Being a dementia researcher

Meet our regular contributors

Find out what they’re working on, what they enjoy about their job and what their biggest challenges have been so far.

Tell us about your career path to becoming an early career researcher.

I have worked on a number of healthcare innovation programmes over my 24 year career in healthcare, working within the NHS, Department of Health, commercial sector and at University College London for the past 10 years. I have previously worked on addressing challenges in healthcare associated infections, particularly MRSA, patient waiting times and healthcare reconfiguration and over the past few years I have entirely focused on dementia and have led various programmes and research studies, looking at improving study recruitment (leading on the development of Join Dementia Research), better supporting care homes and residents to engage with research (with the Enabling Research in Care Homes ENRICH, programme), and most recently leading on the creation development and delivery of this website, Dementia Researcher.

What does your research focus on?

My own research has focused on public engagement in research for the past few years, and I am also a member of the Health Research Authority National Research Ethics Panel, and a Research Associate at the University of Sydney.

Do you have any advice for someone looking to embark on a career in dementia research?

My advice would vary depending upon what you want out of your career. For those that are keen to get a fellowship or a lectureship, then I would say that early planning is essential. You need to think about what research you want to be doing independently, and work towards building a track record. Rightly or wrongly, papers are a key factor in progression. But more than where you publish, developing a strong track record within a specific area helps for funding. Second, be aware of opportunities for funding at all career levels. Being able to find funds to develop your own research is tough, but opportunity is out there. Also, network with people that want to help you and work with you. By talking to senior researchers, many will be able to help you develop your ideas or even help with experiments. I’ve always been surprised at how many people were willing to help me. Networking is key as an ECR; at that point in your career, you can’t do it alone.

What are the best bits about being a researcher?

There is still so much to learn about the brain and dementia, which makes it a fantastically exciting field to work in. Not just in bench science, but also in understanding how best to provide care, prevention and early diagnosis. With so many discoveries to be made, it is still possible to carve out your own path, to be unique and to make a real difference to the lives of people living with dementia right now, and to help future generations.

What do you see as the main challenges?

As I write this, we are in the middle of a global pandemic. As a result, some of the usual challenges around funding and career stresses are amplified. Effects on the economy, leaving the EU (for those of you UK based), and financially challenged charities are all creating a a great deal of uncertainty. However,  dementia is finally getting the prioritisation it deserves. So while it may be a little harder to get grant funding, I do feel we as 'dementia researchers' are better positioned than most, to weather the storm. Pandemics and funding aside, this can be a tricky career choice for those who like job security and certainty in their lives. However, times are changing and with a academic institutions, the NHS and researcher funders now considering how they can improve early career researcher contracts, I do hope things will improve, making this a viable long-term career option for more people - to keep us working in the science we chose, and love.

Why did you choose to work in dementia?

I am particularly motivated when there is a direct line of sight between my work and improving the lives of patients. Dementia presents a particular challenge, and while I don’t have any personal experience of loss from this terrible disease, I have met many people living with dementia and their carers, and I wanted to do all I could to help.

What do you write about?

As the creator of this website, I regularly host podcasts talking about ECR career topics, and individuals research. My personal blogs are usually on topics I feel passionate about, particularly public engagement in research.

Tell us about your career path.

I graduated from my undergraduate degree at UCL as a speech and language therapist back in 2002. From there I started working in the NHS with adults with acquired neurological disorders, such as stroke, brain injury and dementia. I completed a MSc in Neurorehabilitation, at Flinder Univeristy in 2009, when I was working over in Melbourne, Australia. Around this point I was working with people with dementia, particularly language led dementia (primary progressive aphasia). I returned to the UK just after this and wrote a book on the role of speech and language therapists in dementia. I realised how little research had been done in this area. Thus inspired me to apply for funding to pursue an academic career in order to contribute to this area of research. I started my NIHR funded Doctoral Research Fellowship in 2015, completing my part time PhD in 2000. I returned to part time clinical work in 2019, alongside the end of my PhD. I now continue to work clinical as a speech and language therapist at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery. I also work as a senior teaching fellow, teaching speech and language therapy students at UCL and I have recently started a NIHR Development Skills Enhancement Award to continue developing my PhD research.

