I F*cking Love Science

I was just perusing my Facebook feed when I came across this post on that ridiculously well subscribed page, I Fucking Love Science… Oh yes, and I wrote it!

Do we really only use 10% of our brain?

Junk food diet impairs memory and reduces brain plasticity

So, here’s some hot off the press research that I did…

rat-food

We exposed rats to a high fat / high sugar “junk food” diet or a standard diet in the control animals and then tested their memories on a task known as trace conditioning which allowed us to determine how different memory systems were functioning – the hippocampus and the amygdala. In this task the rats were exposed to 2 environments, which differed in smell, appearance and size. In one of these environments the rats were exposed to a flashing light signal, and 30 seconds after it’s offset, they received a static shock. So the rats had to learn about 2 things, the flashing light (Conditioned Stimulus) and the environment (context). We found a dissociation in what each group of rats remembered, the standard (healthy) diet rats learned about the environment, which relies on the hippocampus, but the junk food diet consuming rats learned about the flashing light, which does not require the hippocampus, indicating dysfunction of this memory structure.

We then analysed the molecular components of hippocampal tissue of the rats and found a reduction in the neuroplasticity associated protein Reelin in the junk food fed rats. Reelin is important in the developing brain and the adult brain in the arrangement of synapses that allow neurons to connect to each other to form new memories, a process called Long Term Potentiation. It has been implicated in Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia and autism, so the fact that junk food reduces it’s expression is important, as these diets may cause long term changes in both adult and developing brains.

Dietary-induced obesity disrupts trace fear conditioning and decreases hippocampal reelin expression Brain, Behaviour and Immunity (2014)

Fast cycling bipolar academic infatuation

I love my job. I love that I can be autonomous and enthusiastic and inspired.
I love that I can travel around the world and talk to people who are probably just as crazy as me with the same passion and drive.
I love that I can think of something I want to test and I can have the means to put it into action..
I love that I get to write for a living. That I get to teach curious minds. That I get to work when I want.

Today is a good day, things are going well. Some days aren’t so good, some days I get shouted at and made to feel small, useless and insignificant. When I all want to do is curl up in a ball and wish I’d made different decisions. I’m writing the good things down to remind me that when my job makes me sad that it’s not all shit.

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30 is the new 20, or it is?

I’ve been asked to sit on a panel of various early career researchers from Sydney in August as part of science week. I have to present and discuss “what keeps scientists up at night”. I think we are meant to discuss our preoccupation with science research and the like.

I’m torn. I normally crawl into bed about 11pm pretty much exhausted both physically and mentally. Things that keep me up at night usually include whether I’ve fucked something up in the lab, and I am about to get yelled at about it. Alternatively, there was the time that I got really involved in Plants vs Zombies on my phone and couldn’t sleep properly because I couldn’t stop playing it. I am also not one to work late at night, I’ve never pulled a work based “all nighter” (I have watched the sun rise over cans of cheap beer in a garden as a student though). Regardless, I need to present something that I worry about as a scientist.

I read an article on the conversation a while back that said that nowadays 30 is the new 20, except when it comes down to women’s reproductive health. The first part of that sentence is great. 30 is the new 20. So I’m notionally 21, and all that time spent at university studying for my undergraduate degree and then doing research for my PhD was time I invested into my now young adulthood. I don’t feel 31, and I’m pretty sure I don’t look 31. I’m obviously going to look older than my undergrad students, but I think I can get away with mid-20s when I’ve decided to make an effort.
At this stage I haven’t really invested in anything other than my career. I don’t own a house (or even have a mortgage), I don’t even own a car. In fact, other than my student debt that I really should be repaying, the most expensive thing I own is my laptop (and a lot of clothes and shoes).
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Blog on TheGuardian.com

I was delighted to be asked by Dr Dean Burnett (who used to entertain me in the lab back in my PhD days) to write a commentary on some recently published science (which we both thought was pretty limited and overstating a point), that he deemed close to my interests…

Exercise or bust? Breasts and physical activity 

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Weird things I miss about home

I still call Britain home. From the second I open my mouth to speak, people realise I’m not from Australia, and it has become a defining feature “Amy, you know? The British girl.” I don’t know whether this has hindered or enhanced my career in Australia, and regardless, science is universal – it shouldn’t matter whether the experiments are being done in London, Cape Town, Tokyo or Sydney, good science is good science.

