The Brain Bank is run by a group of scientists from Manchester, all of whom share a desire to communicate the amazing complexities of science with anyone interested enough to listen. We hope to tear down the ivory tower and convince everyone that science is not just for scientists!
Meet the Brain Bank Team:
Founder and regular contributor: Dr. Sarah Fox (@FoxWoo84)
Tell us a little about your work: I’m a systems neuroscientist; which basically means that I’m interested in how different parts of the brain interact, allowing us to experience everything from a gust of wind to the smell of freshly cut grass. My current research focuses on how a sensation (for me this is the experience of touch) is coded by cells in different brain regions – a code which gets more and more complex the higher through the brain you climb. The ultimate goal of this type of work is to decode the ‘language of the brain’, with the hope that, in the future, we might have a brain-cell dictionary to help understand neuronal communication and importantly what happens when things go wrong.
What is your geekiest secret?: I must admit I have a fair number of ‘geeky’ secrets. But probably one of the most embarrassing is that I’m a big fan of anime and manga (Japanese cartoons and comics) and have been to a few parties/conventions in cosplay (look that one up!). I like to think I have been careful enough to ensure no pictures exist, but you never know there may be some very embarrassing snaps lurking out there in the either.
What do you like to do when you’re not in the lab?: I’m the type of person who always likes to be busy, so I keep myself occupied with a fair number of hobbies, ranging from crocheting to cycling. However my favorite ‘out of lab’ activity, other than writing, is hiking and I take every opportunity I can to take myself away somewhere green.
What is the most exciting aspect of your research?: Like so many scientists, I’m attracted to the possibilities inherent in working at the edge of our understanding. I like the almost romantic notion that every stone we turn adds to the jigsaw of current knowledge. Although the thrill of new discovery is often balanced by the frustration of attempting to make sense of these discoveries, the way the knowledge unfolds is always a very exciting process!
Tell us a little about your work: I am currently in my final year studying neuroscience at Manchester University. I chose neuroscience because I had always wanted to understand more about the brain and how it controls everything we do. My course involves many different aspects of neurobiology from how drugs affect the brain to what areas are involved in how we move and learn. It is an exciting subject to be studying because we are discovering new things all the time – so it never gets boring!
What were your favourite subjects at school and why?: My favourite subjects at school were psychology and biology. I found the case studies we explored about psychological disorders really interesting, and I loved all the dissecting labs in science class.
What first attracted you to science?: I first became interested in science when I began reading in newspapers and magazines about all of the research that is constantly going on all around the world and how much it is doing to help our understanding of everything that exists. I found it fascinating and wanted to know more!
Tell us your most interesting science fact or funniest science joke: It has recently been estimated that every cell contains enough genetic information to fill 1,000 books each 600 pages long. And considering we have trillions of cells in our body, that is a lot of DNA!
Tell us a little about your work: I use neuroimaging techniques (electroencephalography – EEG; and functional magnetic resonance imaging – fMRI) to investigate what happens in the brain when we form emotional memories. My PhD project look at a particular stage of memory called encoding (the moment you see an item) and how what happens during this stage may influence later memory. The main focus of my research is to find out how these influences may be different for emotional and non-emotional items. In particular I hope that my research will add significant theoretical and neuroscientific data to the prevalent model of emotional memory which focuses only on a later stage of memory formation and not encoding. Although my research tests only healthy participants at present, I hope that there may also be clinical applications for example to develop interventions where emotional memories are troublesome, e.g. in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What first attracted you to science?: The first time I chose to study science was at ‘A’ Level in school. For me, it was a rather strange and unexpected decision because my favourite subjects were in the Arts and languages. I made a decision which I now look back on as rather too sensible – that I should study the topics I was naturally less competent at and less inclined to, because I felt it would be easier to advance my knowledge of the topics I was fond of on my own. It was my idea at that time that this would give me a more rounded knowledge.
What is your geekiest secret?: Besides an interest in neuroscience I am also a keen cook, and like to have a fully stocked kitchen of various herbs and spices etc. I was once told that plants grow better if you talk or sing to them, and so I decided that my kitchen herbs should also have names. The basil plant was a fond favourite for making amusing names, the best (or worst!) of which had to be ‘Basil Ganglia’ (of course, it has to be said in an American accent to make the joke funny).
