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Marlene Oscar Berman, Ph.D

marlene oscar bermanMarlene Oscar Berman, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, neurology, and anatomy & neurobiology at Boston University School of Medicine as well as Veterans Affairs research career scientist. Dr. Oscar Berman recently won the Henri Begleiter Excellence in Research Award at the Research Society on Alcoholism's annual meeting in June 2011.

Writer Sherry Wasilow interviewed Dr. Oscar-Berman from her office at Boston University School of Medicine.


SW: Please describe what has motivated you in your career?

MOB: The short answer is that my inspiration came primarily from my mentors.

Here is a longer answer: My father was a butcher; my mother was a stay-at-home mother. Until I was 19, we lived in a house attached to my father's store in a lower middle-class neighborhood. There always seemed to be a cultural difference between my parents' world and the "outside world," which I was taught by example to see as a distant, untrustworthy establishment of privilege. Survival, not the broadening of intellectual and emotional experience, was the guiding motive of most of the people in my family. Both of my grandmothers had lost their husbands when the youngest of their children were infants.

Of my more than 25 first cousins, I was the only one to get a college education. My desire to go to college began at summer camp. When I was nine, I was sent to a camp for underprivileged girls. I hated that first summer because the whole quote1environment was strange and unfamiliar to me, but during the next eight summers I came to feel wanted and valued, and I wanted to feel that way all the time. The counselors provided positive role models for me. Most of them were college students from upper middle-class families; most of them were also psychology majors. I wanted to be like the counselors, so I set as my goal going to college and majoring in psychology.

I enrolled in the academic program of my high school, took a foreign language, algebra, and geometry, worked very hard learning everything I was supposed to learn. I wound up 10th in a class of 356, and won a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. I majored in Psychology. However, I couldn't find anything in my study of psychology that satisfied my need to "fit in," to find a niche for myself. Finally, in a wonderful course in Physiological Psychology and in an 'independent study" course with a special professor, I discovered not only how to conduct an experiment, collect data, and write up the results, but also about the powerful influence that a mentor relationship can have on future growth, creativity, and development. The trust in and support of a young student by a revered professor can be critical. For me it was more than critical, it was life changing, since I had not yet left the values of my parents behind.

Because of my love for independent research that I had conducted in my senior year at college, and with the continued encouragement from my first mentor, I decided to go to graduate school. At Bryn Mawr College, my advisor and his wife also were superb mentors. They treated me like a person, instead of like the naive, immature, shy, blundering kid I felt like inside. I've known them for over 50 years now, and they have always been kind, fair, and unselfishly giving of their time, their talents, and their Christmas festivities around a warm fire. Their influence on my values, my career, and my life cannot be minimized. I have tried, through their example, to guide my students and help them grow into happy and creative teachers, scientists, and clinicians.

SW: Please describe your current research.

MOB: Presently, much of my research focuses on the effects of long-term chronic alcoholism. Emotion dysregulation may underlie addictive disorders such as alcoholism, which in turn may further alter emotional states. Alcoholism-related abnormalities in brain centers controlling emotional perception and regulation may differ for men and women (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=womens-response-alcohol-gender-specific-treatment), and can differentially alter the course of alcoholism directly, by affecting sensitivity to feedback, as well as the ability to make economic, social, and health-related decisions. My research addresses all of these issues by using neurobehavioral tests together with neuroimaging measures of brain structure and function.

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