What does your research focus on?

My research focuses on developing interventions for people with language led dementia, primary progressive aphasia. I am particularly interested in conversation between a person and those around them. During my PhD research project I developed a communication partner training intervention, to be delivered by a speech and language therapist. This involves identifying barriers and facilitators in conversations, and supporting people to reduce barriers and improve facilitators to improve the flow of conversation.

Do you have any advice for someone looking to embark on a career in dementia research?

Do not be concerned about not having the skills to do research, if you have ideas and you are passionate about research, this is more valuable than many other things. You can learn statistics, or ask someone to help you with the, but you cannot learn to have a good idea.

What are the best bits about being an ECR?

The exciting conversations I have with lots of researchers, the possibility and potential of developing research ideas. The fact that the research can actually contribute to the care that people with dementia receive. That we can have a big impact!

What do you see as the main challenges?

I find one of the biggest challenges, as many others do, to be the difficulty in getting “permanent” positions. In other job roles there is little likelihood of having huge gaps between awards or grants, whilst in research it is incredibly difficult to find jobs that provide the stability we need.

Why did you choose to work in dementia?

I work in dementia, because so many people with this diagnosis have communication difficulties that impact on their daily living. People often comment on the importance of communication in their lives, and how this impacts on their quality of life and their relationships. And I believe that speech and language therapists can have a significant impact in maintaining these relationships and the quality of people’s lives, as well as their significant others.

What do you write about?

I write about all things clinical-academic, speech, language and communication, as well as some other bits and pieces.

Tell us about your career path to becoming an early career researcher.

I did my undergraduate degree in Psychology at the University of Leeds where I got to study abroad in Australia for a year. By the end of my degree I didn’t really know what I wanted to do – psychology is such a broad subject so my interests at this point we quite varied! All I knew is that I loved studying and learning about how the brain works. I took a year out, worked as a boating instructor at a camp in America (would definitely recommend) and then as a teaching assistant, working with young people with special educational needs. I loved the job but I really missed studying and in particular learning about the brain. I decided it was time to go back to university. I found an amazing masters at the University of Sheffield (cognitive neuroscience and human neuroimaging). During my masters I got to complete a brain dissection module, getting to hold a human brain in my hands really solidified that I wanted a job where I got to work and research the brain. I knew that I wanted to stay in academia, so I started applying for PhDs, specifically ones which involved neurodegeneration. The first couple I applied for I didn’t make it to interview, but an amazing position came up at Sheffield investigating neurovascular function in Alzheimer’s disease. I applied, got an interview and was awarded the position. Two years later I am here, a second year PhD student, buried in experiments – but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

What does your research focus on?

My research investigates cognitive and neurovascular function in pre-clinical models of Alzheimer’s disease and in a mixed model of Alzheimer’s and atherosclerosis. In the brain when a neuron fires its closely followed by a matched increased in blood flow to that same brain region – we call this relationship neurovascular coupling. If neurovascular coupling is impaired neurons don’t get the energy they need – which can be damaging to brain health. Neurovascular coupling is reportedly impaired in Alzheimer’s disease. So, the first part of my project is to investigate how amyloid plaques in these models impact neurovascular coupling. The second part of my project aims to look at how vascular changes can impact Alzheimer’s disease. Increasing evidence suggests that vascular dysfunction occurs early in Alzheimer’s and may indeed lead to neurodegeneration, through damage to the blood brain barrier and hypoperfusion. As many individuals with Alzheimer’s disease also possess vascular risk factors and/or vascular disorders it’s important to gain an understanding of how neurovascular function may be altered by the presence of both Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease - the second half of my project will investigate this.

