Kay Tye, The Ultimate Triple Threat, On How She Blends 3 Seemingly Unrelated Passions

Kay Tye is a true triple threat. She's the principal investigator for an MIT laboratory that focuses on how emotions and motivations effect behavior. She sets work aside when she's hanging out with her 2½-year-old daughter at home. She remains involved in the breakdancing community, an activity she's been passionate about for more than a decade, while also venturing into new sports. And, at the moment, she's doing it all while being close to eight months pregnant.

"Sorry, I'm going up a flight of stairs," Tye, 34, tells me over the phone, apologizing for a delayed response to a question. "I'm huge. I'm like waddling."

This might not sound so intense, but let me reiterate. The list of Tye's responsibilities is far from short, and that's not even counting taking care of the tiny human who's making her walk funny. She runs a lab at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory; she teaches several lectures each week; she collaborates with her students as they write and edit their research manuscripts; she swims in her free time and makes sure that, even in her 30s, she can still do a windmill; and she takes her daughter rock-climbing on the weekends.

But Tye has a method for dealing with the madness that is her daily routine. "I just try to take care of each moment as it comes. It's constantly changing what the demands of my time are," Tye says, "but ... if I'm teaching class, if I'm playing with my daughter, if I'm trying to work on a manuscript or a grant, I just try to focus on that."

The mission of Tye's lab is to understand how we assign particular emotional or motivational significance to all the things in the world around us. In other words: "I could hear a dog barking and be scared and someone else could hear a dog barking and be like, "Ooh, cute! Puppy!" Tye says.

It's getting to the heart of how our brains produce the emotional memories that lead us to respond in different ways that Tye is interested in. And the potential applications for Tye's research, particularly in the realm of mental health disorders, is what makes their current work so exciting. "The biggest problem with mental health treatment right now is that we don't really know what we're treating," Tye says. "It's just complete trial and error."

So if Tye and her research team can determine which neural connections are associated with particular disorders, like PTSD or depression, they can design treatments that are specific to those connections. Altering these transmissions between neurons would be a huge step for improved treatment, according to Tye, but her team is looking beyond treatment to more long-lasting changes.

"Not just a treatment, but really a cure," Tye says.

In the case of, say, a person with severe anxiety, this means applying techniques like optogenetics to target the connections in the patient's brain and manipulate them enough to see long-term behavioral change.

The prospect for Tye's work to better lives is great, but she knows that when she leaves the lab each day, the newest research that she and her team have been working on will be right where they left it. So Tye switches gears when she picks up her daughter from daycare and they walk home together. At home, she puts the focus on her first-born, who is "super fun, but quite a handful."

"Four out of five nights a week I'll go home, and I guess I just really don't want to be that mom who ignores her daughter," Tye says. "So when we're home on the weekends and in the evenings, I try to just completely be present for her."

Tye's strategy for balancing all the different parts of her life does involve some compartmentalizing, but in the case of her own parenting and her personal interests, there is some room for cross-over. Tye and a few of her old breakdancing crew mates brought their toddlers together for a little introduction to breaking. The attention span of her toddler may not yet be at a place necessary to become a dedicated b-girl, but Tye's just happy to see that she so far seems to enjoy some of her mom's favorite activities like dancing and climbing. "I'm just exposing her to things I like," Tye says. "I just hope that she'll like them, too, and I get to do them again."

Tye says breakdancing has been a big part of her life since she started practicing back in college. That's when neuroscience really came into the picture, too: She studied brain and cognitive sciences as an undergrad at MIT, the same school where she's now on the faculty. Tye had plenty of exposure to science as a kid. Her father is a theoretical physicist who focuses on string theory, and her mother is a biochemist. But after graduating, Tye took a year off to try "a bunch of other things." It wasn't until she returned to school, first at the University of California at San Francisco and then at Stanford University, that Tye realized what it was that she loved about scientific research.

"In most jobs you don't always have the opportunity to feel like everything you've done before is building on everything you'll do in the future," Tye says. "[And] it's not only building on what I've done last year and the year before that, but I'm also building on what thousands of other people have done for hundreds of years, and that feels really cool."

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But when asked what she's most proud of in her life, her answer has to do with something totally unrelated to her work in the lab. "The thing I would say to my husband that I'm most proud of is having a natural birth with my first daughter," Tye says. "I really wasn't sure if I was going to be able to do it ... It felt really amazing to go through that whole process."

Although Tye puts plenty of effort into understanding the brain, it's these kinds of sentiments that make clear her role as a mother is of equal priority. Tye picked a career path in which she felt she could make a difference and, just maybe, shape the way people do things. Tye figures, though, that her impact on the research world will be relatively small compared to the impact she'll have on her own children. Hence, her emphasis on giving a lot of love to each things that makes her a triple threat.

And it's the energy that Tye applies to her work, her family, and her fun that allows for each day, in whole, to be more than the sum of its parts.

"I feel like my life is very full," Tye says.

Images: Kay Tye