#WhyIScience Q&A: A biologist advocates for better mental health resources
During her sophomore year in college, Quinn McVeigh joined a research lab where she studied a family of mammalian proteins that are similar to snake toxins. Although many of her first experiments failed, she liked being in the lab: making sure that experiments were rigorous and troubleshooting them when they didn’t work. After graduation, she knew she wanted to work in a lab full time.
In March 2021, McVeigh joined the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard as a research associate, working in the lab of Matthew Meyerson in the Cancer Program. She works with researchers from both academia and pharmaceutical companies to develop therapeutics that target lung cancer cells and minimize side effects.
Just a few months after starting at Broad, McVeigh helped found and launch, a group dedicated to supporting and advocating for people in the Broad community with disabilities, as well as promoting equitable patient-centered work with disabled populations. She was inspired to start this work because she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the summer of 2020, putting a name to symptoms she’d experienced since college.
McVeigh spoke with us about her interest in biology and her experience with bipolar disorder in this #WhyIScience Q&A.
What got you interested in biology research?
My high school biology teacher was really enthusiastic. She was always in awe of how many things have to go right every single day for life to work and she made us feel that awe, too. I also love puzzles and learning about the connections between living systems, and biology is a lot of that.
After undergrad, what appealed to me about the Broad was that the work I’d be doing was more translational than what I'd done before. Fundamental research is super important, but I don't find it as engaging. The idea that I could do both experimental and computational work was also really appealing.
What do you like about working in the lab?
I have a hard time sitting still for long periods. What I love about being in the lab is that you're always moving and there are always different things you can be doing. It's the right level of predictable; you roll in and know what experiments you'll do that day. Usually there’s not a crisis unless a freezer breaks. But it’s also unpredictable because you don't know how your results will turn out, or your cells might not grow. It's a balance.
Do you have any mentors who were particularly helpful throughout your career?
My current supervisor is really good. I'm mostly independent but when things don't work, she's always there. She has an amazing work ethic, and balances a lot of projects and her family in a way that I really look up to.
My first PI in undergrad also set me up well. Her first goal was teaching and helping students and her second goal was research. She was hands-on, but to a point — like when a parent is helping you learn to ride a bike, she knew when to let go. In my project, our initial hypothesis turned out to be wrong. That was a good first experience, because we had to run all the controls and make sure that what we found was true and not a result of the conditions or techniques or something else. I was discouraged but my PI made it into a learning experience. Another one of my professors told me, “If your first research experience works, it'll ruin science for you forever because nothing will ever be that easy again.” So I knew after that, everything else would be like that or better.
How did you decide to co-found?
Another Broad scientist at the time, Jess Abramson, posted in a Slack channel saying that she’d noticed that there wasn't a group to connect and support people with disabilities and was wondering if anyone was interested in starting one. When I got to the Broad, I’d also been frustrated that there wasn't one. But I was new, so I let it be. After about a month, I reached out to her and we got the ball rolling. We had our first open meeting in August 2021 and have gradually added people to our steering committee since then. It's been really validating to have other people say, “I really wanted this group to exist, but I didn't know where to start.”
What was it like to get your diagnosis?
I was in my sophomore year of college when I began experiencing depressive episodes. These episodes last one to six weeks and make me feel like my chest is simultaneously completely empty and incredibly heavy. It’s hard to be interested in things or motivated. If an episode is mild, I can be distracted out of it as long as I'm with people. But if it's bad then that doesn’t mitigate it fully. My condition is also partly seasonal, so I'm more likely to have the episodes in the winter or the fall.
I decided to start SSRIs [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, commonly prescribed for depression] and one of the hallmarks of bipolar is that those work for a little bit and then stop completely. When my meds stopped working my dose was increased which triggered a mixed episode. Those are, in my opinion, the worst possible type of bipolar episode, because you have depressive symptoms but you also have hypomanic or manic symptoms. You have a lot of energy and feel elevated and agitated, but you're not euphoric; you’re depressed. By that point, my psychiatrist had a strong hunch I was bipolar, which was confirmed in the summer when I had a brief hypomanic episode.
Getting my diagnosis was really liberating. Mental health is a very broad category. I knew I fit in somewhere, but I would look at my friends with severe depression and knew those weren't my symptoms. Plenty of people identify as disabled without an official diagnosis and that's great, but I really felt more comfortable taking that space once I had a diagnosis.
Also, pragmatically, the first-line medications you use for bipolar and depression are pretty different. The medications for depression can actually exacerbate bipolar symptoms, which is how my mixed episode came about. So a diagnosis means I have the treatment that's right for me.
What are some changes you’d like to see at the Broad to better support people with mental health struggles?
I started my job at the Broad during my worst episode ever. That was really hard. I reached out to HR and they asked me to let them know what I needed. I didn't know the answer and I didn't really have the capacity to deal with that, so I never responded to that email.
is working with HR to make the accommodations process more clear and approachable. Right now, when you’re onboarded, you can declare if you're disabled and we're trying to make it so that people can also opt in to be directly connected with HR. We’re also working to give people resources that will help them get a better idea of what they can ask for. I think it's easy for someone with a disability to know something isn’t working, but it’s really hard to know how to fix it.
What accommodations have you found particularly helpful?
I was in a cubicle by the wall and then I brought in a light therapy lamp and got moved next to the window, and that has helped a lot because the sun has a big effect on me. But more than anything, I talked with my supervisor and that made me more comfortable taking time off. There are times when nothing at work will make a difference and I just need to not be there. Having that conversation helped a lot.
What would you want people who need accommodations to know?
Especially when I got my job offer for the Broad, I struggled with feeling that because I was going to have to use sick time, I felt like I had sort of conned my way into this job and I didn't deserve to be here because they could have hired someone who wasn't bipolar and would maybe have used less sick time. Part of American workplace culture is that unless we have COVID we come in when we're sick. It’s hard to say, “I need to stay home but I don’t have physical symptoms,” — even if, when you do, no one thinks poorly of you. You judge yourself.
I think that most of us feel imposter syndrome and our brains come up with reasons for us to not belong where we definitely do belong. If people with bipolar are struggling with that, I want them to know: Bipolar doesn’t take away from all the good qualities you have. You deserve to be where you are.
How has living with bipolar disorder shaped how you interact with the people in your life?
It’s made me feel how loved I am. I have a really supportive community. I can't always feel that when I’m depressed, but afterwards I do. My brother is always there for me and I have great friends. Even at work, there are people I'll turn to and I'll just say, “There's nothing you can do, but I just want to let you know where I'm at.” Having those people and knowing they're there is amazing.