Sheila Ohlsson Walker
Sheila Ohlsson Walker is a behavioral geneticist with dual appointments as an assistant scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. She studies the biological intersection between stress and educational outcomes. Sheila joined Turnaround for Children’s board of directors in 2015.
THE 180: You spent a significant portion of your career in finance. What inspired you to go back to school to become a behavioral geneticist?
SHEILA OHLSSON WALKER: I loved the finance field and learned so much about different companies. It was very interesting to see successful businesses and the kinds of strategic decisions they made. But what I found the most fascinating about the investment business was the people – meeting with people, talking with those who ran the companies and even just talking to people in our office. Generally speaking, I was just much more interested in what made people successful than companies successful.
I have always had a strong interest in child development and biology, biochemistry and genetics from my father who was a biochemistry professor at the University of Colorado. As a little girl I’d spend time in his lab, helping with experiments and things like that. Biology was always in the back of my mind. I was always interested in the biology of optimizing human potential.
THE 180: How did you first learn about Turnaround?
SHEILA OHLSSON WALKER: Katherine Bradley [President, CityBridge Foundation] called me up and said, “We are doing our book club on ‘The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog.’ We have this wonderful psychiatrist named Pamela Cantor who’s coming to speak, and I thought maybe you could join us and talk about the neuroscience piece while Pam talks about the school solutions and application pieces.” And that’s where I met Pam.
Pam and I had a quick 5-10-minute conversation before going out to do our first little presentation together. And it just worked. And it worked on a lot of different levels – the colleague-work-life-passion-interest level, as well as a friendship level which has been tremendously meaningful and important to me. As we got to be better friends, we talked more about the neuroscience and I sent some papers her way – eventually she asked if I would come onto the board.
THE 180: Your scientific expertise is so valuable to so many different organizations. What drew you to support and work with Turnaround for Children?
SHEILA OHLSSON WALKER: The mission was the most powerful to me, partly because of my background. I didn’t grow up in poverty, but I did not grow up with much. And, you know, it’s a couple of lucky breaks and having strong relationships with adults who believe in you, who can help you through some rough patches, that can change a child’s life.
But it was the integration of the science with the emotions that I found the most empowering. I liked the approach to the application and translation of neuroscience into terms that could be understood by people who were touching the lives of children and teachers.
We are learning new things about neuroscience every day and it’s very exciting and compelling. But it also has to be packaged and translated in the right way. Turnaround is really making an effort to do that in a high-quality, exceptional way. And that is very exciting to me. It’s a big goal and a complicated one, but it’s an important goal.
THE 180: If you could boil down all of your knowledge about chronic stress, epigenetics and education, what is the single most important concept for people to know to help us improve our education system?
SHEILA OHLSSON WALKER: For teachers, educators and people in the education space, it’s important to understand the part about the malleability of the human system, the brain and the immune system. Because of what we understand through the science of epigenetics, we know that we are a dynamic, 24/7 work in process. And nurture matters a lot.
So really the most important piece for educators and parents – anyone touching the lives of children – is to know that they make a big difference. Even though they may not see it in the moment, [these relationships] lock in at a biochemical level, at an experiential level. The results may not be there tomorrow, or the next day, or the next month or even the next year. But relationships are the secret sauce. And biology really tells us an optimistic story about what can happen if the environment, the ingredients and recipe, is right.
THE 180: If there were one thing about health that you really wish that schools were paying more attention to, what would that be?
SHEILA OHLSSON WALKER: I would like for there to be an enhanced focus on mental health and for schools to have the resources and staffing – either within the school or through community partnership – to have stronger and more comprehensive mental health screenings and referrals. There’s just such a tremendous need, especially in our high-poverty schools, with kids who have high ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) scores. And mental health is still under-recognized and underfunded.
THE 180: Everyday we’re discovering new research about how we learn and develop. What are you really excited about right now that you’re learning?
SHEILA OHLSSON WALKER: I’m watching the neuroscience and epigenetics of attachment and looking at what the new research is bringing. I’m very excited about studies that are underway. We have a lot of the bad stuff – poverty is associated with lower hippocampal volume and chronic stress is associated with larger amygdala volumes. So I am excited about seeing some of the positive neurobiology as those kinds of studies come to light. And I am particularly excited about the group of us, and Pam is certainly in this group, going out there and telling this story because it is a powerful story for people to hear and understand.