Hello! Thank you for accepting my request. As a starter, can you please tell us about yourself? Who are you, what are you doing right now?
I’m a current PhD student at the University of Manchester working in the field of dementia research and regenerative medicine. At the moment, unfortunately, I am working from home trying to write up the experimental data that I have from my PhD so far. I’m in my final year and due to submit my thesis in September 2020, although I expect (hope) for an extension due to research time lost because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Can you please give us a brief information about your PhD studies?
My research centers around Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, with particular focus on vascular aspects of dementia. In dementia cases it is extremely common to find “mixed dementia” which includes vascular dementia as well as another form of dementia. I use a combination of cellular biology and regenerative medicine techniques to recreate the blood-brain barrier (BBB) (the vasculature of the brain) models in the lab. By using human stem cells we can grow the different cell types of the brain — neurons, brain microvascular endothelial cells, etc. — from one person; in addition to investigating the effect of certain mutations on BBB function. Combining the different cell types of the brain with biomaterials called hydrogels allows us to recreate the brain physical environment (extracellular matrix) to recreate the BBB in 3D; this also allows the combination of separate cell types with physical and biochemical cell-cell and cell-matrix interactions. These complex techniques combined have enabled me reverse engineer the BBB in the lab and create models of vascular dementia that will be used to investigate methods of treating dementia and the biochemical mechanisms that lead to dementia.
I want to be a little bit more specific about your research. One of your recent papers was about the effect of a hydrogel blend on neurogenesis, and you used 3D cell culturing techniques in that study. Can you make a brief comparison on the advantages and disadvantages of 2D-3D cell culturing when you work with neurons? Do you believe these advantages may led us to understand the structure of human nervous system, especially of course central nervous system?
Cell behavior and growth is heavily reliant upon the surrounding environment, with both the stiffness of surrounding environment and 2D or 3D environments affecting cells. When considering the 3D configuration of neurons in brain tissue it makes sense that neurons should be grown in 3D where possible. In addition, cells that are grown in 3D cells do not grow as fast as cells grown in 2D, which we think aids the neuron maturation and development of synaptic processes. It is also important to consider the physical stiffness of substrates that cells are grown in, or on, with differing stiffness’s drastically affecting cell behavior and functionality. For example, it is known that differentiation of human pluripotent stem cells can be directed to specific cell types by growing the cells on biomaterials of different stiffness’s; much harder biomaterials induce osteogenic differentiation whereas soft biomaterials promote neural cell differentiation. Small differences in stiffness can also dictate the growth of pluripotent stem cells to either neurons or glial cells. So it is very apparent that the stiffness of substrates that cells are grown on can be very important. Part of my rationale for using biomaterials rather than tissue culture plastic is that we can replicate the physical softness of the brain using these hydrogel based biomaterials. This also avoids the use of tissue culture plastic that has similar properties to bone tissue. One particular avenue which I am looking at is the effect of tissue stiffness on BBB functionality as this is something that alters with age and may promote the onset of dementia. Overall I think that the more accurately the brain is modelled in the lab then the better the research that is published will be, and hopefully this will lead to improved understanding of dementia and other neurological conditions.
Okay now we can loosen the ropes in here 🙂 I believe you are interested in science communication not only about your research, but also in a more general way. Can you tell us about your story?
My interest in science communication spans back to just before I started my PhD when I noticed how much of the articles that were published in mainstream media about scientific research included ‘click bait’ titles or misleading and misrepresenting information about the actual research being done.
At best this could cause someone to be slightly misinformed on a topic, at worse this could lead to mass panic and the introduction of anti-science movements (flat world, anti-vaxxers, etc…).
Weirdly this annoyed me so much that I wanted to contribute in my own way to the flow of scientific journalism and hopefully represent research much more responsibly for mainstream consumption.
You have a background on pharmacology (you also are a published scientist in that subject, too), and you were interested in neurodegeneration in your studies. Since you still work on neuroscience, I believe I can say are compassionate about neurons 🙂 How did you decide to study about your research topics? Were there any “turning-of-events” points that affect you to choose these topics?
My undergraduate degree was actually in pharmacology from The University of Liverpool so I’ve had a keen interest in the subject for a while now! My interest in neuroscience and dementia actually started in my lectures from Liverpool. The complexity of the brain and the difficulties in pharmacologically treating such of an important disease really interested me and led me to taking projects at undergraduate that centered around Alzheimer’s disease and the pharmacology of drugs that could be used to treat neurodegeneration. This led to my Master of research in translational medicine at The University of Manchester where I published a paper on the toxicology of the nitrosated peptide BMAA and potential contribution to neurodegeneration. I then spent a year working for VWR-Catalyst, a scientific research branch of VWR, where I worked in a team of AstraZeneca researchers to grow multiple cell lines for research. During this time working I had applied to the CDT in regenerative medicine program that I am now on and was successful with that application. I applied to this program as I wanted to compliment and develop my current neuroscience knowledge whilst also building cutting edge research skills in regenerative medicine to hopefully look at neurodegenerative disease research. Once I had started the PhD program I contacted Professor Nigel Hooper and self-arranged a research project which matched both of our goals for research; thereby creating my current project! I would also be keen to research more on pharmacology in future, and hopefully I will be able to use my BBB models to test potential dementia drugs at some point.
Lastly, can you give some advice to younger generations who want to study regenerative medicine and/or have some intentions to start science communicating?
As much as I’d like to say that I’m doing my PhD because of hard work alone (a whole load of hard work did go into it) there is always an element of luck involved. I had applied and interviewed to many PhD programs before successfully being accepted into my current one. The main advice before applying and interviewing I can offer is to do the background research into the lab and the project; after all, the PhD will be research based so the appropriate preparation must be made. Searching online and through people you know are probably the best ways to find a suitable PhD program or project. Be sure to email people for advice and information if you don’t already know anyone in a position to help.
In terms of science communication I would advise people to practice writing scientific articles for the general public through a blog, but to also inquire at science news websites to see if they will publish your articles. The latter is how I started to branch out into publishing scientific news articles and I was shocked at how keen websites were to publish articles I had written, so it’s really worth having a go!
Thank you so much for your time and interest! Good luck with your studies!
No problem! I’m really sorry for how long this has taken me. Although I’m working from home and it would seem that I should have more time for other things… It has transpired to be the opposite case.