Careers, Careers Week, Science

Dementia Research is for Everyone!

Meet seven dementia researchers from five diverse backgrounds

Reading Time: 14 minutes

If someone asked you “who does dementia research?”, you might immediately think of a neuropsychologist, neuroscientist, or someone in the biosciences. You would be right, of course. These researchers study how the brain degenerates in dementia, how cognition is affected, and what treatment options might be beneficial to people with dementia.

But these aren’t the only scientists working in dementia research. Scientists and researchers from various walks of life explore many different aspects of dementia. We spoke to seven researchers from five diverse backgrounds to learn more about how they contribute to the field of dementia research.

What we learnt was simple and reassuring: when it comes to dementia research, there’s room for everyone!


Exploring Music and Art

Name: Dr Robyn Dowlen

Current role: Postdoctoral Research Associate

Affiliation: Centre for Cultural Value, University of Leeds, UK

Social Media/Website: @robyndowlen

  1. What is your educational background and what was your area of interest when you started your education?

So, my background is probably not the most obvious route into the world of dementia research, but it all came together during my master’s year at the University of Manchester. I have always been someone who followed what I was interested in at school rather than having a particular career in mind. I largely studied arts and humanities subjects for my GCSEs (music, drama, history, religious studies on top of core subjects) and was part of every school musical. At sixth form, I also chose largely arts and humanities subjects (theatre studies, English literature and politics) but psychology really piqued my interest and I ended up going to Cardiff University to do a BSc with Professional Placement. This is where my interest in research began, doing my placement year as a research assistant at the Cerebra Centre for Neurodevelopmental Disorders at the University of Birmingham. After finishing my undergraduate I did my Master’s in Research at the University of Manchester and developed an interest in ageing and dementia, as well as qualitative research. This is when I saw the PhD advertised that brought me full circle back into the arts: understanding the ‘in the moment’ benefits of taking part in music-making for people living with dementia.

  1. How is your current research/work related to dementia?

My current role is as a postdoc at the Centre for Cultural Value at the University of Leeds. In this role I scope and synthesize research that falls under this broad umbrella of ‘cultural value’ including research that looks at how engaging with culture can impact on our health and wellbeing. While my research is not specifically focussed on dementia in this role, I have been able to bring so much with me to this role because I did a dementia-focussed PhD. In the future, I am hoping to be able to develop my research surrounding the role of culture and arts in supporting people living with dementia to live meaningful and fulfilled lives.

  1. How does your background influence your current work?

I think my background has been incredibly influential in my current work. I have been able to experience for myself the role that arts and culture play in my own health and wellbeing, and my PhD research taught me so much about developing empowering approaches to research that enable people who may have difficulties using verbal communication to still have their voice heard. I was really inspired by the work of Pia Kontos and Anne Basting and how their approaches to dementia enable people to retain agency through the creative arts, which is something I have taken with me to understanding the wider role of culture for our health and wellbeing.

  1. What advice do you have for someone who is from a similar educational background and is interested in pursuing a career in dementia research/related careers?

I think my background showcases that dementia research is far broader than the biomedical sciences. Looking back at my route into this area, I don’t think I could ever have predicted that I would have ended up doing a dementia-focussed PhD. I followed what interested me and found a topic area that combined things I loved (the arts) and that made a tangible difference to the lives of people living with dementia and those who support them. Through my PhD research I had the opportunity to work with so many incredible musicians, artists, researchers who all worked their socks off to make sure that people living with dementia had opportunities for creative engagement in their lives. The role of the arts in the context of dementia is a burgeoning area at the moment, and we are a welcoming bunch – come join us!


Name: Dr Megan Wyatt

Current role: Visiting Researcher

Affiliation: Wrexham Glyndwr University, UK

Social Media/Website: @MeganWyattArt

  1. What is your educational background and what was your area of interest when you started your education?

I studied Fine Art as a degree and then completed a Master’s in Art Practice. I have always been particularly interested in painting, both the practicalities and techniques of the discipline and also the concepts surrounding it. After completing my Masters, I lived with my grandmother who had advanced Alzheimer’s disease. I would sit and show her my sketchbooks and I used painting as a means to engage with her. I was interested in how this improved her wellbeing and seemed to ease some of the negative emotions that she was experiencing. This inspired me to go on to undertake a PhD, which explored the area of painting and dementia further. In 2019, I completed a PhD, which investigated how people living with dementia engage with and experience painting whilst working alongside an artist-researcher (myself). I was keen to focus on my role as an artist within this research and I explored how the knowledge of artists can be used within the field of health.