Do you have any advice for someone looking to embark on a career in dementia research?

Don’t let rejections hold you back. PhDs can be competitive, especially well funded ones, but that does not mean that you don’t have as much chance as someone else at getting on to one. Before I got my position, If I’m honest, at times I was really doubtful that I would actually get a position – but here I am. From my own experience I’ve found that attitude is everything, your attitude to successes, your attitude to failure. A large part of your PhD training does involve you failing at things and that is totally okay – what’s important is how you respond to that failure and pick yourself back up.

What are the best bits about being an ECR?

One thing that I love about being an ECR is that I get to learn something new each day – whether that be a new scientific technique or some new knowledge from a new paper. It’s really exciting getting to design experiments, conduct them and then analyse the data. I also really like working in a lab – during my undergrad and MSc training I never got the chance to do this.

What do you see as the main challenges?

As academic positions rely on grant funding it can mean that positions aren’t secure – for me this is what I find to be the main challenge of academia. I see myself staying in the field and I’ll obviously work really hard to make that happen but in the back of my mind I do sometimes worry that there won’t be a position for me when I finish my PhD.

What do you write about?

I write about my experience as a PhD student, my research and how I try and keep a work life balance.

Tell us about your career path to becoming an early career researcher.

I studied Experimental Psychology at the University of Bristol, and in my last year I took an ageing psychology module that inspired me to become a dementia researcher. From there, I completed a master’s degree in Dementia Neuroscience at UCL, and this year I started an ESRC funded PhD at the University of Warwick in Health Sciences.

What does your research focus on?

My research focuses on support groups for carers of people with dementia. My primary aim is to compare the effectiveness and accessibility of online and face-to-face support groups and to explore the pros and cons of each approach. I am interested to learn about the influence of COVID-19 on support groups, and plan to complete a mixed methods study over the course of this year investigating carers and facilitator’s experiences of moving support groups online during the pandemic.

Do you have any advice for someone looking to embark on a career in dementia research?

If you’re hoping to do a PhD, I recommend setting up alerts for funded PhD projects on findaphd.com and also checking the jobs section of dementia researcher regularly to find out about new opportunities. Keep in mind that there is a lot of competition for PhD positions and you might have to apply for a lot before you’re successful, hang in there!

What are the best bits about being an ECR?

For me it’s getting to design my own research project and getting to do the research that I’m most passionate about whilst still receiving support and guidance from senior academics and having lots of training and learning opportunities.

What do you see as the main challenges?

At this time I am worried that the pandemic will make my original research question impossible to investigate as it would currently be unsafe to conduct face-to-face support groups. This leaves a degree of uncertainty about whether I will need to make changes to my original proposal and makes the project difficult to plan ahead of time. The pandemic also means that I’ll be working from home where the main challenge is not eating biscuits all day (equally troubling).

What do you write about?

I am documenting my experience of studying for my PhD, discussing life, research and studies. Hoping to encourage other people to enter a career in the field, sharing some lessons I learn along the way.

Tell us about your career path.

I began my research career gaining a BSc in Biomedical Science at the University of Southampton. I then worked as a research technician for 4 years on a project investigating early markers of Parkinson’s disease. From there, I wanted to progress so completed a PhD at Queen Square Brain Bank, UCL investigating the role of TREM2 in neurodegeneration. From here, I went on to become a postdoc. I am now on my third postdoc position on a really exciting grant.

What does your research focus on?

My main area of research is to investigate the neuropathology of multiple neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia and Parkinson’s disease. I look at the the pathology in these diseases and pair them with omics data such as proteomics, lipidomics and transcriptomics. During my PhD I also investigated the role of TREM2 in Alzheimer’s disease which has led to an interest in neuroinflammatory mechanisms, especially those in microglia.

Do you have any advice for someone looking to embark on a career in dementia research?

My advice would be to take any opportunity you can get to gain experience and decide what type of dementia researcher you would like to be.