If you weren’t an academic what type of job do you think you would have?: If I weren’t an academic, I’d like to have a job that combines science with some form of creativity. I like to play around with ideas of how to convey science to different audiences, and I think it’d be a great job to work in a science museum or in a commissioned role to create art / information installations to engage the public in science. Communication of complex topics can be such an extraordinarily difficult task, but as a consumer of science / art I find it exhilarating when it is done well, and I’d like to pass on that exhilaration to other people about my topic.
Dr. Natasha Bray
Tell us a little about your work: My PhD research was into how the brain deals with having a stroke, and how inflammation can make brain damage from a stroke worse. I used a special imaging technique called optical imaging to measure how blood flow in the brain changes after a stroke.
Tell your most interesting science fact/funniest science joke: A virus walks into a bar. The bartender says, ‘We don’t serve viruses here’. The virus infects the bartender and says, ‘Now we do’.
What first attracted you to science?: I was very lucky to have some really excellent science teachers at school, and then I was AMAZED by Matt Ridley’s Nature via Nuture (genetics isn’t that scary after you read that). At school I had to do an ‘extended research essay’ and, for whatever reason, I chose to (try to) write an essay on the (myriad) possible causes of schizophrenia. When writing about (/not even scratching the surface of) the different theories behind schizophrenia, I was stunned by the sheer complexity of the brain and by the fact that so many questions remain unanswered.
Tell us a little about your work: I came to Manchester to study Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychology. I really enjoyed studying for this degree, particularly when one a lecturer really opened up about his family life and how schizophrenia had affected them. It was a really honest and open moment and it made me realise how everybody has a story to tell. I currently work as an administration assistant for a Postgraduate MSc. But, since I’m still really interested in science, I hope to complete an MSc in medical imaging before I turn 30. To keep my brain bubbling I also attend a lot of seminars and general science events.
What first attracted you to science?: I wasn’t ready for Uni at 18, so I took a year out, during which I worked with some amazing people as a healthcare assistant. Here I got to see all kinds of maladies. I saw dementia at its scariest and marveled at how some patients would change in the blink of an eye. I learnt patience and resilience here and it sparked my interest in all things neuroscience related.
Oliver Freeman @ojfreeman
Tell us a little about your work: My research looks into the effects of diabetes on the nervous system. Diabetes is nearly 4 times as common as all types of cancer combined and around half of those with diabetes have nerve damage (known as diabetic neuropathy). Most people are not aware of this very common condition and I am trying to increase awareness of the disorder and understand what causes diabetic patients to feel increased pain and numbness/tingling in their hands/feet.
What is the most exciting aspect of your work?: My work aims to discover new ways to diagnose patients with diabetes and nerve damage. The Holy Grail would be to produce a simple blood test which will tell your doctor the severity or likelihood of you developing diabetic neuropathy. For now, it means analysing lots of molecules in the body to try to find one (or more) that are particularly affected in diabetic neuropathy.
What first attracted you to science?: I’m not entirely sure really – I think I just fell into it! I liked the diverse nature of science; my days always consist of many different aspects and I’m never sat doing the same task for too long at a time.
What do you like to do when you’re not in the lab?: I love keeping fit by playing football and squash. I also like to cycle around pretending I am Bradley Wiggins – the sideburns are taking a while to perfect.
Dr. Nathan Green
Tell us a little about your work: I’m a statistician and mathematical modeller. What this means is that I know generic methods which I use on different kinds of problems and application. Think of a Batman utility belt but containing a calculator and squared paper. I used to work for the MoD doing chemical and biological detection and response, then I worked at simulating what the future UK population will be like if they do or don’t exercise, eat Big Macs, smoke and drink, and what can be done about it. I currently work in infectious diseases, like TB and chlamydia, and the effects of hospital-acquired infections like MRSA.
What first attracted you to science?: At school I enjoyed the right-ness and wrong-ness of maths. I knew when I had it right and it didn’t take as long to do the homework as to write an essay (so there was less `write-ness’!). The irony now is that in the real world and especially in statistics- the science of uncertainty- nothing is ever black-and-white. This can certainly make things a little more complicated but adds to the intrigue.