  1. How is your current research/work related to dementia?

I work on different Arts in Health projects both as an artist and a researcher. Since completing my PhD in 2019, I have worked as a post-doctoral researcher on numerous projects that aim to measure the impact of different interventions on people living with dementia and their care partners. My passion lies in Arts and dementia research and I am currently in the process of applying for different funding to extend the findings of my PhD and develop this area of knowledge. Since the Covid-19 outbreak, I have worked on projects that focus on how arts interventions can be successfully delivered to people living with dementia remotely.

  1. How does your background influence your current work?

Through having a background in the arts, I am always keen to use my skills as an artist to work with people living with dementia. I think that the Arts can provide new and beneficial insights into dementia research and this is something that I am extremely interested in.

I love having the opportunity to collaborate with other professionals who have different expertise to create new knowledge that draws upon the skills of different people.

  1. What advice do you have for someone who is from a similar educational background and is interested in pursuing a career in dementia research/related careers?

I think for people from an arts background, dementia research is a really exciting and fulfilling area to get into. There are always possibilities to use creative and artistic skills to work with people living with dementia. Creative people have lots of diverse and interesting ideas and this is something that can be really beneficial within this area. I think it’s sometimes difficult when you are an artist or studying a creative discipline to know where to go with your career. Dementia research is a really exciting option and allows you to use your unique skills within the workplace.

My advice would be to try and gain some experience of working with people living with dementia. For example, volunteer at a care home or community group. This can increase knowledge and confidence without the pressures of a paid job. It allows the freedom to explore new areas and gain a deeper understanding of what types of work you are best suited to.


Exploring Maths

Name: Valentina Escott-Price

Current role: Professor in Biostatistics and Bioinformatics

Affiliation: School of Medicine, Cardiff University, UK

Social Media/Website: Prof. Valentina Escott-Price

  1. What is your educational background and what was your area of interest when you started your education?

I am a mathematician by education and mindset. When I started my education at the department of Mathematics and Mechanics of St Petersburg State University (USSR, now Russia), computers and programming were in their infancy and personal computers did not exist. I was interested in cybernetics, without understanding what it was. I loved mathematics because it was an easy, clear and logical subject for me, and cybernetics for me meant learning mathematical tricks to design and develop efficient computational algorithms. Programming was simply a tool to check the efficiency of the algorithms. In the final two years of my university, I developed an interest in probability theory, which led me to learn about stochastic algorithms. Mathematical statistics was one of the applications to test stochastic algorithms, which in fact led to the research in genetic epidemiology. I have further learned to apply it to complex genetic brain disorders and this formed my career.

  1. How is your current research/work related to dementia?

 I work in the Dementia Research Institute (UK), linking genetic data on a large scale with the aim to predict dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, age at onset and rate of cognitive decline in the population. In addition to genetic data, we inform our prediction models with clinical and environmental information about an individual. This involves processing whole genome datasets (40 million genetic variants) for hundreds of thousands of people.

  1. How does your background influence your current work?

 Often, known methods for data analyses are not easy to implement on such a large scale. Mathematically it is very interesting and challenging. My team and I work to find computational solutions for known methods and develop novel approaches to data analysis on a large scale. Quite often the results which we get are not obvious and counterintuitive. For example, we sometimes see that two genetic variants increase disease risk when considered separately, but taken together, the prediction accuracy reduces, i.e., one variant masks the effect of another. It is possible to identify and explain if only two variables are considered, but on the whole genome scale it is really challenging to disentangle these effects.

  1. What advice do you have for someone who is from a similar educational background and is interested in pursuing a career in dementia research/related careers?

 Mathematicians are needed a great deal in any big data related research. Dementia is a real challenge for society and clinicians, and data analysis is the key to solve the puzzle. Large datasets and solid computational approaches are required to find the cure. Now I know that if you have a mathematical mindset, you can learn any programming language, any subject in fact, which has logic! (English language was more difficult for me to learn because it is not as logical as a programming language).


