Karl Deisseroth and Michelle Leigh Monje-Deisseroth (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

In the span of just three days this summer, husband-and-wife faculty members Karl Deisseroth, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and of bioengineering, and Michelle Monje-Deisseroth, associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences, earned three career-defining accolades. Deisseroth was co-recipient of the prestigious Lasker Award for his work on optogenetics, which allows neuroscientists to selectively inhibit or activate specific brain cells for study. Monje was named a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator and a MacArthur fellow for her research targeting deadly pediatric brain cancers. The two talked about sharing the limelight, supporting each other’s work and how each day is a new puzzle to be solved.


This was an eventful summer for you. What was it like to have three major awards announced in such quick succession?

Michelle: We had learned about each of those things in advance, but when we were told they were getting announced on days X, Y and Z, we were like, “Really? Oh, that’s going to be a hoppin’ week.” It was intense, but we felt it was very efficient. We were able to save on champagne. We just had to open one bottle.


Is there any competition in your relationship?

Michelle: I feel no sense of competition and that’s good. Because Karl is the most spectacularly successful neuroscientist in the history of the world –

Karl: No, no.

Michelle: Honestly, that was one of the most wonderful things about Karl and our relationship from early on. I remember as a graduate student, I had this exciting paper accepted in Science and it was a really big deal. And I just remember how genuinely happy, in the first nanosecond, Karl was for me. It was such a telling sign that things were going to go well. Karl is the most brilliant scientist, physician and writer, and all along I have felt nothing but inspired by and so very proud of his many transformative accomplishments.

Karl: Well, I’ve always looked up to Michelle, actually. She’s the best doctor in the world as far as I’m concerned. I’m constantly amazed at what she does, how she’s able to do it. I admire her. I try to learn from her. So there’s no sense of competition. I’m just in awe of what she does.


How did you meet?

Michelle: We met at Stanford. I was a medical student doing a sub-internship in neurology and Karl was a psychiatry intern doing a neurology rotation. We worked together on that service and started to become good friends. And then I did my PhD in the same building where Karl was doing his postdoc. So we used to talk a lot, hang out in the confocal microscope room under the romantic glow of the lasers.

“You’re never settled, right? Nothing is ever done. We just treat each day like it’s a new puzzle and we’ll work together to solve it.”

—Karl Deisseroth

You both do rather high-stress work. How do you cope?

Michelle: I’m a neuro-oncologist and I focus on a particularly lethal form of childhood brain cancer. It would be very hard to do what I do in the day without being able to come home to talk about it with Karl and to have the kids to focus on. I’m incredibly grateful for the balance.

Karl: I see patients, too, but they’re not nearly as ill, and they’re not children. All I can do is just try to be there for her – I don’t know how she does it. I couldn’t do it. But she knows I understand. Early on in medicine, I encountered a young girl who had the same tumor that Michelle specializes in – and is making huge steps toward curing – so I deeply understand and relate to that. I wrote about this in my book, Projections, actually.

Michelle: If you haven’t read Karl’s book, it’s incredibly beautiful. The first chapter includes the most beautiful description of this disease that I’ve ever seen. I cannot put into words how helpful it is to be with someone who understands. When I’ve had a bad day, I don’t have to say much. Coming home is the thing that lets me balance out all of the grief at work.


Do you have kids at home still?

Karl: Yeah. The youngest one is 5, and then they’re 8, 11 and 13.

Michelle: And then the oldest, who is my stepson, is 25 now. He’s an MD-PhD student at Baylor.

It’s quite incredible having somebody who understands the complexity of the day of a clinician-scientist-parent, right? It really would be hard to explain to anyone else, “Okay, we’ve got to drop off the kids, immediately call into a meeting, go see a patient, run to X, Y, Z” and then shift gears 10 times during the day. We just try hard to support each other in the things that we have to do.


Do you have relationship advice to give?

Karl: I don’t want to sound like we’ve figured it all out, but I feel so lucky to be with Michelle and to have our kids. We’re just trying to make the most of that, just use this moment, this opportunity, to do the best we can for the world. But each day is its own challenge – I think that’s the way I look at it. It’s like you’re never settled. Right? Nothing is ever done. We just treat each day like it’s a new puzzle and we’ll work together to solve it.