Tell us your most interesting science fact or funniest science joke: All prime numbers are odd…except two, which is even…which is odd!
What do you like to do when you’re not working?: Science communication is a big hobby of mine. I’ve done some science-based stand-up and go into schools and mentor. Its important that students see what the point of maths is. When I was at school I had no idea. We just have to get beyond the jargon and preciousness and reveal whats important and inspiring.
Tell us a little about your work: I’m currently working on a Ph.D. in Psychology at the University of Manchester Sleep Lab (we cleverly call ourselves N.A.P.S. – Neuroscience And Psychology of Sleep). I focus on how emotional memories evolve across sleep and how we can manipulate this process by playing sounds to people or applying electrical stimulation to their brains while they sleep.
What first attracted you to science?: One of the first encounters with science I vividly remember was watching Jurassic Park when I was 4 years old. I asked my Dad (also a scientist) to explain the whole DNA thing to me and, even though he pointed out that making dinosaurs out of frogs was a bit of a leap (*cough*), the fascination still stuck.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?: I have a bluegrass guitar which I sometimes play, also play the piano when I’m feeling sentimental. Otherwise, I like drawing people (these days it’s usually seminar speakers) and reading science fiction.
If you weren’t an academic what type of job do you think you would have?: I could see myself as a journalist, writing about science, travelling, odd human behaviour. Definitely would strive to be a female Jon Ronson.
Dr Sam Illingworth
Tell us a little about your work: I have always been very passionate about the links between Sciences and the Arts, and spent a couple of years in Japan after my PhD on a Dawia Anglo-Japanese Foundation scholarship investigating how theatrical technique can be used to improve effective scientific communication. In my job as a lecturer in Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), I continue this work and help to to train future scientists in how to communicate with a variety of audiences in an effective and engaging manner.
Which famous scientist (fictional or non) would you say you are most like and why?: I would like to think that I am like the genre-straddling C.P. Snow, he of ‘The Two Cultures’ fame, who like me also had the University of Leicester as his alma mater. However, in reality I am probably more like Dr Bunsen Honeydew, as I cannot fathom a world without an Automatic Wastebasket.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?: When I’m not working I enjoy writing plays and short fiction, a collection of which can be found here. I also love playing Japanese RPGs, although I still haven’t quite gotten over the traumatic event of my sister wiping a 120-hour Final Fantasy 7 play through with a level-1 Crash Bandicoot save (and yes, this did happen almost 15 years ago).
If you weren’t an academic what type of job do you think you would have?: I would like to think that I would have been an actor. However, seeing as my last TV appearance was as an Irish Junkie in ITV4’s ‘Real Prison Breaks’, I think this unlikely.
Tell us a little about your work: My research involves looking at how fruit fly larva smell and process complex odours from their environment. Currently, we know how single component odours are perceived in the larval brain, but little work has been carried out into how complex multi-component odours are processed. Since most odours in the environment are complex, it is important to address this. Currently there are several theories regarding the perception of these complex odours, which I aim to address by using a combination of behavioural techniques, and by measuring the activity of neurons in the brain.
Tell us your most interesting science fact or funniest science joke: This isn’t really a funny science joke, or the most fascinating fact, but I thought it was interesting! Biology is the only discipline where multiplication means the same thing as division.
What do you like to do when you’re not in the lab?: I love spending my spare time reading, there is nothing quite like getting lost in a good book! My favourite author at the moment is Matthew Reilly, and I am also partial to a bit of JK Rowling! I like to go shopping when I have some spare time, and love going to the cinema with my friends. I also volunteer for a charity, and love looking after my two guinea pigs!
What were your favourite subjects at school and why?: I was a bit of a nerd at school and enjoyed most of my subjects, although I would have to admit that my favourite subject was surprisingly geography. This was mainly because I had a great teacher who was really charismatic and was really funny!
