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My Journey into Mental Health Research

Introduction

Hi everyone! I’m Jess and I’m a PhD researcher at the Division of Neuroscience and Experimental Psychology at the University of Manchester. I’m in my second year of a 4-year biosocial PhD programme – a programme that specialises in research in both biological and social sciences. My research specifically looks at how social support affects mental health, whilst taking into account different factors. Those factors include the structure and function of the brain, wealth and education, and personality type. 

In Depth…

I have always been interested in why people act, think and feel the way they do, which is why I decided to study Psychology at university. We learned about different areas of psychology, such as developmental, social and cognitive psychology, but I had a strong interest in clinical and biological psychology – mental health and the brain. Like many people who studied psychology, at first I considered becoming a clinical psychologist, so I worked for a mental health service provider for a couple of years after my degree. 

However, I realised that my passion lies in research, so I went on to complete my Master’s degree in Edinburgh and then (after a short detour of work and travel in Japan) on to start my PhD in Manchester. I wanted to pursue a PhD in order to become an expert in a research topic and to contribute to the body of knowledge that has the potential to impact the lives of many people. This is important in the field of mental health, as the majority of people in their lifetime will struggle with their mental health, and we need to understand the biological and social mechanisms behind this and the best way to help. 

A bird's eye view of different sections of the brain from top to bottom from an MRI scan.

Currently, my day-to-day life is very varied. For my research, I am conducting a systematic literature review, which involves trying to find all the research there is on a particular topic and combining it all together. Alongside this, I teach on the undergraduate Psychology course, deliver workshops to schools and write my own blog about psychology and neuroscience research. This is one of the parts I like most about doing a PhD; you have the opportunity to get involved with different areas and build skills and confidence outside of your niche research topic. After my PhD, I want to continue to work in research, but I am also attracted to the idea of working in policy and science communication. I want my work to have meaningful and far-reaching consequences, which could be achieved by any of these career paths. Luckily I have some time to think about it before I finish my PhD!

Going Further…

If you want to find out more about different aspects of psychology, check out the links below:

-  Interested in studying Psychology? Here is the website for Psychology at the University of Manchester, which gives more information about the course and the requirements: https://www.manchester.ac.uk/study/undergraduate/courses/2020/00653/bsc-psychology/

-  Wondering what you can do with a Psychology degree? The British Psychology Society (BPS) has some careers information here: https://careers.bps.org.uk/

-  Keen to learn more about psychology and neuroscience research? Check out my very own blog: https://brainsinaspace.home.blog/ or my own academic Twitter:https://twitter.com/JStepanous

-  Want to learn more about your mental health? This website has videos and articles on different topics: https://teenmentalhealth.org/learn/

-  Curious about what the different parts of the brain are? You can download this free, interactive app for your phone: https://apps.apple.com/us/app/3d-brain/id331399332



 

A cure for Alzheimer's?

by YPU Admin on August 16, 2019, Comments. Tags: Alzheimer's, biology, chemistry, medicinal chemistry, medicine, Research, and STEM

Introduction

Hi, my name is James, I am a second year PhD researcher in Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Manchester and I make drugs. To put that statement into context, I make drugs targeting the biological process of inflammation which is involved in diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

My research group are interested in targeting the aptly named ‘inflammasome’ using small molecules. We hope that these small molecule inhibitors might one day be able to treat diseases which involve inflammation, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease is something that everyone is aware of. And it’s only going to become more common – we are all living a lot longer than we used to, which means that age-related diseases are on the rise. That’s why I think that the work that we do is really important!

In Depth…

I studied at the University of York where I graduated with a first class MChem degree in Chemistry (with a year in industry), taking my fourth and final year on an industrial placement at LifeArc in Stevenage. LifeArc is where I first started working in the field of medicinal chemistry, and it is the year I spent there which inspired me to continue in that area. There is something amazing about manipulating molecules to make ones that have never been made before. Chemistry is a lot like cooking in your kitchen, albeit with a few more pieces of safety equipment, and without licking the spoon at the end…

On a typical day, I will spend most of my time in the lab – setting up reactions, as well as analysing and purifying them. I will never get bored of the fact that I am playing around with electrons to form new bonds… and mixing two coloured liquids together to give a sparkly white solid will always be absolute magic to me.

