How a Neuroscientist Approaches Housing Policy

A graphic featuring the headshot of Max in a suite and tie standing in front of the California State Capitol, smiling, with the title of the blog in gold and white font on a blue background, along with CCST's logo and a 15 year anniversary Fellows seal on a white background.
Max Ladow, PhD, is a 2024 CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellow placed with the California State Senate Committee on Housing. Max earned a PhD in Neuroscience from the University of California, San Francisco, and a BS in Neuroscience from Brown University.

So, what does neuroscience have to do with housing policy?

For anyone trying to get to know me during my fellowship year, there’s been one constant, recurring question. Whether I’m talking to a Lyft driver and constituent, a potential policy mentor, or even if I’m having my teeth examined at the dentist, as soon as I introduce myself as a former neuroscience PhD student working as a Senate Housing Committee policy consultant, everyone asks me, “What does neuroscience have to do with housing policy?”

My answer? Well, as it turns out, I think they’re quite a bit related. They both require systems-level thinking, and they also have an essential human element that motivates me toward progress.

Systems neuroscience taught me how to think.

Before the fellowship, I was deeply immersed in systems neuroscience—focused on neural networks and pathways—spending my high school summers studying what motivates flies to eat and eventually focusing my PhD on how mice decide to explore or hide when feeling anxious. In both cases, I researched the connections between cells in different brain areas and how they collectively give rise to complex behaviors.

Systems neuroscience requires a deep understanding of two principles: 1) the circuitry of the brain is incredibly interconnected, even a seemingly minor change can have far reaching effects, and 2) understanding how the entire system works requires constantly switching focus between every level of detail, from zooming in on the smallest of molecules to zooming out to whole brain circuits.

 

They both require systems-level thinking, and they also have an essential human element that motivates me toward progress.

 

As a result of this inherent complexity, systems neuroscience is characterized by constant innovation, enthusiastic debate, and making the most of limited information. On a daily basis I honed my ability to critically analyze what methods and theories I could trust and how to correctly interpret them.

While this might sound highly abstract, my motivation for my PhD was simple and personal. During my undergraduate summers as my research taught me to think through a Systems Neuroscience perspective, I witnessed my grandmother’s progression through Alzheimer’s disease. I saw how limited our ability was not only to slow the degradation of her memory, but more importantly to make her experience of that less anxiety-provoking. This inspired my goal for my research: to uncover another layer of the complexity of how memory and emotions operate, so we can continue advancing our tools to help us better control them.

 

Housing policy as a system.

My training to think systemically has been invaluable for understanding the deeply complicated world of housing and homelessness policies. Housing policy, much like the brain, is  fundamentally driven by decisions made at the local level. However, state and national legislation, agencies, and non-governmental organizations play a critical role in determining what options, support and processes locals can utilize. Any housing policy is simultaneously an entangled question of economics, politics, equity, sustainability, and the art of making places.

As the legislation I work on dives deep into narrow policy issues, I’m always keeping in mind how this particular policy puzzle piece connects within the broad objective of ensuring the state has the housing it so desperately needs. To do that as a policy consultant, I’ve slowly built an understanding of some best practices in the housing toolkit. Housing policy, especially in the middle of the current homelessness and affordability crisis, is anything but static. Just as in graduate school, every day is another opportunity to learn about a new tool. In this case, these tools are for incentivizing housing or a way of ensuring accountability in the context of this fervently debated issue.

Max sitting at a table advertising the CCST S&T Policy Fellowship at AAAS 2024.
Max Ladow (center) staffing the CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellowship booth at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting (AAAS 2024) booth in Denver, Colorado, with CCST Senior Communications Officer and Fellowship alum Mikel Shybut, PhD, and Science Fellows Program Manager Bethany Hopkins, PhD.

 

Neuroscience is more than just research.

When I get to this point in my answer to the always-asked question, I feel like I’ve only told half of the story. It can be easy to simplify my experience as a neuroscientist to the analytical perspectives I’ve gained or the random skills I’ve had to learn, like how to anesthetize a fly or cuddle a rat. But the way I personally experienced working and living as a neuroscientist entails more than that.

As my research career progressed, I also advanced through a series of other roles:  teacher, mentor, advocate, and student leader. All of these roles critically affect people’s lived experience of neuroscience research. I taught students in under-resourced schools how muscle nerves work, mentored students through challenging experiments and graduate school applications, helped improve school discrimination policies, and led reinvestment of student funds towards emergency needs during the pandemic. To engage in all these elements of our academic community was a core component of the culture I experienced in my neuroscience program. At times, this engagement was as essential to my role as neuroscientist as my research projects were.

My personal goal to further equity in neuroscience research led me to learning policy basics. As an advocate for students’ needs and equity, I worked with students and administrators on student housing issues, particularly what policies we could attempt to address drastically different housing needs. I developed skills I now use every day, particularly analyzing budgets, building coalitions, and negotiating with folks from different backgrounds. That experience serving my academic community is the basis for my passion for the CCST program, public service, and specifically housing policy.

 

Closing.

So, that’s how neuroscience relates to housing policy for me. It was a whole odyssey of learning not just how to think scientifically but also learning about the experience of the researchers around me and how academic policies affected their lives. So far, my journey through the fellowship program has been excitingly similar. I’m learning both how to think as a policy analyst and how state housing policy affects people and their communities in our state.

 


About the CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellowship
The CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellows program places PhD-level scientists, engineers, and social scientists in the California State Legislature, State Agencies, and Offices of the Governor for a year of public policy, leadership training, and public service—training scientific thinkers to be policy-savvy, while helping equip California’s decision makers with science-savvy staff. Discover how our CCST S&T Policy Fellows make a difference in California’s policy arena and learn how to apply at CCST.us/CCST-Science-Fellows-Program.

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