What are the best bits about being an ECR?

My best part about being an ECR is that you start to think you know what you are doing (although not all of the time) and being able to then help and guide those more junior than you.

What do you see as the main challenges?

The main challenges are gaining enough funding to maintain your research career. A good idea is not always enough. Having supportive supervisors and mentors really helps with this.

Why did you choose to work in dementia?

I have always had an interest in the brain and how it works so neurodegeneration attracted me as a research topic. My grandad then had Parkinson’s with Dementia, giving me the extra push to study this area.

What do you write about?

I write about my experiences as a dementia researcher and how we can help others to gain skills/ enter the field of dementia research.

Tell us about your career path.

I worked as a project assistant at the University of Manchester whilst doing my Masters at the University of Leeds. After my MSc I got promoted to research assistant and worked full-time at Manchester whilst doing my PhD part-time at the same University. During the last year of writing up my PhD, I got a research associate job offered at the University of East Anglia, which I left after a year to move back up North. Now I've been working at the University of Liverpool for over three years, during which I have been promoted to Research Fellow. This is my career so far, but more to come 🙂

What does your research focus on?

My research focuses on enabling people living with dementia staying independently and well at home for as long as possible, and tackling health inequalities that might act as barriers to accessing the care people need.

Do you have any advice for someone looking to embark on a career in dementia research?

One thing that's incredibly important, whether in dementia research or in other areas, is to involve people with lived experiences of the condition/ caring experiences. Carers and people living with dementia can help in developing research and be involved in all aspects of a project. This is really important to ensure that the work we are doing is relevant and needed, and ultimately will hopefully help people living with dementia and carers.

What are the best bits about being an ECR?

You have the time to dedicate fully to conducting research, you don't have admin tasks to do, and best of all, you've done your PhD so you've taken the biggest hurdle!

What do you see as the main challenges?

Getting grant funding and getting involved in grant funding. You have to be super proactive and seek out any opportunity there is to apply for funding, no one tells you where to go, you have to seek out opportunities even if they are very small to start with.

Why did you choose to work in dementia?

Because I am interested in how something that happens in the brain can affect our lives so much that people struggle doing everyday tasks that we take for granted, such as buying a chocolate bar or making a hot tea.

What do you write about?

In my blogs, I write about all sorts of aspects of dementia care research - from social care issues in dementia to public involvement and different methods and types of data we can use as researchers. My blog posts link in with my current research.

Tell us about your career path to becoming an early career researcher.

Before undertaking my career path to become and early career researcher, I trained as a Mental Health Nurse. Although I thoroughly enjoyed nursing, I felt that I wanted to overcome some of the challenges experienced in the field, making changes at a more influential level and realised that a career in research would enable me to do that. I started my clinical academic doctorate in 2014 which enabled me to continue to work clinically, whilst also leading on my own research study. This career choice has enabled me to understand the changes and improvements that need to be made at a practice level and find ways to influence this through research.

What does your research focus on?

My research focus is the care of people with dementia in acute hospital settings and my PhD explored how the work system influences nursing staff capacity for high quality relationship centred dementia care. My research is mostly underpinned by qualitative methodology and in particular ethnographic methods.

Do you have any advice for someone looking to embark on a career in dementia research?

My first words of advice is and will always be, DO IT,  as I am confident you won’t regret it. Although dementia is thought of as one condition, there are so many areas of research that you can focus on from genetics through to the use of animatronics as therapy. My other piece of advice is find something about dementia that you are passionate about researching, the likelihood is you will be submerged in this for a couple of years - reading about it, writing about it, staying up late in the night thinking about it, so that passion is what will keep you going.

What are the best bits about being an ECR?

