Into the woods with Susan Masino

When she isn’t researching the links between metabolism and brain activity, this neuroscientist logs time in forests and advocates for protecting green spaces.

Hug a tree: Wildlands are essential for our long-term health, Masino says.
Photography by Harry Zernike

Susan Masino loves forests — so much so that she has said she would love a second career as a naturalist. For now, though, she juggles her increasing environmental public policy efforts and advocacy for green spaces with her decades-long scientific career at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. There, as Vernon D. Roosa Professor of Applied Science, she teaches neuroscience and psychology to undergraduate students and researches links between metabolism, brain activity and behavior, as well as the mechanisms that underlie the ketogenic diet’s anti-seizure effects.

In recent years, Masino has found ways to blend her work in the woods, lab and classroom; last May, she helped to get Trinity’s 100-acre campus designated as an arboretum. She also regularly lectures on the potential benefits to brain health from spending time in nature.

The Transmitter caught up with Masino in November at the 2023 annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, D.C., where she received the Louise Hanson Marshall Special Recognition Award, which “honors individuals who have significantly promoted the professional development of women in neuroscience through teaching, organizational leadership, public advocacy, or other efforts.” She talked about learning to be a scientist, balancing her multidisciplinary interests, and the smell of dirt in the woods.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Transmitter: Did you always know you wanted to be a scientist?

Susan Masino: I’m actually a first-generation college student. I did want to be a scientist, but I had no idea how to do it. I had to kind of figure that out as I went along. And I didn’t realize that you could get paid to go to graduate school in science.

TT: Was there anyone who was a particularly important mentor?

SM: One of my professors said, “At this stage of your career, the most important thing is the mentorship you receive and not necessarily the topic you’ll be working on.” So I spent a few years after my undergraduate degree working in a cell biology lab. And that lab gave me the freedom to design my own experiments and really be a full-fledged member.

TT: How do you balance your interests in both neuroscience and nature?

SM: I have to shift my focus to one versus the other when needed, and put one on the backburner. I’m fortunate to be able to have some of my teaching related to my nature and brain health interests. We just designated the campus as an arboretum, and integrating that into my classes and into my student research will be an ongoing opportunity to talk about ecology and health.

Indoor science: Masino researches links between metabolism, brain activity and behavior, as well as the mechanisms that underlie the ketogenic diet’s anti-seizure effects.

TT: What exactly is an arboretum?

SM: It’s a designated area with a number of identified species of trees and woody plants. To be accredited, you have to have at least 25 species, and you have to have a plan for maintaining the collection, and you have to invite the public.

We also have another piece of land that’s off campus, a natural area. I’m very excited to add that to our arboretum, and to designate it as a type of land called a wildland, which is land that’s intended to just allow natural processes to prevail.

TT: Were there particular forests that were important to you when you were growing up?

SM: Most of the places that I loved when I was growing up were developed or cut down. And I realized that was happening everywhere, even the places that I thought were protected. That’s what actually started me working on this project. I was like, “Well, where are the places that you can count on if you want to fall in love with someplace?” And then I realized, oh, there’s actually no place.

TT: What’s next for your environmental advocacy work? Are there particular projects that you’re super excited about?

SM: Connecticut is updating their Green Plan, which is their plan for open space. Open space can mean farms; it can mean parks; it can mean all kinds of different types of land. But what I want to impress upon everyone is that a network of these wildlands — these ecological lifelines — should be the backbone of the main plan. We still need all these other lands, but this backbone supports all those other things, supports the full complement of species, supports the cycles of life and death that are so critical in our ecology.

TT: Are there particular forests where you go often?

SM: There’s a little forest in my town called Belden Forest, which is the first forest in Connecticut in the Old-Growth Forest Network. And it’s just 40 acres, but it’s in the middle of town, and it’s right on the bus line, and it’s next to the library. And I think it’s wonderful to have a nature preserve that’s so accessible.

If I imagine that I’m there right now, it already feels cooler. And there’s something about the smell — I think it’s a combination of the living and dead things in the soil. It’s just really beautiful. And I’m so grateful we have so much beauty around us we just take for granted.

Susan Masino standing on a mossy log among the trees.
Forest for the trees: Susan Masino explores Keney Park in Hartford, Connecticut.