Changing minds

Madelyn Blake launched a nonprofit to bring evidence-based education about addiction to high school students.
April 29, 2024

Watching family members struggle with substance use disorders left a deep imprint on Madelyn Blake. Early on her studies provided solace amidst an unstable home life. Blake excelled in academics and made the most of her college experience resulting in an impressive list of accomplishments. This spring, she graduates with three degrees, two national awards, a successful nonprofit and plans to change how addiction is treated and talked about.

Inspired by advances in gene editing with the advent of CRISPR-Cas9, she started out studying genetics. She wanted to learn to use the new tools to treat substance use disorders. “Having seen the treatment options that were offered to my close family members, I became convinced that we need to find a better way to treat substance use disorders,” Blake says. 

For a time Blake wavered on whether to pursue the topic based on her experience with drug education as a high school student. She recoiled at how substance abuse disorder was presented as a moral failing rather than a medical condition. Once in college, she discovered an entirely new perspective in her neuroscience courses. “There are researchers who are trying really hard to find new ways to treat it,” says Blake. “They actually care about what happens to people with substance use disorders.” 

This discovery reignited Blake’s desire to be part of developing new treatments and shaping discourse around the topic. Her goal now is to study both science and policy related to the topic. She plans to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. and eventually focus on translational science, medicine and policy. But she’s not waiting until she completes her studies to start changing the narrative.

Blake discovered a love of teaching and developed confidence in her ability to reach younger students after serving as teaching assistant in eight courses and volunteering in a fifth-grade classroom. She started Brains for Change with some like-minded neuroscience students and recent graduates three years ago. The group approaches substance use disorder from a neuroscience perspective. They’ve visited classes in schools across Minnesota and have plans to expand in the future. “Because we are closer to their age, the students really respond to us,” says Blake. “We talk with them about neuroplasticity and how the brain responds to drugs. We talk about neuroscience research. It has been phenomenal.” — Stephanie Xenos