Elise Weerts, PhD

Associate Professor
Johns Hopkins University

What is your current research? Please briefly describe your area of research and/or practice:

The goal of my research is to understand the behavioral and neurobiological mechanisms of drug and alcohol abuse and dependence, with emphasis on dopamine, opioid and GABA systems. In the past, much of my work focused on drug abuse liability and basic behavioral pharmacology studies in primates. My current research is multidisciplinary and includes studies in both human subjects and nonhuman primates.

In nonhuman primates, I am currently studying the efficacy of novel alcoholism medications in reducing alcohol drinking and responses to alcohol-related cues in baboons. These studies utilize a long-term alcohol drinking and cue reactivity model we developed in our laboratory. Using this model we are also able to understand the changes in alcohol directed behaviors with long-term exposure to alcohol self-administration and alcohol-related cues. Since reactivity to alcohol cues is believed to contribute to the development of “craving”, compulsive alcohol drinking, and the propensity to relapse after periods of abstinence, these studies will provide important new information on the interaction ofenvironmental cues, alcohol directed behaviors and alcohol consumption.

In human subjects, I currently am working on two integrated projects examining the role of the endogenous opioid system in individual differences in alcohol sensitivity and risk of alcoholism. Some individuals are more or less sensitive to the effects of alcohol than others, and this can influence how often and how much they drink. In addition, longitudinal studies conducted over the last 20 years have demonstrated that individuals with low sensitivity to the subjective effects of alcohol have a greater risk of developing alcohol use disorders. We are examining several physiological measures of opioid system activity in healthy social drinking volunteers after determining their sensitivity to the subjective and physiological effects of alcohol. Specifically, we are examining neuroendocrine stress response to challenge with an opiate antagonist (naloxone), and opioid receptor availability as measured by Positron Emission Tomography (PET). These studies will increase our understanding of alcoholism as a progressive brain disorder and help us to design better treatments and possible prevention strategies.

About how many hours per week do you spend in alternative involvement in professional organizations, administrative duties, teaching, clinical requirements or similar?

Administrative duties related to my research projects take up about 8-10 hours per week. On average I would say I spend about 5 hours per week on professional organizations and mentoring/teaching duties, although it varies widely depending on the time of year. Service for professional organizations tends to be highest around organization of the meetings. During those periods my time can increase to 10 hours for a given week.

Are you involved with any activities or hobbies unrelated to your work and if so, how do you find the time to participate in these activities?

Yes, in the winter I like to ski with my family. We take 2 ski trips per year and also occasionally ski on weekends. I also enjoy reading fiction, going to movies, museums and various fun events as well as trail bicycling on weekends. We rent a beach house with our extended family (grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews, etc.) for vacation in the summer. I am not sure if “finding time” is the right way to think about it. Time is fixed so it is really about prioritization and focusing on what is important to you. Spending time with my family, staying healthy and reducing stress with these activities is important to me. The ski trips coincide with my son’s school vacations and holidays, so I plan them well in advance.

How do you choose to prioritize work and nonwork activities?

My priorities shift depending on my responsibilities at work, and are also affected by my husband’s schedule for his work. My family is very supportive and understanding of crunch times like grant deadlines, meeting travel, etc.

How have you achieved a balance between work and personal priorities?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. For me, it’s more like a seesaw. I shift between each so if one side gets more for a while I make sure to then devote more time to the other.

What percentage of your time is allocated to work vs. home life?

I typically work about 50 hours per week, then increase during crunch times to 60 or more. I focus on working effectively and not wasting time.

How have you achieved a balance between work and personal priorities?

I think I have a fairly well balanced life, but for me balance does not mean things get split equally. Depending on deadlines or responsibilities at work, my family life can get short-changed at times. My family understands that although I am under a crunch period (grant writing, travel for meetings, etc.) and am less available at times, I usually then shift to a period where they are then the priority and get extra time. My life is more like a pendulum where I swing back and forth between work and personal priorities.