I came to Sydney wanting change and success, and I have achieved both to an extent. But I miss my family and with an impending trip home (the first in 2 years) I am nervous to see whether the UK has changed in my absence (probably not). Australia is pretty much like Britain but with less people getting in my face, less rain, more sunshine and better coffee. I love my life here, I just miss my family.

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Scared I won’t burn that bright

I was the first person in my family to go to university and get a degree, I say this in the knowledge that one of my uncles once went to a university open day, and my gran would swear that he went to uni. But, out of my little family I was the first. My family come from working class roots, my dad is an engineer and my mum is a civil servant. They have good jobs and supported both my brother and myself through our undergraduate degrees, helping out with our rent while we supported ourselves financially with part time jobs to cover tuition fees. I worked in a bar through most of uni during term time and during holidays I worked as a lab tech, or a waitress, or anything else that would pay me.

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Being human

Scientists. What do they do all day? A google image search indicates that if you type in the word “scientist” you either get cartoons of crazy grey haired guys with a maniacal look about them, or some good looking model wearing fake glasses staring wistfully into some coloured liquids.

Scientist, Lincoln,small

But actual scientists… They’re not, like, real people are they? They don’t do boring, normal things like go grocery shopping, watch trashy TV shoes, go to the pub, or dear god, sometimes put their underwear on the wrong way round.

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Me… talking

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Listen to me discussing some exciting new memory research (that I didn’t do) on ABC’s “The World Today”

Here

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Finding your pace in research

Before I start, let me explain that I am a terrible runner, but having donned my trainers for many years and endured hours of mindless treadmill pounding or flailing around a park, I have discovered 2 things – 1) I have never encountered a “runner’s high”, unless it’s the feeling of sitting down on the sofa after going for a run, 2) I have not yet “found my running pace” (my preferred speed is walking).

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(I don’t look like this when I’m running. Even in silhouette form you would see my utter distaste for the exercise)

So, in running there is this concept of “finding your pace”, some kind of mythical sweet-spot where you are at your optimal speed without getting worn out. I imagine that one day I will be out running and I will magically find that I am no longer a sweating, panting, flustered mess of over-heating pain and am instead bounding effortlessly down the street, with a smile of genuine enjoyment pasted across my glowing face. Like a smug, athletic gazelle.

When I run, I am not in a place of zen, focused on maintaining my perfect speed; I am listening to loud music and trying to drown out my constant barrage of thoughts, mostly about how much I hate running, followed by wondering if I’ve run 5k already, only to discover I haven’t even hit a kilometer. One thing that has crossed my mind recently is that maybe research is like running…

At the moment I feel like I am caught up in this chaotic whirlwind of trying to think of novel and feasible experiments and then finding the time and energy to put it into practice. My mind seems scattered and so does my research plan, which seems like it consists of anything shiny that catches my eye – “I think neurogenesis is awesome this week! Oh, lets do some neuroimaging! Now lets do western blots! Lets play with immuohistochemistry! I want to study binging behaviour! Now lets do adolescence vs adulthood…”

I’d like to think that some of this is because I’m passionate about my work. I’m in a place (mentally) where I can rapidly generate ideas and have the drive to get on with experiments I’m excited about. But, I’m also worried that I am not focused enough, and that I haven’t yet found my niche… that one thing that I research that could make me the “expert”. Success in research seems to favour those who are really nifty at one thing, which is executed well. My old boss is awesome at memory reconsolidation, my PhD supervisor was great at behavioural assays in transgenic Alzheimer’s disease models. I’m really great at (… insert research here …).

Science doesn’t favour the jack of all trades approach, it’s nice to have a selection of skills, but they have to be all aimed at the same target. Like one of those ridiculous guns with missiles attached, the skill set you develop is your artillery, your research niche is the target that they get aimed at.

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“I often favour the classic AK-47, but with a flamethrower and grenade launcher add on”

(I know nothing about guns by the way). In the end you don’t need to have an artillery of weapons though. You just need to be really, really good with one thing. Like Hawkeye, you can totally nail everything with just a bow and arrow.

I digress. So, running and research…

I get this feeling that maybe, with time, you find your pace in research. That one thing that you can define yourself by. Then once you’ve got that sorted you’re on track. You get funding, you’ve got a niche that you can go to conferences and talk about. Your name becomes synonymous with your research. And then you can do some “fun” projects too that you’re interested in, but your niche is your bread and butter. But how you actually go about finding this is unbeknownst to me currently, in the same way that I will still try to sprint around the park and end up with stitch, ever hoping I’ll find that magic sweet spot.

 

 

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