For me the best thing about being an Early Career Researcher is the extensive opportunities out there. Working on research studies and undertaking post-graduate degrees allows you to develop so many different skills and work in so many different organisations with a whole variety of people so the opportunities do seem endless. Another part I love about being an ECR and is probably part of the package of the many opportunities is the fact that no two days are the same. One day I’m writing for publications, one day I’m presenting, the next day I’m out in the field – it’s never boring that’s for sure.

What do you see as the main challenges?

Although there is a benefit to having so many opportunities thrown at you, the flip side to that is that you can often find yourself saying yes to too many things and spreading yourself too thinly. As I said, opportunities do arise all the time so be picky with your time and only say yes to things that you are interested in and that will benefit you. There is too little work-life balance in academia and research as it is, so us early career researchers should be setting new precedents.

Tell us about your career path to becoming an early career researcher.

While studying Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Glasgow, I tried to gain as much experience in both fields as I could. I completed a few research internships, working with both data and participants, and knew that I wanted to go into research in the future. I continued to chase as many research opportunities as possible throughout my degree and I have now started my MSC in Dementia: Causes, Treatments and Research (Neuroscience). As part of this degree, I will be completing a research project in Parkinson's and Dementia.

What does your research focus on?

While I still haven't got a set idea of what research I would like to focus on, I know that I am interested in brain injury, gender differences and Parkinson's and dementia.

Do you have any advice for someone looking to embark on a career in dementia research?

Don't be afraid to reach out to people in order to gain experience! Send as many emails as you can and always chase people up - if you don't ask you'll never know and you would be surprised how willing people are to offer some experience to young people looking to enter the field.

What are the best bits about being an ECR?

Being able to study something that I am so interested in and reading new and exciting research every day.

What do you see as the main challenges?

Research in general can be quite a hard field to get into and it is of course quite competitive. I'm a first-generation student so not having the right contacts to begin with was tough but it taught me to really put myself out there! Having to balance unpaid experience alongside work and studies was also a challenge at times and can be hard for people who rely on part-time work for the income that they need, but if you can find a way to balance them then it is definitely worth it.

What do you write about?

This year, I am documenting my experience of studying MSc Dementia (neuroscience) at UCL and I hope to encourage other young people to enter a career in the field.

Tell us about your career path to becoming an early career researcher.

Before I even considered science, I thought I wanted to study medicine and was accepted into Durham medical school. One week of work experience in a hospital was all it took to make me realise medicine was not for me. I knew I still had an interest in the medical field but realised I was more intrigued by the development of therapies for diseases rather than their actual diagnoses and treatments. On A level results day I scrambled for a last minute change of career and was accepted to study Medical Genetics at the University of Huddersfield. During a 4 year degree I gained a lot more insight into how the body works on a molecular and cellular level and spent a sandwich year working in vaccine development. After my degree I knew I wanted to pursue a research career and received PhD offers from the University of Liverpool and the University of Huddersfield; accepting the latter. During my PhD I worked on developing new platforms for creating better models of human tissues and diseases in vitro by focussing on combining cells with biomaterials and 3D bioprinting. At the end of my PhD it was time to move on to somewhere new and I accepted a post with Prof Nigel Hooper at the University of Manchester. I now apply the same principles developed in my PhD to the generation of 3D “mini brains” from human cells so we can try and pick apart the underlying mechanisms of dementia.

What does your research focus on?

My current work is centred around taking human neuronal cells derived from induced pluripotent stem cells and embedding them within 3D structures that resemble the extracellular matrix in the brain. By doing so we are giving the cells an environment that is more akin to the in vivo setting without having to take samples of human tissue. When cultured in such a setting, the cells often present behaviours that are characteristic of those seen in the brains of dementia patients. This allows us to try and pick apart those behaviours and analyse the molecular pathways that underlie them. The hope is that this will one day lead to methods by which dementia-causing diseases such as Alzheimer’s can be diagnosed and halted before any real damage is done to the brain.

Do you have any advice for someone looking to embark on a career in dementia research?