Dr Emily BakerName: Dr Emily Baker

Current role: Research Associate

Affiliation: UK Dementia Research Institute at Cardiff University, UK

Social Media/Website: @EmB1105

  1. What is your educational background and what was your area of interest when you started your education?

My undergraduate degree was in Mathematics and Statistics, as part of this I did a placement year at Roche Pharmaceuticals where I developed an interest in the application of statistics to medical research. Once I finished my undergrad, I then studied for an MSc in Medical Statistics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine where I sought out a dissertation project in genetics to gain experience analysing genetic data. I then studied for a PhD in the MRC Centre for Genetics and Genomics at Cardiff University, where I investigated and developed methods to find genetic variants associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

  1. How is your current research/work related to dementia?

 The brain of an individual with Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) can change long before the person displays any clinical symptoms. Therefore, genetics can be used to predict who might go on to develop AD long before symptoms, and brain changes occur. During my postdoc, I have been working on ways to improve how well the genetic risk score distinguishes between people with and without AD and refining this risk score by including the most influential genetic variants. This can lead to the identification of individuals at the highest genetic risk of AD.

  1. How does your background influence your current work?

 Having experience with maths and analytical approaches can be incredibly useful to assess and improve current methods and to find patterns in large datasets. It is also useful to be able to approach problems with a different mindset, so you can draw conclusions directly from the data rather than pre-defined hypotheses.

  1. What advice do you have for someone who is from a similar educational background and is interested in pursuing a career in dementia research/related careers?

 My advice would be to never assume that something is ‘not relevant’ to your experience, maths in particular is so versatile that it is useful in so many different areas. Dementia research is so multidisciplinary, and individuals with different backgrounds are crucial to the development of the dementia research field.


Exploring Engineering

Professor Stephen PayneName: Stephen Payne

Current role: Professor of Engineering Science

Affiliation: University of Oxford, UK

Social Media/Website: Prof SP Oxon

  1. What is your educational background and what was your area of interest when you started your education?

I did an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering and after a PhD (in jet engines) decided to work on blood flow in the brain. I’ve been working on this ever since. I wanted to start a new area of research, one where there was still so much to explore. Jet engines are very well understood, and blood flow is not, so it was a very appealing change.

  1. How is your current research/work related to dementia?

I work on developing computational models of blood flow in the brain, how it is controlled and understanding what happens when blood flow changes in disease. Mostly my work focusses on stroke, but I have an interest in dementia, since we now think that changes in blood flow are a key part of the development of dementia.

  1. How does your background influence your current work?

A lot – all the things that I learnt as an undergraduate have been really useful. In particular, fluid mechanics, solid mechanics and control theory have been really useful.

  1. What advice do you have for someone who is from a similar educational background and is interested in pursuing a career in dementia research/related careers?

Read whatever you can find and try to understand how we can use physical and engineering principles to help to understand diseases such as dementia.


Dr Flora A. Kennedy McConnellName: Dr Flora A. Kennedy McConnell

Current role: Early Career Research Fellow

Affiliation: Division of Clinical Neurosciences, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK

Social Media/Website: @PhysIm_Flora

  1. What is your educational background and what was your area of interest when you started your education?

My undergraduate degree was in Engineering Science. I was drawn to biomedical engineering during my degree because the theories and methods I learnt had direct applicability to medicine and healthcare. This is a context that I am very familiar with because I have extensive experience of being a patient requiring medical care. I was interested to understand the design of medical devices, and the mathematical modelling that can be used to understand physiological and disease processes.

A really interesting final year project in modelling stroke physiology led me to pursue a related physiological modelling PhD: investigating how variants of the arterial structures supplying the brain affect different people’s risk of a stroke. This project was also my introduction to medical imaging research as I was working to develop a method to measure arterial blood flow rates in the brain from MRI images of arteries.

  1. How is your current research/work related to dementia?

 Increased risk of dementia and decline in brain function have been shown to be associated with reductions in blood flow to the brain. We can measure these blood flow changes using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). However, these MRI measurements vary significantly between individuals, so healthy blood flow for one person may be low compared to healthy blood flow for another. These differences make it challenging to determine whether an individual patient’s brain tissue receives a healthy, or abnormal, level of blood flow.

My research is to develop methods to predict the expected level of blood flow for each individual using images of the structure of their brain tissue. I intend to compare these predictions with MRI measurements of blood flow and, in doing so I will be able to identify areas of the individual’s brain showing subtle blood flow abnormalities associated with disease. The overall goal is to improve the sensitivity of MRI measurements of blood flow so that they can be used in early detection of dementia.

