a space I share with two great office mates. I am here most days, but as is typical in our field I also have other offices with my other affiliated groups, including at Diakonhjemmet and NORMENT. I am not working from home much; I did when I needed to during the pandemic, but I prefer to be here in my office.
Professionally, I am in the middle, nearing the end of my postdoc. I’ve made good progress, but I still have many projects I want to work on. I am also planning to visit the Preclinical Imaging Group at the University of Oxford for three months, which will allow me to work with some unique samples and learn some new methods of which I have been eager to include in my research profile. This is something I have learned is an important part of a postdoctoral fellowship – creating a clearer research profile. I have never worked abroad, so this will be my first time.
What made you choose this career path?
I'm not sure. I knew early on that I wanted to study psychology because I was generally interested in how humans work. I did not have a specific job in mind, I just followed my interests. I started a Bachelor’s Degree and at this stage you cover quite diverse fields within psychology, and as soon as we got to human cognition and how the brain works I thought “Ah, this is amazing, this is really, really interesting”. I was completely stuck on this topic and also on why some people struggle with mental disorders, and less on the therapeutic aspects of psychology. We were 7 girls in this study programme who became quite close, and all of them wanted to become clinical psychologists and moved to Denmark to study. I was the only one who wasn’t feeling the same and decided to stay, knowing I liked another aspect – the science— even though I didn’t technically define it that way yet.
I then pursued a Master's Degree in Cognitive Neuroscience. With everything I learned, I felt “this is me”. I also felt a little confused, wondering what it means to study psychology but to not do clinical work, and what kind of career that would result in. Even my parents were confused. But then I realized: You become a researcher. I took a research assistant position to get a feel for the job, and still loved it and went on to apply for several PhD positions - and got one. For now, this works and I love being a scientist and I haven’t looked back. I feel lucky to have ended up here, considering it was a long process based more on interest than a specific dream job.
How did you end up at PROMENTA, working on this specific project/research questions?
There was a position open and the project was similar to the subject of my PhD – it was ‘using big data to investigate mental disorders in little brains’. The PI on the project was Christian Tamnes who was also my supervisor for my PhD, so I already knew I would be going to a great group. I have been fortunate to only experience collaborative research environments, although I know that isn't always the case, so joining a familiar group felt good.
What question or challenge were you and your research group setting out to address when you started this work?
As part of the neurocognitive group at PROMENTA our general question involves investigating the structural and functional mechanisms underlying mental disorders in childhood and adolescence, and how they interact with several types of risk and protective factors. For example, why is it that someone with a high genetic risk does not go on to develop a disorder? We focus on neuroimaging and MRI, as well as using big data which is needed to have replicable results. Rather than being too focused on diagnoses, we have a non-binary and dimensional approach to mental disorders. We are also open to the underlying neurobiology crossing diagnostic boundaries. Because of this, a case-control design usually doesn’t work very well for us (i.e. completely «healthy» or very sick) – obviously the world in general doesn’t work that way either. We focus more on general symptom burden, and therefore also include people who may not classify as having a diagnosis.
In childhood and adolescence, the brain changes so much across regions and tissue types. These are also time periods when we typically see the emergence of mental health issues and we don’t think that is a coincidence – for some, something might be happening to typical brain development during these times. The requirements to reach, say, a psychosis diagnosis are typically based on symptoms that present quite late in disease progression, so while outright psychosis may present late, the same individuals may have struggled in more subtle ways already in early school years . That is why we think it is important to not only study adults but to try and understand early pre-symptomatic and prodromal stages of mental disorders.
What is the coolest thing about your work/research?
There are a lot of cool things – I think writing is very fun, and writing an article is very different from other types of writing. It has quite a set structure and you are trying to cram a lot of information into these shorter paragraphs which can make it very dense and hard to read. So I think it is fun to be creative within this space while at the same time being transparent and accessible. I also like to code. I used to find the data science aspect scary but I am really getting into it - it is needed for our analyses, and for transparency so other researchers can replicate your work. But I have realized coding is like learning a language. You are problem solving and sometimes you get stuck on a certain code for days and you keep googling and cannot go forward - but that moment when you finally figure it out, is incredible!
Have any of your research findings surprised you, and if so – why?
All the time - age effects are standard in our area of research and the developmental timing of certain results are expected to emerge in a certain way. We sometimes still get results that point in a different direction from what we would expect, and we need to take a step back. Sometimes it's because we have made a mistake and other times it is about accepting that this is the data and interpreting it correctly. When I first started my PhD I used to be more surprised by the small effect sizes we would find. I thought 'since we are taking detailed pictures of the brain we should be able to find all the answers' but still today, with big data, effect sizes are small and not always consistent across samples. Patients may think that just by seeing their brain we can find out why they are struggling—but it is important to state that we cannot use MRI as such a tool on an individual level, and I don’t think we ever will. Yet we are working toward being clinically relevant in other ways, and are making great strides both with bigger data and better statistical knowledge. There is also a good message behind the small effects found in MRI research – it means that you can have a mental illness but have a brain that on an MRI appears completely fine. It is important for young people to know they have a beautiful brain, and that variation is normal.
Tell me what you like to do when you aren’t working on research?
Staying healthy and working out. I have a part time job as a fitness instructor which I do just for fun. I used to dance and I like to do HIT (high intensity training) classes that really raises my pulse. In our field we sit all day long for work so it is nice to step away from that and listen to loud music and run and move and get active. I also love to stay home with my family, I have the best partner and a crazy 16 month old daughter with too much energy. But I also like to have my alone time, and for me exercise fills that role.
Finally; tell us one thing from your field that you think we should listen to or read
Brainder is a blog by Anderson Winkler - he covers a lot of tricky methods and current topics that are relevant for neuroscience, and nearly every time I google something it is his blog that comes up. He explains things in an accessible way and this is a great way to keep up to date on current methods and challenges. It is generous of him and he is great at it.