Hearts and Minds

Michelle Dandeneau ’20 turned to neuroscience to find answers about her sister’s bipolar disorder

By Damarys Ocaña Perez

Brain scan

When Michelle Dandeneau ’20 was a teen, her older sister Amandine was diagnosed with bipolar disorder with symptoms of borderline personality disorder. As young girls, the sisters had been close, two “book nerds” with shared interests and a similar sense of humor despite a six-year age difference. But when Dandeneau was age 10, things changed drastically. Amandine started sneaking out of the house, partying hard, abusing drugs and alcohol, experiencing drastic mood swings — and sharing tales of her exploits with her little sister, who kept her secrets from their parents out of loyalty, while remaining confused by Amandine’s behavior.

There was something going on that was out of everyone’s control, and it was being caused by her brain. I thought: I can increase my empathy by understanding it scientifically, and maybe I can even help people like her.

“It was hard for me to grapple with holding that information, and I didn’t understand that there was something else going on — mental illness,” says Dandeneau, 21, who graduates in May and recently wrote about her experiences with her sister in an essay for The Journal of Stories in Science. “It was difficult because I saw the personality change from when we were kids, and it made me feel isolated from her.”

Eventually, after several rounds of rehab and therapy, doctors were able to diagnose Amandine correctly, and she began her long road to healing. But the stressful years of witnessing Amandine’s erratic behavior had left Dandeneau with a need to process what had happened, and that made studying neuroscience with a behavioral concentration in college “an absolute necessity.”

Studying science had always been a given; Dandeneau loved the subject and was the kind of student whose projects drew the admiration of classmates. But ultimately it was the love for her sister that inspired her to pursue a degree in neuroscience.

“I wanted to understand that this wasn’t about my sister just doing whatever, but that there was a scientific reason for it,” she says. “There was something going on that was out of everyone’s control, and it was being caused by her brain. I thought: I can increase my empathy by understanding it scientifically, and maybe I can even help people like her.”

Several opportunities at Barnard have helped Dandeneau’s academic and personal quest, including the Summer Research Institute’s 10-week program, which funded time at a lab to finish her thesis, and the Beyond Barnard career center, through which she met her mentor, Barnard alumna Karen Rosenbaum ’93.

“I participated in the Women in Medicine panel at Barnard in 2017, where I met Michelle,” says Rosenbaum, a general and forensic private-practice psychiatrist and clinical associate professor at New York University Langone Medical Center. “She asked for my business card and then called me and asked to shadow me. Michelle is a lovely person, and we developed a friendship as well as a mentor relationship. She is interested in my work and has ideas to contribute.”

In October 2018, Dandeneau joined the Kellendonk lab, within the Psychiatric Institute at Columbia Medical Center, after finding the internship opening on the Barnard Neuroscience Department’s student listserv. There, she does research on the neural basis of reward learning in mice, as part of the institute’s larger project to develop a model for schizophrenia. She’s done everything from immunohistochemistry — including cutting brain slices, antibody staining, and imaging of the fluorescent-labeled brain slices — to handling the live animals and running an entire experiment single handedly when her supervisor had to go out of town.

“She became an expert almost immediately,” says Kelly Martyniuk, the Columbia Ph.D. candidate who runs the reward-learning research and has served as Dandeneau’s mentor. “I joked that I was basically her assistant. Michelle has contributed to almost every part of my project and will be a co-author on my paper. I am confident that Michelle will excel at whatever profession she decides to do, but selfishly, I hope she stays in research/ science because the field needs more strong, independent, and fearless women.”

Dandeneau enjoys neuroscientific research — and was offered a post-graduation job at the lab — but is still weighing her options for the future, including attending medical school to treat patients directly as well as combining advanced law and public health degrees for a career in public policy.

Watching her sister struggle to recover through several stints in rehab as doctors tried different combinations of drugs and therapy to help has shown Dandeneau that there is a lot of work to be done to destigmatize mental illness and pass laws that allow for equal access to heath care and medication.

“My sister is fortunate that my family has the resources to provide for her in the way that she needs,” Dandeneau says, referring to an overdose-prevention monthly injection that Amandine receives, which costs $1,400 a shot. “But that’s not the case for everyone, and it can be very difficult to get the correct treatment. As someone who has medical understanding, going into a field that deals with how we treat the masses — I think that’s my trajectory. Thankfully, Barnard has great resources, so I can talk to a lot of people and figure out what niche I fall into.”

Meanwhile, Dandeneau’s relationship with her sister is slowly getting back on track. Dandeneau and her parents just celebrated the first Christmas in many years with a sober Amandine, who has returned to college with the aim of becoming a psychologist who specializes in addiction and bipolar disorder. The sisters have even taken bonding trips together, Dandeneau says, adding, “We’re a lot closer than we have been in years.”

Latest IssueSummer 2020

Read more about how the Barnard community is staying connected during these challenging times, from the College’s virtual “Reunion Reimagined” to in-depth conversations with alums Lida Orzeck ’68 and Maryam Banikarim ’89, P’21.  To access Class Notes, click here