Sharon R. Driscoll became aware of the field of sleep research in a psychology class during her freshman year at Cornell University. After graduation, she went on to become a Dement Fellow at the Sleep for Science Research Lab at Brown University, and now works for an independently-contracted research lab. She’s also my sister.
Looking back, it’s not hard to see why she became a sleep researcher. Every night for ten years, our shared bedroom became a battle zone, torn between me leaving the lights on to write, while she grumbled about the importance of turning the lights out to get a full eight hours of beauty sleep.
With very little cajoling, she agreed to answer a few questions on what it takes to become a sleep researcher, along with some insights into what this field of research actually entails.
A Few Questions for Sleep Researcher Sharon R. Driscoll
What are some of the main areas of study within the field of sleep research?
There are too many different areas to list here, but some that are currently of interest are: shift work and jet lag, blue light exposure, and other factors where sleep affects human performance.
Also, circadian rhythm research is a popular topic that studies the internal clocks that all humans have in their brains. They help regulate our bodies and how they function. Circadian rhythm research studies our internal pacemakers, also called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (or SCN) and uses light that reaches the retinal ganglion cells as a cue for the secretion or suppression of melatonin. In other words, researchers are exploring how our circadian rhythms—which regulate our emotional and physical health—are influenced by light and darkness in the world around us.
Lastly, because of the research in genetic medicine over the past decade, we are better able to understand the human genome. This means sleep research has reached a point where we can study the role that genetics play in human sleep.
What degrees, if any, would a person need in order to pursue a career in sleep research?
There are many different paths to choose from in the world of sleep research. One route is to become a polysomnographic (PSG) technician, which requires technical training, an associate’s degree and certification. Another path would be to get a PhD and become a principal investigator in an academic research lab. If you go to medical school, you can also specialize in sleep medicine. This would give you the credentials to work in sleep research as a clinician or a researcher.
What are some of the duties of a sleep researcher?
If you are conducting overnight studies in a sleep lab, the duties often involve staying in the lab overnight to monitor subjects from a control room while they sleep. Aside from watching people snooze, an important component of being a sleep researcher is reading, writing and education. You have to read a lot of research articles so that you keep yourself informed about research that’s going on around the world. Then, of course, you have to write your own papers to share what you have discovered, not only with other researchers, but with the general public.
Who are your test subjects?
The most commonly thought of sleep studies in popular science involve human subjects. However, the subjects vary greatly depending on the goal of the study. A few of the research projects that I have worked on included people of different age groups, genders and occupations, all specific to the individual studies.
Other studies use animals, such as rodents. We know that the genome of a human is quite similar to that of many animals, including mice. Therefore, we can use these animals to conduct studies in which human subjects can’t be used, and then we infer results for humans based on the animal results.
What impact has being a sleep researcher had on your own sleep patterns and habits?
Working in sleep research has improved my sleep habits. Although it has involved many sleepless nights and shift work, the overall impact has been positive. I have a great awareness of my sleep habits and understand the ways that sleep deprivation affects my daytime performance.
How much more is left to discover in the realm of sleep? How much do we know?
This is a philosophical question.
Initially, sleep as a research field bloomed when Aserinsky and Kleitman came onto the scene as sleep researchers. One of their students, Dr. William Dement then became a pseudo-grandfather of sleep research. He has taught sleep for decades and trained many of today’s top sleep researchers.
The closest glimpse we have into understanding sleep has been in learning that the brain may use sleep to cleanse itself. Sleep research has made great strides in the past fifty-plus years, however, we still do not have a full understanding of why we need to spend one third of our lives sleeping.
Final question — do you miss sharing a bedroom with me?
I don’t have to miss sharing a bedroom with you, because you still manage to boss me around just as much!