How I found my project…

…by Elizabeth / from Australia / MSc Neuroscience 2017-2018

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Hello there!

For my second blog-post, I thought I would give a better understanding of the journey of choosing a project. My next post will then give a better understanding of what I am doing for my project. Hope it’s helpful!

For the first semester in the Neuroscience Masters at Edinburgh, you have a “taught” component. However, this taught component is not necessarily an accurate description of what will transpire during these first few weeks. These are not neuroscience classes, but rather researchers at Edinburgh University coming to discuss their research to help you better understand what research is like and to give guidance on a topic for your project(s). There are many interesting subjects; however, if like me, you are “new” to neuroscience, it can be difficult to follow along with an attentive interest in something like “synaptic proteins in health disease” if most of your knowledge may be limited. However, I am also a Masters Neuroscience Representative and I have discussed further action with course organizers in order to fix this problem. Hopefully, next year, they will implement a short introduction lecture at the beginning of the week to give basic information and knowledge on what you will need to understand in order to follow along properly.

I came from a health science and sociology background. I have always been fascinated by the perplexities of the human mind– the constellations of neural cells, the orchestrated movements of neurotransmitters generating our motivations, passions, and emotions, and the ability to rewire our inner voices through neuroplasticity. I have concentrated on the Kardashian molecule or dopamine’s role in the reward system which leads individuals to depleted receptors into trigger-happy gratification processes, further leading to emotional instability, and bad habits. These habits lead to societal implications such as addiction, obesity, and sexual compulsion. Understanding our own brain chemistry has an enormous impact on how we could potentially change our behavior and become a healthier community. However, all of my neuroscience interest was self-taught and maintained through reading textbooks and neuroscientists novels explaining and discussing interesting research. Namely, Rewire your Brain by John Arden and The Compass to Pleasure by David Linden fostered my huge interest in dopamine and adverse habits. Thus, I think the introductory lecture in the beginning of a “taught” week may help students, without a BS in neuroscience, grasp researchers content far quicker.

After the “taught” component, you begin your chosen project in January where you may do only one project for six months or two projects, the second one beginning in March. While two projects may allow you more experience (and initially what I wanted to do), one project is favored by both students, researchers and organizers alike. Researchers prefer this option because it requires time to teach the student what to do. By the time March rolls around, you are now able to work confidently and independently, but if you choose two projects then you’ll be leaving one project halfway through to begin another project. Alas, experimenters think they may be “wasting their time.” Students prefer one project because you, as a student, understand more what life is like as a scientist and there is more probability of being published. Lastly, organizers appreciate one project more because their advice is that it looks better on a C.V- for the reasons explained by the researcher and student opinions. In October, we are given a list of topics and proposals that researchers have given the course organizers. We are then able to email them with our interest. There is a lot of pressure on these emails, however. These emails are like applying for a job. You must show educated interest, understanding of the researcher’s background, and you must sell yourself competitively, but accurately. This requires reading a lot of literature research, which is very time-consuming. Therefore, you must prepare for each interview you may receive after emailing the researcher. Once this is complete, you must prepare even more and read even more to understand the researcher’s interest and why this project may apply to your goals and career plans.

However, you do not have to follow this list. I did not like any topics or research which was published in October. This made my life a bit more difficult, because I needed to look for what interested me and if any researchers were studying what I was fascinated in at the University of Edinburgh. As I said earlier, I am intently interested in dopamine so I started looking and talking to Ph.D. students to find out if anything was being done on this topic. While there was nothing on addiction medicine, a friend sent me a paper by a post-doc of Richard Morris, Dr. Tomonori Takeuchi. The paper discussed dopamine’s role in helping consolidate memories in the hippocampus. Memory was not a huge interest for me at the time. Synaptic plasticity- LTP, LTD, neurogenesis were awesome and fundamental phenomena, but they didn’t explain adverse habits (at least, I thought then). Still, Takeuchi’s paper “Locus coeruleus and dopaminergic consolidation of everyday memory,” was incredibly fascinating and used many techniques I was interested in – behavioral, Optogenetics, and electrophysiology. I emailed Dr. Richard Morris and Dr. Takeuchi and received no response. No surprise really though- Dr. Richard Morris is one of the most achieved neuroscientists at the University of Edinburgh inventing the Morris Water maze and contributing to a mass amount of knowledge to memory research. Yet, tenacity pays off, and I emailed Dr. Takeuchi again. This time, I did receive a reply (and an apology- after all, research is one of the busiest career paths). Tomonori agreed to meet with me and discuss some questions I had about his paper. I prepared for the meeting and as the hours grew closer towards the meeting, I became even more nervous. Although I had prepared, I began to underestimate my knowledge and became insecure about my non-scientific background and lack of science-based research experience. At 6 o’clock, I meet with Takeuchi and discussed my questions and my interest in his paper. He explained all of his answers and my interest grew as he began discussing Morris’s theory of synaptic tagging. I started to grow with enthusiasm, curiosity, and eagerness- I wanted to be a part of this. I muscled up the courage and questioned if I could do a project with him. With humble gratitude, he replied he could not make this decision as this is Morris’s lab- I would need to discuss this with him. And regardless of a positive answer, Takeuchi was leaving in February to work in his own lab in Denmark. I was devastated. I asked who would continue his project- as there were unanswered questions- and with a swift turn around, he looked to the woman working behind him, Dr. Dorothy Tse. She introduced herself and started to ask me questions. Luckily, she had been listening to our conversation and was keen to continue the prospect of asking Dr. Richard Morris on my behalf-  the possibility of working and continuing this project. After many, many emails, and the encouragement, generosity, and support from Dorothy, and a short-nerve racking interview, Richard accepted me to work with them on their project researching “Everyday Memory.”

Picture is credited to https://elifesciences.org/subjects/neuroscience


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