Next Gen It's About Time Salk's Emily Manoogian on circadian rhythms and life

“The circadian system is this core pillar of how our body works that affects everything. You are mentally and physically a different person at different times of day.”

When Emily Manoogian was growing up, “scientist” wasn’t even on her list of potential careers. First Manoogian wanted to be a Broadway tap dancer; then a gymnast; later, a lawyer; and finally, towards the end of high school, a veterinarian.

She started at UC Berkeley on a pre-vet track but, two years in, realized it wasn’t the right choice. There was so much rote memorization, and Manoogian prefers theories and concepts. She felt lost.

Then she took a class called “Hormones and Behavior” and felt found. “The running joke was that my roommate could take the tests, because I talked about the class so much,” she recalls, laughing. “I loved it.”

Manoogian was determined to get into her professor’s lab as an undergraduate research assistant—and she did, wearing down his repeated assertions that the lab didn’t have any openings with sheer enthusiasm. She was fascinated by all the interrelated processes of the endocrine system, the collection of glands that produce hormones to regulate growth, metabolism, sleep and pretty much every other physiological function in the body. When she took another of the professor’s courses, called “Biological Clocks,” her interest in the connection of circadian (daily) rhythms to the endocrine system was born. For her doctorate, Manoogian studied the master clock in the brain, which synchronizes all the individual clocks in the body.

Each of our cells has a circadian clock in it, telling the cell when to be active and when to rest. Increasingly, scientists are learning the myriad negative health consequences of not living in sync with our circadian clocks, which operate on a 24-hour cycle.

“The circadian system is this core pillar of how our body works that affects everything,” says Manoogian emphatically. “You are mentally and physically a different person at different times of day.”

After graduate school, Manoogian came across an opening in the lab of Satchidananda Panda, a professor in Salk’s Regulatory Biology Laboratory. For Manoogian, who was tiring of conducting basic biological research with rodents, the transition to researching circadian rhythms in humans came at the perfect time.

“The fact that the lab was studying humans from a basic science point of view was really exciting,” she says. Now, after two years in the lab, Manoogian is doing a stimulating combination of bench work and project management of the lab’s circadian health app, which collects data on the diet, exercise and sleep habits of thousands of participants around the world who are attempting to live in better sync with their biological clocks. She is also working with local firefighters to determine whether restricting dietary intake to a 10-hour window of time can help combat the negative health consequences of shift work.

Manoogian is nothing if not an evangelist for circadian science. Recently she spoke about the field and her own research at a sold-out TEDx event held at Salk in July. “No one knows about it! It’s not taught in medical school,” she says, eyes widening. “How can you be a doctor and not know what circadian rhythms are? They’re determining everything!”

Eventually, Manoogian plans to explore how people take in cues like light and food and use them to train their circadian clocks. “I want to understand how these cues vary for people, and use that information to help people live their best life.”

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