Yasmin: The Barrier Breaker

Date Published: December 7, 2020

Addiction researcher Yasmin Hurd, PhD, talks about confronting bias in her life and work, and how she learned to tune out the noise and take charge.

As a neuroscientist studying the opioid epidemic, Dr. Hurd focuses on non-addictive, efficacious treatments in overcoming addiction with Cannabidiol (CDB). Her groundbreaking cannabidiol studies are leading the development of potential treatment for opioid addiction and other disorders. Dr. Hurd directs the Addiction Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, covering one of the largest addiction populations in the United States.

Podcast Transcript

Dr. Hurd: 00:00
This is a letter from a more senior person in our society. So she writes, "Thank you so much. I'm 73 years old and have never experienced anything like this. I've never had a problem with drinking or drugs, so this has been very depressing for me to deal with. My doctor put me on Norco, which is hydrocodone, for fibromyalgia. And he gave me more and more until I developed a problem. Now I'm on Suboxone and I want to try to use CBD to wean off Suboxone. I just don't know how to wean off. Please, please send me a reply. I'm praying you have a suggestion for me."

I receive letters, phone calls practically every day from many people and their families suffering from addiction disorders. Receiving a letter like this, it reminds me that the work we do is very important and it just helps me to refocus every day on the reality of this devastating disorder, that it impacts on everybody from the babies that we do work with to this 73-year-old woman. The opioid epidemic is extremely real, and I don't think that most Americans understand it. Within an hour about six people will die from opioid overdose. Have we gotten a little better in the past year? Yes, but when you're still having nearly 50,000 people die a year, that's still horrendous, horrendous.

I'm Yasmin Hurd. I'm the Director of the Addiction Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. I was a weird kid. I was born in Jamaica, came to New York and I became an even more unusual kid here because I was a black girl that liked science. I even loved Einstein who looks nothing like me, sounds nothing like me. And at every stage of my education here there were many challenges and buffers pushed against you so that, you know, you'll hear all these things going around, "Oh, this person shouldn't be here. That shouldn't be—you don't have the capacity to learn math because you're a girl." Because you keep hearing in society of all these little things. And that's one of the things for me. My mom was like, "You gotta let go of noise. It's a distraction." And so for me I think that that's one thing I really appreciated about my mom.

Commercial: 02:43
I don't know when I was first captured by the enchantment of the midnight sun. But it must've been this Swedish pamphlet which turned enchantment into obsession. I had to see it for myself.

Dr. Hurd: 02:55
Living in Sweden and being a scientist in Sweden, I think, helped me to be where I am today. I was not blond-haired, blue-eyed. It was very weird the first time I went there, I was like, "Wow, Twilight Zone! Everybody looks the same." And when I went to Sweden it was the first time it felt so incredible that no one really cared that I was a black girl liking science. They cared that I was American, and therefore as American I must be the best. And so having to live up to something raises you, than if you have to always push off the negative that no one expects you to be in this particular profession.

My first autopsy case of a person with a heroin addiction was a young man called George. They had found him in a bathroom, in a train station. And I walked into the autopsy room—big room, cold metal table—and this young man is laying there and he doesn't look like an opioid-addicted person to me. At that time people weren't really doing tattoos, but people who were hardcore drug abusers were tattooed up the wazoo. Everything about him was just "normal-looking" except for his needle track marks. And I realized then that I was prejudiced myself. I had biases of what an opioid-addicted person would look like.

If our research succeeds, we will contribute to developing a much larger medication toolkit for treatments for people with substance use disorders.

Most of the things that I've studied, many people told me were not important to study or that it was not possible to study. So when we were doing molecular studies of the postmortem human brain, everyone was like, "Oh, they're dead. So all of the things you're studying—the genes and so on—are not relevant. They're not real. They're artifacts." And now everyone starts to study the human brain in that way because to realize that, yes, it gives us the most direct evidence of what is happening on a molecular level. I don't know if there's one finding that I'm particularly proud of. I think there are so many that have provided insights that have led us to the potential to develop new medications. So for example, we studied cannabidiol, CBD, and we saw that it actually reduced heroin-seeking behavior. And that has the potential to be used as a treatment for opioid addiction. The biggest challenges we face—resources. Addiction is not well-funded because there's a stigma of addiction where people think, "Oh, this person brought it on themselves. They must have low morals." And it's not a choice that people have. It may initially start that way. But once addiction comes in, it's not a choice.

I have only one sticky on my computer. And I had written early in my career—so it's old—"gain control." And I actually crossed out "gain" into "take" control. I think we all sometimes are too passive about our life. And it just reminds me periodically when I look at that sticky that we actually control many of the things daily. And so it's important to take control of the things you want. Take control, be more proactive. I want people and especially, I think, students and junior faculty to know that the work they do, the training they're doing, is really critical. And if you focus on the people afflicted by these disorders, it's easy to get through the challenges of the day.

Crazy! Now I have a Wikipedia page. One of my friends told me, "Do you know you're in—," and I'm like, "Really?!"