Simmie Foster’s parents — her mother of Eastern European Jewish descent and her father an African American from Georgia — were no strangers to struggle. They ran multiple small businesses and were perennial students, committed above all else to educating their children.
“If we can make the individual cells more resilient, we can help the whole person to be stronger.”
Simmie was three when she asked her father, “Dad, what am I made of?” He replied, “Simmie, my love, you are made of thousands of little Simmies called cells.” Thus began the odyssey of Simmie Foster and her research into resilience.
When she was nine, living in Richmond, California, Simmie joined a performing arts center devoted to social justice and healing. This experience of storytelling in action led her to question the commonly held belief that there is a strict line between the mind and the body.
Simmie Foster Asks Questions
She entered the University of California at Berkeley at age 16. She took a circuitous route to the study of how cells remember pain and how this memorization helps cells adapt. She was not initially interested in psychiatry, but her first experience with talk therapy changed that and changed her life. Later, at Yale University, where she received her doctorate and medical degree in 2010, she worked in an immunology lab. All this led to the question at the heart of her work today: how do the immune system and the sensory neurons (the mind and body) talk to each other? And could this communication be what resilience is, at its core?
“It follows,” says Simmie, now Dr. Foster, “that if we can make the individual cells more resilient, we can help the whole person to be stronger.” Arguably, this sturdiness is the key to good mental health. While we all do suffer at some point, it is the management of that suffering that makes for either a happy or a wretched life. Simmie L. Foster, MD, PhD, a physician in the Depression Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, is hot on the trail of discovering what environments and treatments enhance the ability of cells to adapt. “What works for our cells may also work for ourselves,” she says.
“Profiles in Care” features personal and professional stories of early to mid-career psychiatrists and psychologists at Massachusetts General Hospital.