Tell us a little about your work: I am a PhD student at the University of Manchester studying massive star formation i.e. the formation of stars with greater than 10 times the mass of the Sun. Based on the current understanding of the formation of lower mass stars, stars with greater than 10 times the mass of the Sun should not be able to form, yet they are abundant in the universe. I am helping to investigate why this might be. Stars play an important role in the evolution of galaxies and the universe as a whole, so a complete understanding of how they form is of great importance to many areas of astrophysics.
Tell us your most interesting science fact or funniest science joke: Heisenberg is out for a drive when he’s stopped for speeding. The policeman says “Do you know how fast you were going?” Heisenberg says “No, but I know where I am.”
What is your geekiest secret?: I’m a bit of a mushroom spotter. I have numerous books on identifying mushrooms and my phone is filled with pictures of them. I get embarrassingly excited if I spot an interesting mushroom when I am out walking!
What do you like to do when you’re not working?: I like doing anything crafty, usually something different every week! I don’t like shopping so when birthdays and Christmas come up I like to make presents instead. I also love anything that gets me outdoors. I am an avid forager of wild foods and have fun making unusual recipes with what I find.
Dr. Jadwiga Nazimek
Tell us a little about your work: I have a PhD in cognitive neuroscience. Currently I work in a clinical trial of a new medication that could help with schizophrenia, particularly with negative symptoms, i.e. lack of motivation, social withdrawal, apathy. We scan healthy people to see how the drug and some personality characteristics affect their brain activity when they do tasks involving motivation and thinking.
What were your favourite subjects at school and why?: I liked geography. The teacher addressed our mixed-gender class as ‘girls’. He used to line up a few people at a time and throw quite large rocks for them to identify. We quickly learned to catch the rocks!
What first attracted you to science?: Curiosity – the endless ‘why’ question. I wanted to know why and how things happen – there is always more to find out and I love the feeling of filling in the gaps.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?: I am a bit of an exercise fanatic. I run and practice karate and vinyasa yoga. There is nothing better to motivate you to run than a border collie attached to you with a running lead. I also write (and publish) poems and stories for children.
Dr. Louise Walker @thinkscientific
Tell us a little about your work: I do research on Endosomes which are involved in something called receptor downregulation. Each cell in the body has a number of receptors attached to its outer surface. These receptors receive signals from elsewhere in the body and relay the message through the cell to give a response, e.g. the cell will grow. Endosomes are like little pockets within the cell and they remove the receptors from the cell surface by “eating” them. This brings the receptor inside the cell and the endosome delivers it to another compartment which destroys the redundant receptor. This is important because if the signal is kept going when it is not required then something can go wrong with the cell, e.g. they can grow out of control, leading to cancer. My work involves trying to understand the roles of various proteins found in cells which help the endosomes function.
What were your favourite subjects at school and why?: My favourite subject was unsurprisingly Biology, as I found it continually fascinating, especially what happens inside us. I also really liked English, as I love to read and analyse (maybe that’s got something to do with the science?) but also it allowed me to flex my creative muscles, which I really enjoyed.
What first attracted you to science?: I loved finding out about how everything worked and how everything has evolved to work together, both within one organism and how different organisms and animals rely on each other. As a researcher, I liked the idea of making my little contribution to our understanding of how something works, even if it’s not the greatest breakthrough ever! I also like the idea of what I call “behind the scenes” work. Without dedicated scientific researchers, we wouldn’t have many of the treatments and cures for illnesses that we take for granted now.
Tell us your most interesting science fact or funniest science joke: This is a pretty bad one but it’s probably the funniest one I know. Two electrons are walking down the street. One turns to the other and says “Oh dear, I think I’ve just reversed polarity!” The second says “Are you sure?” and the first one replies, “Yes, I’m positive!”
Tell us a little about your work: Arrhythmias are abnormal heart rhythms and are one of the top 10 reasons why people go to hospital. An individual’s genetics can influence their chance of developing an arrhythmia. So, to look at how genes factor in heart rhythm problems, I am looking at a gene linked to several areas of heart disease. By altering gene expression in heart cells, I am going to see how it is involved in keeping the heart rhythm stable and how it may influence the chances of arrhythmias developing, which could potentially point to new therapeutic targets.
