Spotlight: Olga Tymofiyeva, PhD, Assistant Professor

Olga Tymofiyeva, PhDWhen asked to describe herself in three words, faculty member Olga Tymofiyeva, PhD, offered a lovely synthesis: “I’m my connectome…Maybe a more expected type of answer: I’m a scientist.” Dr. Tymofiyeva observes that the “connectome denotes all neural connections within an organism’s nervous system,” and in a fundamental way, “All that I am is a (constantly updating) product of a complex interaction between genes and environment.”

While she is known for her research on how the brain is wired – beginning with her postdoc studies of the ‘baby connectome’ to more recent studies of adolescent brain development and mental health as the Principal Investigator for the NIH-funded BrainChange Study – a conversation with Dr. Tymofiyeva reveals a breadth of creative pursuits and interests.

I am Connectome

Born in Kyiv, Ukraine, Dr. Tymofiyeva recalls that her parents, a technology administrator and a software developer, “created a didactic household environment that equipped me to be a lifelong learner.” Dr. Tymofiyeva completed her B.Sc. in electrical engineering at the National Technical University of Ukraine, where she recalls a formative moment: “I read an article on the concepts, physical principles, and production of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines – and I was like, wow this is genius!”  Her electrical engineering M.Sc. was funded by a DAAD-Siemens scholarship at the Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences (Germany), followed by a physics PhD at the University of Würzburg, where she received the European Society of Magnetic Resonance in Medicine and Biology (ESMRMB) Young Investigator Award. On the advice of her dissertation advisor, she came to UCSF as a postdoc in 2010. Dr. Tymofiyeva joined the department as a faculty member in 2020. Perhaps not surprisingly, Dr. Tymofiyeva is fluent in Ukrainian, Russian, German, and English. Reflecting on her journey from Ukraine to UCSF via Germany, she notes that “My education, career, and relationships were empowered by the knowledge of foreign languages.”

While her early research focused on dental and orthodontic applications for MRI, Dr. Tymofiyeva pivoted to brain imaging and neurodevelopment during her postdoctoral studies with Duan Xu, PhD, professor in residence and director of the Imaging Research for Neurodevelopment Laboratory. Together, Drs. Tymofiyeva and Xu started an interdepartmental Brain Development Imaging Interest Group.  “The goal is to promote the generation of new ideas, collaborations, and identify needs for resources and expertise. Group participants come from the Departments of Radiology, Psychiatry, Pediatrics, and Neurology.”

“Dental MRI” – A drawing Dr. Tymofiyeva made to illustrate her PhD work.

Dr. Tymofiyeva attributes scientific breakthroughs to the power of collaboration, observing that “even if you like working alone, try to work with other people if possible: to me this type of work brings the most joy and can result in great discoveries.” A related thread in Dr. Tymofiyeva’s work is the power of compassion, specifically an insight from biologist Robert Sapolsky that we “don’t have to choose between being scientific and being compassionate.” In this vein, Dr. Tymofiyeva has partnered with radiologists, psychiatrists, and pediatricians to better understand how individuals might develop the ability to reduce their suffering with empowering, non-pharmacological, mind-body interventions. Recently, Dr. Tymofiyeva and her collaborators have conducted studies and published papers addressing how aberrations in brain circuits might underlie the development of psychiatric disorders in adolescents, and how they these circuits may be changed by mind-body interventions such as mindfulness. Dr. Tymofiyeva is also a member of the UCSF Depression Center, where she closely collaborates with Dr. Tony Yang’s Adolescent Depression Functional Neuroimaging Lab. In keeping with this trajectory in her career, Dr. Tymofiyeva recently completed a BSc in psychology, and is pursuing an MSc in the same field. What doesn’t appear on her academic CV: she is a trained hypnotist!

Outside of work Dr. Tymofiyeva enjoys time with her husband and toddler, making art, and writing her young adult novel Just City which is set to release in 2022 and addresses themes of justice, scientific thinking, and the limits of meritocracy. In keeping with her research interests in the connectome and mental well-being, Dr. Tymofiyeva also writes a monthly gratitude newsletter which is a creative outlet for appreciating both everyday joys and pivotal life events. She shares that working at UCSF brings her a lot of joy, both in terms of so many wonderful people she gets to interact with and opportunities for creative scientific work.  Dr. Tymofiyeva recalls when she did not have access to an MRI to conduct research. “I went from a failed attempt at building an MRI machine myself as an undergrad to now having the most sophisticated machines for my research. I’m grateful to many people who helped me on the way here. And I’m grateful to be at UCSF.”

Subscribe to Olga Tymofiyeva’s monthly Gratitude newsletter

By L. Delgado and R. Gaber

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