  1. How does your background influence your current work?

My background in mathematical modelling of physiology means that I am interested in using my work to understand physiological processes. I am therefore inclined to view images of blood flow in the brain as measurements which could be used to inform models of health, or of aging and disease processes. I am motivated to ensure that they can be used by researchers seeking to understand the vascular underpinnings of disease physiology, with the goal of increasing diagnostic accuracy in patients.

  1. What advice do you have for someone who is from a similar educational background and is interested in pursuing a career in dementia research/related careers?

 Knowledge from most of the main branches of engineering (mechanical, electrical, chemical, etc.) can be used to solve problems in medicine and biology. A background in engineering opens many potential paths to dementia research and innovation; medical imaging and physiological modelling are just two examples. Look around for related degree programmes, which are often hosted by medicine and neuroscience departments rather than engineering departments. Also look at the work that dementia charities fund to find out where there might be interesting opportunities and reach out to the academics involved to see if they are recruiting researchers.


Exploring Human Physiology 

Dr Kunle BademosiName: Kunle Bademosi (PhD)

Current role: Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Race Against Dementia

Affiliation: Queensland Brain institute, University of Queensland, AU

Social Media/Website: TUOB RAD Fellow

  1. What is your educational background and what was your area of interest when you started your education?

My name is Kunle Bademosi. I hold a bachelor’s degree in Human Physiology, where for my honours research, I studied the beneficial effects of the antioxidants on Sickle-Cell anaemic patients. I obtained my master’s and doctorate degrees in Neuroscience at the Meunier and van Swinderen labs, Queensland Brain Institute, University of Queensland. During my undergraduate study, two courses that were of particular interest to me where Neuroanatomy (which studies the structures of the human nervous system) and Neurophysiology (which studies the function of the human nervous system). I thoroughly enjoyed my classes on these subjects, the practical sessions, and the examinations.

  1. How is your current research/work related to dementia?

My research aims to elucidate why proteins clump in the brains of people living with fronto-temporal dementia (FTD). The key features of FTD include loss of the frontal and temporal parts of the brain, which is accompanied by, reduced intellectual abilities and changes in behaviour, emotion and personality. The clumping of these proteins is toxic and lethal to these parts of the brain. My research will potentially identify where the protein clumping begins, how the clumps overwhelm the brain’s waste disposal-recycle machinery for damaged proteins and help identify potential drugs that can halt or reverse the clumping of these proteins. My work has the unique potential of providing an early diagnostic tool prior to the observation of any FTD associated symptoms. Further, it will provide the opportunity to screen the effect of new drugs on the protein clumps prior to commencing clinical trials.

  1. How does your background influence your current work?

During my PhD study, I made use of novel advanced super-resolution microscopes to provide novel answers to how general anaesthetics dampen communication in the brain. Thereafter, I moved to Belgium for two and a half years, where I investigated how the blockade of the brain’s waste disposal machinery yields the early non-motor symptom of Parkinson’s disease. I moved back to Australia in the third quarter of 2020 to work in Dr Adam Walker’s lab which researches the cause, progression, and potential therapeutics for FTD as well as motor neuron diseases.

I moved into FTD research with the aiming of combining my skills in the use of the novel advanced super-resolution imaging technology (which has so far been sparingly used in dementia research) with the study of the function of the brain’s waste disposal machinery in FTD.

  1. What advice do you have for someone who is from a similar educational background and is interested in pursuing a career in dementia research/related careers?

I frequently say this: ‘research is not particularly for highly intelligent people, rather it is for folks who are tenacious and have the never-give-up attitude’. Be relentless and seek out the right networking opportunities whether it is by speaking with your tutor/lecturer after class or by asking questions in a seminar /conference.

Finally, choose an area of research that you are excited about. This is key because between one ‘Eureka-moment’ and the next, your excitement keeps you going.


Dr Prerana Sabnis

Author

Dr Prerana Sabnis complete her PhD at University of Trento, Italy and Macquarie University (Australia) and is a Cognitive Neuropsychologist & Science Communicator with a background in researching language comprehension using TMS & EEG, language deficits in stroke survivors & characterisation of dementia using culturally relevant diagnostic tools.

You can follow Prerana on Twitter         

 

 

 

 

 

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