Name: Julia Keith
Born: Halifax, Nova Scotia
We all know that the brain is a “smart” organ. But when the cause of death or type or disease originating from the brain is unknown, you need a special person to help solve the mystery. Dr. Julia Keith shares her knowledge on the general and microscopic details about being a neuropathologist.
What is neuropathology?
Neuropathology is the study of disease processes that affect the brain.
What is a typical day like for you?
My day mainly revolves around two areas: Sometimes, I receive whole brains taken from autopsies and I examine them to determine whether there is an underlying disease, such as ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and stands for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), or a neurological cause of death, such as head trauma. Then, I decide which parts need to be looked at closer under the microscope and I take slices from those parts of the brain for further examination. Other times, I receive brain tumor samples from neurosurgeons, which I examine in order to diagnose the specific type of cancer that it is. We also do additional tests on brain tumor samples to predict how well the cancer will respond to certain types of chemotherapy. I then issue a report for the patient’s medical chart, or call the neurosurgeon to inform them of the type of the disease. This last part is important as it helps to guide the patients’ cancer treatment.
What major skill(s) does neuropathology involve?
In this field, you are constantly diagnosing diseases of the nervous system so you need good observational and microscopy skills. You also talk with clinicians, so good communication and teaching skills are important. You should also like to read.
Did you always want to be a neuropathologist?
No. I always liked science and knew that I wanted to go into medicine. It wasn’t until I was halfway through med school that I decided I like neuroscience and pathology.
What was your academic path to becoming a neuropathologist?
Let’s see…I went to high school in Milford, NS. Then I moved to Ontario, and studied Kinesiology at the University of Waterloo. After that I completed medical school back in Nova Scotia, at Dalhousie University (Halifax). Now, I’m half-way through the neuropathology residency program at the University of Western Ontario (London, ON).
What attracted you to study neuroscience?
Neuroscience is like a black box – there are a lot of unknowns about how the brain functions or how diseases of the brain develop. Although I’m still training, there will be many advances in the field throughout my career, and that’s exciting to be apart of!
Why do you think forensics is so popular in the media?
Forensics has a good blend of criminology and violence that seems to grab people’s attention. It’s full of mysteries and interesting cases that have a chance to be solved.
Is there any truth in what we see on TV and what actually happens in a forensics lab?
Yes! Although, what you see on TV is a lot flashier than in real life. The technologies they show are usually more “glitzy” and expensive than what you would find in the average Canadian lab. It also takes a lot longer to process cases than what you see on TV. Another difference is that real-life pathologists don’t always visit crime scenes. But, they DO document the injuries.
Are you afraid of death?
Well, after seeing so many dead people, I know what to expect. I think I’ve just become more of a worrier for friends and family after seeing a lot of unfortunate things happen to people.
What are the coolest and worst parts of your job?
The coolest part is that I get to think about brains all day! The worst part is that I miss the patient interaction and it can be quite smelly when you are examining decomposing bodies during an autopsy – it’s a smell that I’ve never gotten use to and is probably the worst smell on earth.
What do you do in your spare time?
I play with my new puppy named Murray – he’s a golden doodle which is a cross between a golden retriever and a standard poodle. I also snowboard, but go cautiously over jumps and I always wear a helmet to protect my brain.
What was your favorite subject in school?
English literature, but I’m too lazy to write papers to make that a career.
What is one thing nobody knows about you?
I really miss smoked pepperonis (I’m a vegetarian).
What do coworkers complain about you?
My general untidiness.
What were the smartest and dumbest things you ever did at work?
The smartest was choosing an interesting and challenging career like this. The dumbest? Once I nodded off while looking through a microscope and bonked myself in the eye.
What music do you have in your CD player right now?
Hail to the Theif – the latest album by Radiohead
So there you have it! Dr Keith…a lover of English literature and a vegetarian has chosen a career that involves cutting up and analyzing brains…And she loves it!
If you have any questions or comments about the field of neuropathology, pathology, or the medical profession in general, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org