Going Further…

For those interested in learning a bit more about everyday chemistry and how it impacts on your life, take a look at the ‘Exploring Everyday Chemistry’ twitter pages or even sign up for a free online course. This will help to expand your everyday chemistry knowledge, and with the brilliant Professor Andy Parsons as your guide, you will have no choice but to get excited about chemistry! (https://www.york.ac.uk/chemistry/news/deptnews/free-online-course-eedc/)

For the latest on Alzheimer’s research and news, look no further than the Twitter feeds for the Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer’s Research UK (https://twitter.com/ARUKnews)

The University of Manchester has a huge range of exciting research – I would really suggest taking a look at the UoM Research Hive for approachable and jargon-free updates on the work of postgraduates (like me!) at the University. (https://twitter.com/UomHive)

For all the latest news from all areas of science, take a look at the New Scientist twitter feed. (https://twitter.com/newscientist)


 

Cancer Research at the Christie Hospital

Introduction

Hi, my name is Shreya, a Master's student at the University of Manchester. My Master’s is in cancer research, an extremely topical and fast paced field. After completing three years of medicine, I decided to take a year out, known as 'intercalating', to explore research.

The knowledge of how innovative and pioneering the current projects are, coupled with the fact that I had a previous interest in the clinical side of cancer, solidified that this was the field for me. After this year I’ll return to finishing my medical degree, now with the perspective of working as a researcher. The invaluable skills I’ve learnt and will continue to develop this year should only help me become a better doctor in the future.

In Depth...

My research is focused on colorectal cancer, one of the most common cancers in the UK. The project I’m doing specifically involves patients that have had advanced colorectal cancer, which has unfortunately spread to the lining of the abdomen. This type of cancer is difficult to treat and involves intricate surgery that lasts for around 8-10 hours. Patients after this surgery have kindly donated their tumours in order for our team to analyse them. We are looking at the DNA of the starting tumour and the DNA of the tumours that have spread, in order for us to see how closely related the two tumours are. This project has many elements to it and involves a large team, I’m working closely with surgeons, pathologists and lab researchers who are using state of the art techniques and facilities to get the most accurate results. My main role will be to analyse the raw results, which should start to become available within the next month. At the moment I am mainly delegating and in charge of organising, as there are many people involved, it can often be difficult, but I’m enjoying the communication aspect. Performing a DNA profile of the starting tumour (primary) is common practice in hospitals, as it helps doctors come up with a treatment plan tailored to the tumour type. A profile of the tumour that has spread (secondary) is not routinely done, therefore the profile of the primary is also used to treat the secondary. This project aims to see if there are any differences in DNA between the two, and whether the secondary site should also be analysed for establishing treatment plans. A lot of information can be gained by looking at the DNA of tumours, and more information is needed to help manage this advanced disease, which currently has a poor prognosis.

My project is a good mix of lab work and clinical; often projects are one or the other. This means I get the opportunity to explore both kinds of research. I am also exposed to many different environments, for example, I have sat down with pathologists and looked at tumour samples under the microscope, as well as having the opportunity to be in the genomics lab and understand the process of DNA profiling. Being able to have these experiences is one of the reasons why I took a year out of medicine. Despite having previous reservations about doing a Master’s (mainly due to adding an extra year to my already long 5 year degree!) I’m happy with the work I’m doing, and I have been enjoying experiencing the world of research.

Going Further…

1.  For more information on DNA and genes: https://www.genomicseducation.hee.nhs.uk/genetics101/what-is-dna/

2.  I am based at the world-renowned Christie Hospital which is pioneering in cancer research, for more information on the research they do have a look at their website: https://www.christie.nhs.uk/professionals/research/

3.  For general information about cancer, check out the Cancer Research UK website: https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMImcevrJDr3wIVCbDtCh2byAaqEAAYASAAEgII7vD_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds#/

4.  For more information about applying for medicine at Manchester: https://www.manchester.ac.uk/study/undergraduate/courses/2019/01428/mbchb-medicine/

5.  For information about the Masters in oncology (cancer): https://www.manchester.ac.uk/study/masters/courses/list/08422/mres-oncology/

 

Can birdsong save endangered species?

Introduction

My name is Rebecca and I am a 2nd year PhD student in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. I have been interested in animals and the natural world since I was very young, so chose to study Natural Sciences, specialising in Zoology, at undergraduate level. Following this, I was selected for an animal husbandry internship at Chester Zoo, which cemented my desire to work with animals in zoological collections. I focused on this in more detail whilst completing my MSc Wild Animal Biology, examining multiple aspects of conservation and animal husbandry.

