Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ English
Place of work / study:
University of Cambridge
Area of Research:
Utilising biophysical methods to characterise protein aggregates and their toxicity mechanisms in neurodegenerative disease.
How is your work funded?
University of Cambridge Department of Chemistry
Tell us a little about yourself:
I’m Lizzie, a state-educated student from the North Notts-South Yorkshire border (I like to identify as a Northerner, but sometimes get called out as being a Midlander). I studied an Integrated Masters in Biosciences (MBiol) for four years at Durham University for my undergraduate degree. At the start of my time at university I developed imposter syndrome in comparing myself to privately-educated students in the cohort. It took until the end of first year, when I received the Physiology Prize (for the highest module grade out of over 200 students!) to feel like I belonged. Being state-educated is now something I’ve rightly grown to be proud of.
Throughout my degree, I chose modules and projects aligning with my interest in neurobiology, for example choosing to write my third year literature review about associations between autism and gut microbiota. Between my second and third year, I took part in a six-week funded studentship, investigating ALS mechanisms in cell culture and trialling a synthetic retinoid as a prospective ALS treatment. This placement solidified my love of neuroscientific research. In my final year, my masters project focussed on developing a sports post-concussion syndrome model in fruit flies, Drosophila melanogaster. I recently had the opportunity to present this work virtually at international conferences, AAIC Neuroscience Next and Pharmacology 2021!
I’m the first in my immediate family to go to university and to have an interest in science: although my family are incredibly supportive, it continues to be challenging navigating the untold rules of academia. When my academic advisor at Durham asked if I wanted to do a PhD, I didn’t even know what the acronym meant, but here I am, a few years on, doing it! My PhD project will attempt to characterise disease-associated protein aggregates throughout the time-course of Alzheimer’s Disease, in terms of aggregate size, shape, number and brain region localisation, through single-molecule fluorescence microscopy methods. I hope to investigate the potential toxicity mechanisms of these aggregates, to aid understanding of the causes of AD onset and progression. I’m currently utilising post-mortem brain samples for my studies, but I’m also keen to investigate clinical samples, like blood and saliva. So far I’m really enjoying learning new techniques and the variety of work involved in PhD study, and I look forward to hopefully generating useful findings!
Tell us a fun fact about yourself:
In my spare time I run a small business, which mostly involves painting people’s pets onto wood slices.
Why did you choose to work in dementia?
My interest in the neurobiology sparked from going to the Cambridge Science Festival in 2016; listening to lectures about the brain I became fascinated by its power and complexity, most of which we are still yet to understand. My nanna suffered with dementia for several years, whilst I was in secondary school and sixth form. Seeing the suffering she and my family had to go through encouraged me to understand how dementia arises and whether we can develop more effective treatments. With dementia being England’s leading cause of death, and cases continually rising, this is a huge motivator behind my research and my enthusiasm in encouraging others to investigate dementia too.
What single piece of advice would you give to an early career researcher?
Push yourself out of your comfort zone and talk to people! Whether that’s asking to meet with scientists who inspire you, striking up new mentorships or collaborations, introducing yourself to new people at academic conferences, or talking to the public about your scientific research. It might feel uncomfortable initially, but putting yourself out there and reaching out to others will form connections that can benefit you and your scientific development in so many ways.
What book are you reading right now? Would you recommend it?
I’m currently reading The Gendered Brain by Professor Gina Rippon. I’m only at the beginning of the book, but it has already helped my understanding that it is socially-imposed gender biases that have more responsibility for barriers facing women, including in STEM, than any biological differences in ‘female’ brains. A very important and interesting read!