My main advice is to constantly speak to people across as many scientific disciplines as possible. Dementia is an extremely complex problem and it will take collaboration across many scientific, clinical and engineering disciplines to create real progress. If you want to succeed in dementia research, you cannot do it alone.

What are the best bits about being an ECR?

The ultimate upside to research is the fact you are working on something you are genuinely interested in. Normally, it is an issue that you care about and that gives the work genuine meaning. It is a very rewarding job despite of how challenging it can be.

What do you see as the main challenges?

The main challenge is a practical one. Dementia is not a simple problem and you are normally one of the first people to conduct your type of research. You often have to try and figure out stuff for yourself and that can take time but it is ultimately very satisfying when you find solutions.

Why did you choose to work in dementia?

Dementia has affected members of my family as it has many others. I find value in being a part of the efforts to improve treatments for the millions who suffer with dementia.

What do you write about?

I enjoy writing about my research and the latest breakthroughs from other groups as well. I also like to write about the general “state of play” in the field, covering advice on finding that next position to how to deal with negative results.

Tell us about your career path to becoming an early career researcher.

I did my undergrad in Neuroscience at Manchester, where I did a year in industry working at Boehringer Ingelheim in Germany on a project about inflammation. When I returned for my final year I combined this interest with my original degree in neuroscience by working with Stuart Allan on a project in neuroinflammation. From there I worked as a research assistant in Oxford on a project about Parkinson’s but wrote a PhD proposal which sadly didn’t get funded but did provide the basis for my masters project which I started in 2008. I did a masters and then a PhD in the Department of Pharmacology at Oxford, studying the role of systemic inflammation on behaviour and the serotonergic system. From there I went on to a post-doc at the University of Southern Denmark, working with Kate Lambertsen on stroke. After a year I returned to Oxford to work with Alastair Buchan, developing my own interests alongside working on some of his projects. I was on rolling contracts for around 4-5 years before I finally managed to get a fellowship with Alzheimer’s Research UK which I was awarded last February but which I delayed because of COVID.

What does your research focus on?

My interest is in extracellular vesicles and their role in communicating brain injury, both to other parts of the brain and to the rest of the body. Stroke causes an increase in the number of extracellular vesicles in the circulation and we’ve found that these are pro-inflammatory. My current working hypothesis is that these vesicles are involved in modifying the function of the vasculature after a stroke, potentially leading to the development of vascular dementia.

Do you have any advice for someone looking to embark on a career in dementia research?

Find a great mentor and a project you love and you can’t go wrong.

What are the best bits about being an ECR?

I am in charge of my own work and how I spend my time and where my research goes. So if I have a really long day, or have to work both days at the weekend, I can choose to take it slightly easier a couple of days during the week. I love the interactive aspect of science, chatting through ideas and plans with other researchers is one of my favourite things to do.

What do you see as the main challenges?

Lack of support from Universities. ECRs are often encouraged to have many strings to their bows; research, teaching, outreach, public engagement, conference organization, supervision, and sometimes there simply aren’t enough hours in the day and the lack of job stability within Universities makes this extremely challenging.

Why did you choose to work in dementia?

I come from a background of stroke research and stroke patients are three times more likely to develop dementia and this seems to not be related to how large their stroke is or where it is, so there are other things going on that we don’t understand and that’s what I became fascinated with.

What do you write about?

I write about everything from the scientific aspects of working in stroke and vascular dementia, to funding, to mental health, to techniques. I hope to mix it up each month so that there’s a bit of variety for people to read and listen to.

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Researcher Profiles

Trying to decide which career is right for you can be a complicated process. You may be thinking about a career in dementia research as it is a subject close to your heart, or you might be fascinated by memory or the brain. Whatever your reason, we want to equip you with the right information to help you make the right decision.

On this page you will find profiles on all the people who have contributed to Dementia Researcher, sharing blogs, joining podcasts and presenting in webinars. Please use this page to find and connect with fellow researchers, reach out, share and collaborate.

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