What first attracted you to science?: My mum once got told at a parents evening that “Claire would do really well at science if she just enjoyed it more” so I guess nothing at first! As I got older the endless “WHY?” questions associated with science is what somehow led me to a PhD.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?: I watch a lot of sports. I won’t tell you who I support… just in case this somehow makes you instantly loath my posts! I love eating out so I do a bit of running too to compensate. I’m also into fashion and arty things, and would probably have gone into textiles if science hadn’t taken over.
What is the most exciting aspect of your work?: That every day is different!! Also you don’t know what the outcome is going to be. This is can be very frustrating when the result isn’t what you want, but when you remember you’re looking into something that no one else has… that’s pretty cool.
The Scouse Science Alliance @scousescience
Meet our new friends and collaborators the Scouse Science Alliance: “The Scouse Science Alliance is a blog run by PhD students and researchers from the University of Liverpool. We love talking about the excitement and intrigue science offers, without the boring technical jargon! Focusing mainly on Biology, we’ll bring you all manner of exciting scientific news, views, tales and titbits every week.” – We will be sharing monthly posts with our scouse neighbours and you can find more of their entertaining work here!
Follow us on twitter @brainbankmanc
Dr. Elizabeth Granger (@bio_fluff)
Tell us a little about your work: I work on a protein called dynein. It’s a motor protein, which means it can move things around inside our cells. Despite being miniscule – just about visible under an electron microscope – dynein has two legs which walk around a network of tiny tubes inside our cells. My research focuses on how dynein is controlled and what makes it grab hold of a cargo and start moving it around.
What first attracted you to science: I was about 10 watching Dexter’s Lab. I thought; Dexter’s cool, his lab is bitchin’ and he’s rocking a kick-ass boots/purple nitrile glove/lab coat combo. What a dude. I’m going to be a scientist like Dexter. I’ve made most of my life decisions based on cartoons since.
Tell your most interesting science fact/funniest science joke: Did you hear about the biologists who had just had twins? They baptised one and kept the other as a control.
What is your geekiest secret?: I own and have played hero quest. Google it; you’ll be jealous.
Tell us a little about your work: All of your movements are coordinated by your brain. Without a system of coordination you would be unable to do any task as simple as writing or kicking a ball. Learning and remembering these movement patterns is directed by a part of the brain known as the basal ganglia, which I study using a technique that allows us to see how individual neurons communicate with one another.
Tell us your most interesting science fact or funniest science joke: Did you know that fully one quarter of all the cells in your body are red blood cells? And that your body produces three million red blood cells every second?
What do you like to do when you’re not in the lab?: Running and swimming a lot. And football is important too. I used to watch many films and play many games but I don’t have as much free time these days!
What do you think has been the most influential scientific breakthrough in your lifetime?: If faster-than-light neutrinos are confirmed, that’ll be the biggest scientific breakthrough for some time. Anything that challenges Einstein’s theories is BIG. A lot of very smart people are scratching their heads at the moment.
Claire Scofield @clairescofe
Tell us a little about your work: My research is investigating how brain activity is disrupted in schizophrenia. To study this, we induce a schizophrenia-like state in rats by administering ketamine or similar drugs. The behavioural effects are thought to be analogous to the human response to ketamine: a psychotic state similar to schizophrenia. In rats, under anaesthetic it is possible to record the activity of brain cells in different regions of the brain, and look at activity across the whole brain using an MRI scanner. This also means we can look at how communication between different regions of the brain is disrupted by ketamine. Once we see ways in which brain activity is altered in the psychotic state, it is also possible to investigate the effects of anti-psychotic drugs on these changes.
What first attracted you to science?: Well I just read the quote “Science is just magic without the lies” and completely agreed so I think it was just curiosity. Especially when it comes to the brain – trying to work out how things work and how things go wrong in the brain to produce diseases fascinates me.
Tell us your most interesting science fact or funniest science joke: I’m going to apologise for this before writing it, but…One lab rat to his cage-mate: “I’ve got my scientist so well-trained he brings me a treat whenever I press the bar”
What do you like to do when you’re not in the lab?: When I’m not in the lab I’ve recently started kick-boxing as a very good stress-reliever! I also play netball and I like going to see any type of music (well almost), especially if it involves spending a few days in a muddy field!
Title image credit – Dellboyy Art