Hi, my name is Kamar, and I am a researcher at the University of Glasgow. In my future blogs I am going to be sharing my experiences of working in the dementia research field across various different roles, as well as giving you an insight into my research area and the day to day life of laboratory work. But in my first blog I will be giving you an insight into my background, and how I went from an aspiring psychologist to now working as a neuroscientist.
I’m originally from a town called Darlington in the North East of England which has given me a unique accent that is a mix of North Yorkshire, Teesside, Durham, and Geordie. After becoming really interested in psychology at Sixth Form I was set on becoming a clinical psychologist, so I went to Durham University to study applied psychology. I quickly found that my favourite aspects of my degree were research methods, statistics, and neuropsychology, so with the help of a scholarship I stayed at Durham an extra year to study for a Masters degree in cognitive neuroscience. This was my favourite year at university as I was interested in all the topics which were covered, but my mind was still set on training to be a clinical psychologist. I planned to do a dissertation project on schizophrenia but because of a delay in NHS ethics approval I was left without a project. I was therefore assigned to work with Professor Alex Easton on a project looking at recognition memory in Dark Agouti rats. This was an absolute nightmare situation for me because I had no interest in studying memory, or working with animals! But I had to see it through so I could get my degree, get a job in the NHS, and then finally onto clinical training. Things didn’t quite work out like that. I found studying memory absolutely fascinating, and I had a new understanding of how animal models can advance our understanding of cognitive processes in humans.
After graduating I said goodbye to Durham and hello to the NHS. I worked on various clinical projects as a research assistant and assistant psychologist building up my clinical experience across community and inpatient mental health services. I will probably talk more about this in a future blog, but during this time I was contacted by Professor Easton who had received PhD funding based on the work I had done during my Masters degree. As tempting as it was to go back to Durham and do a PhD, the thought of three years of experiments and a massive thesis just felt too overwhelming, and I was much better suited to the practical aspects of the clinical doctorate anyway, wasn’t I? I gradually came round to the idea because the worst case scenario was I wouldn’t complete the PhD, and I would just go back to what I was doing already; it seemed there was nothing to lose. So it was back to Durham I went.
I thoroughly enjoyed being a PhD student and exploring my research topic, as well as traveling to conferences in Europe and the USA to present my work. I enjoyed it so much that I was questioning whether I still wanted to train as a clinical psychologist. By the end of my PhD I decided to apply for clinical training and postdoc positions and would follow whichever option worked out first. I was successful in getting an interview for the Leeds clinical psychology doctorate but was only put on the reserve list for an actual spot on the course. However, I was offered a postdoc position at the University of Sheffield which seemed like a natural progression from my PhD work, so it felt like the decision was essentially made for me.
I spent the next two years working on a longitudinal study assessing memory function and neuropathology in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease. It was here that I developed an interest in the role of neuroinflammation in the progression of neurodegenerative diseases, and specifically the function of immune cells in the brain called microglia.
I decided for my next position to gain experience of academia from another perspective and took a position as a regional programme manager with the NC3Rs; a research funding organisation that aims to replace, refine, and reduce the use of animals in scientific research. I will talk more about this work in a future blog, but generally I was involved in many different activities from supporting researchers and animal facility staff, to promoting new methods and technologies which can reduce or replace animal use, or significantly improve animal welfare. I truly enjoyed working at the NC3Rs and as someone who has used animals in their research I can appreciate how valuable they are as an organisation in promoting the highest standards of animal welfare and alternatives where possible. I think it would have been the perfect job for me, but I was travelling a lot and couldn’t sustain it long-term. So after two years I decided to return to research.
I took a position at Newcastle University assessing microglial function in post-stroke dementia. This was my first project working on human post-mortem brain tissue without any animal work, so although this shift was quite daunting, I was excited to be able to study my favourite cell type and further develop my neuropathology skills. Unfortunately I only had a short 16 month contract, but my experience in this position led me to where I am now in Glasgow, again using human post-mortem brain tissue to look at microglial function, but this time to investigate how neuroinflammation following traumatic brain injury may contribute to the progression of dementia.
So I think that gives a broad overview of my journey from an aspiring psychologist to neuroscientist, and shows how even if you have a clearly defined plan like I did, it is important to be flexible and keep an open mind, because new interests may develop along the way. In my future blogs I plan to go into some of my experiences in more detail, as well as give you a more in depth insight into my research area. I hope there will be something you find interesting, helpful, and hopefully not too self-indulgent.
Dr Kamar Ameen-Ali is a Research Associate at University of Glasgow, exploring how neuroinflammation following traumatic brain injury contributes to the progression of neurodegenerative diseases that lead to dementia. Having first pursued a career as an NHS Psychologist, Kamar went back to University in Durham to look at rodent behavioural tasks to completed her PhD, and then worked as a regional Programme Manager for NC3Rs. Kamar brings a wealth of experience and writes on a range of topics from her time in the NHS, working for a Research Funder and from her work and life in the lab.