Are there any special organizational strategies you use to be efficient at work?

I like having my projects in open view to keep me on task. I have 2 dry-write boards in my office. One is for ongoing major projects, where I break down each into steps and deadlines. The second board is a more general list of items I have due, my prioritization (which can change over time) and any set due dates. Items shift from one board to the next as they are prioritized. I also use Outlook heavily to arrange and schedule meetings. All of our research schedules are maintained in the online Outlook calendar. It makes coordination of resources and shared staff easier and is definitely efficient.

Have you found it helpful to assign specific workdays to specific work-related tasks, like manuscript-writing, grading papers, etc.?

Yes. Because I am split between two laboratories on different campuses and multiple projects I have to be careful how I spend my time. I find it easiest to designate specific days each week for work in the two labs. I spend 2 full days per week in one lab and 2 full days in the other.

The fifth day of the week can be split depending on where I am needed. When I am in each location, I only work on tasks related to those projects. My staff knows where I am, as I keep the same schedule each week. I do not designate specific times to write etc. I instead have a general list of tasks to accomplish and each day I check the list, then prioritize which of those I will work on that day.

How many hours per week do you spend writing papers for publication?

It varies greatly and depends on what else is on my schedule. I recognize that I need to allocate more time to writing. Lately, I am trying a new strategy I learned in a time management class-- to write in 15 minute periods each day, no matter what. So far it seems to be working, especially when I have a project I am having a hard time making headway on. As deadlines approach I then shift strategies and write in larger periods of time.

How do you protect time for writing papers?

I prioritize my writing time as a high priority item on my list and then set up an environment to avoid interruptions. When writing, I shut my door to my office, put a “do not disturb” sign up on the door and set a timer. To do this I do have to reprioritize other tasks. One item that drops off for me is email. I only check it at set times when I am writing. Also, I set up my incoming mail by sender or topic to quickly sort mail from senders likely to need a fast reply vs. other emails.

Have you found it helpful to restrict the number of days per week you work (e.g., do not work on weekends?) or the number of hours you work per day?

I do not restrict the number of hours I work per day during the week, but try not to work on weekends. Weekends are for time with my family. We usually do some fun event together as a family each weekend (e.g., movie, museum, sports event, etc.). During the week I work according to completion of projects scheduled, not time. I find I work more effectively and feel a greater sense of accomplishment when I do this.

How do you find time to exercise or sleep? How many hours of each do you average?

I work out at a gym 3-4 times per week for about an hour and a half each time. The only way I will get to the gym is if I go first thing in the morning. Otherwise, I get caught up in work and run out of time. I do not take a lunch break. I bring my lunch in each day and work at my desk while eating. This is a choice I have made to work efficiently and eliminate wasted time. I usually sleep about 7 hours a day during the week. I have a strong internal clock and wake up at the same time each day regardless of my schedule.

What advice do you have for other researchers who are learning to balance both career and personal life goals?

Be flexible with your time and supportive of your staff, colleagues and friends. It is a lot easier to balance your life if you are part of a team vs. an isolated researcher.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received from one of your mentors?

So many words of wisdom. First, focus on research that you love to work on. Second, find smart, collegial people to collaborate with. No one does good research in a vacuum. Who you work with contributes greatly to your success and your happiness in science and life. I have the great fortune to work with many wonderful colleagues and have an amazing, invested research staff. I love my job! I also try to remember to always be supportive of young investigators coming along behind me.

Are there any additional comments you would like to make?

Have multiple mentors. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to be your mentor. Once they agree, you should formalize the relationship to determine expectations for each of you, and then set up regular meetings once every 6-12 months to continue to develop your current career goals and to assess your progress to date. Different mentors will offer you different advice, and for different reasons. One mentor should be someone in your field of research but who has no vested interest in your success and is not influenced by what you do. That is to say, any decision you make about your career goals will not affect them in any way. This means that person can give you objective advice about your progress and career.