Careers, Profile

Scientist Focus: Grace Hallinan


This is a cross-post from the Alzheimer’s Research UK blog

Grace Hallinan is a Postgraduate Research Student in Neuroscience at the University of Southampton (UK). Now in the final year of her PhD, Grace’s research focuses on how tau propagates between neurons to spread across brain regions, as is seen in diseases such as Alzheimer’s. 

In this interview, Grace discusses her research, exciting new avenues for dementia research, and some of the challenges faced by early career researchers.

What led you to work in dementia research?

I have always been fascinated by the brain and understanding how it works. In 2010 I began undertaking a degree in neuroscience at University College Dublin (Ireland), and was immediately enthralled by my classes about neurodegeneration and diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Shortly into my studies, my grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Watching him slowly deteriorate, and watching first hand the suffering caused by the disease to both him and our family, motivated me to dedicate my time to Alzheimer’s research, and from there my career in research started.

Could you tell us about your current work?

My current research is examining how tau protein, one of the pathological hallmarks of AD, can move throughout the brain, killing brain cells as it spreads to healthy brain regions. If we know how brain cells are transporting and spreading this toxic protein, we can potentially interrupt tau on its destructive journey, and thus delay the progression of AD.

What are the biggest challenges faced by early career researchers?

I think one of the biggest challenges faced by early career researchers is work/life balance and time management. When you are working to deadlines and with short contracts for work it can often seem like an impossible amount of time in which to achieve the massive expectations placed on you as a researcher. As such, balancing lab work with presentations, meetings and writing can be difficult, and that’s not even accounting time for family or social life! I also think the constant pressure to ‘publish or perish’ is a challenge that hangs over all early career researchers, and within dementia research, funding can be a challenge, as money is not as widely available compared with some other research fields meaning that the competition for money is so high that unfortunately not all good ideas can be funded.

As an early career researcher looking at the dementia research field, what are you most excited about for the field in the coming years?

I am excited to see that there has been a huge increase in the funding for dementia research, and with that a doubling in the number of researchers in the field. With this, I think that researchers such as myself are being supplied with the tools needed for a major breakthrough within the next 10 years. Dementia research is now reaching the levels that cancer research was at 10 years ago, meaning that similar screening, prevention and therapeutic discoveries are now possible for the dementia research community. I am excited to see new potential drugs reaching clinical trial stages, and the possible therapeutics that will come from these.

We’re seeing an increased focus on multidisciplinary research and public outreach – particularly as a researcher in the early stages of your career, how important is this for you?

Multi-disciplinary research is a really important aspect of my career. As part of my PhD, I work with the Centre for Hybrid Biodevices in Southampton (UK), and together with engineers we work to create customized biological chips to investigate the mechanisms of neurodegenerative disease. Multidisciplinary work not only provides me as a researcher with new training and skills in an area I would never have had a chance to experience, such as microengineering, but also provides the research community with much needed collaborations of different ideas, expertise and perspectives, which I believe is essential to answer the questions we have about brain diseases.

Outreach is another important aspect of my PhD, as it allows me to interact with the public and communicate my research to people outside the lab. I enjoy relating my work to the bigger picture and it reminds me of the reasons I am working so hard in the lab. I also feel as a fundraiser or charity that it is important to see where the money is going and who the researchers benefitting from it are.

What advice would you give to aspiring researchers?

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, all researchers started somewhere! Get as much lab experience as possible before starting a career in research, through summer internships and undergraduate placements. Don’t shy away from presenting your work to different audiences, as experience speaking to scientists and lay people alike is advantageous in pushing your career as a researcher.

Grace is funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK (ARUK). You can find more on ARUK research opportunities www.alzheimersresearchuk.org

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