My research focuses on how birdsong can influence conservation. Birdsong exhibits clear population differences known as dialects, which are similar to accents in humans. These dialects can form very rapidly, especially in small, ex situ populations. They also play an important role in mate choice, with females preferring local over foreign dialects. Conservation interventions often bring birds from different populations together, so dialect differences could impact mate choice. This could cause many problems, the most serious being that birds may not integrate and breed in their new population. 

Automated recording unit

In depth

Many songbirds are threatened with extinction. Unfortunately, critically endangered species are often hard to access and have low sample sizes, meaning this kind of research is not possible. To avoid this, I work with a model species, the Java Sparrow (Lonchura oryzivora), which is numerous in zoos and aviculture but threatened in its home range. Once studied in the model, we can expand our techniques to more critically endangered birds.

Recording birds

Recording birds can be surprisingly challenging! Environments are full of noise, whether natural (like water and wind) or man-made (like traffic or electrical appliances), which also show up on our recordings. Lots of different equipment is available for different situations. Recordings in controlled conditions can make use of sensitive directional microphones. However, recordings outdoors require sturdy automatic recording units (ARUs), which can be left for long periods in all weather.

Analysing songs

Although we may be able to hear differences between the songs of different birds, it can be difficult to understand and explain how songs are different through listening alone.  We can visualise songs as a spectrogram, which allows us to analyse songs much more accurately.

Generally, we are interested in two main parts of song: spectrotemporal and structural features.

Spectrotemporal features include information about the timing of the song, for example its duration and the intervals between notes, and spectral details, such as minimum and maximum frequency.

Structural features relate to the notes themselves - their shape, how they are grouped together.

Once we have extracted these features for songs from multiple birds, we can compare them to see how similar their songs are.  If bird songs are more similar within than between populations, it is good evidence that dialects exist in the species.

Going further

Find out more about songbird conservation with Chester Zoo’s Sing for Songbirds (https://www.actforwildlife.org.uk/what-we-fight-for/conservation-challenges/our-campaigns/sing-for-songbirds) and EAZA’s Silent Forest (https://www.silentforest.eu) campaigns

The Macaulay Library (https://www.macaulaylibrary.org) is a great birdsong resource with recordings from thousands of species.

My links

Chester Zoo profile link:

https://www.chesterzoo.org/conservation-and-science/work-with-us/conservation-scholars/rebecca-lewis

DTP Profile:

https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/studentships-earth-atmosphere-ocean/our-students/2017-2018/rebeccalewis/

 

Selfish species: game theory and the ecosystem

Introduction

I am studying for a PhD in Statistical Physics and Complex Systems at The University of Manchester. My research studies a system of many interacting species where the population of one species can facilitate or hinder the growth of another species. This relationship is determined by a specific interaction coefficient between the species. The interaction coefficients for the relationship between every pair of species are drawn randomly from a two-dimensional Gaussian distribution, and we use the parameters of this distribution to predict how the ecosystem behaves. We can then simulate these interacting species using a computer programme to check our predictions.


In Depth…

I studied Mathematics and Physics for my undergraduate degree at The University of Manchester. I chose this degree because I enjoy understanding how the world works, and appreciate how bizarre and counter-intuitive our reality is. I had a fascination for quantum mechanics and relativity, higher dimensions, and sub-atomic particles. I really enjoyed learning about these concepts as well as being introduced to many other fascinating ideas. I enjoyed the lecture style of teaching but I also developed my ability for independent learning, I became really good at managing my own time, and absorbing information at my own pace from reading textbooks and lecture notes. The most useful skill I learned during my degree was how to computer programme, I learned how use Matlab, C++, and Python, and I learned how to write codes for simulations, data analysis, solving complicated equations, and optimization algorithms. I decided to do a PhD after my undergraduate degree because I really enjoy self-study and programming, and I am further developing these skills with new challenges every day.

I became interested in population dynamics after reading "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins, where he described behavioural evolution using ideas from Game Theory. He described how an animal’s behaviour, and the behaviours of the other animals it interacts with, would determine how successful the animal would be at surviving and passing on it genes. These successful behavioural strategies would dictate how the behaviour of the population as a whole would change over time, and evolve to an Evolutionary Stable Strategy which could be understood as stable Nash equilibria. During my degree I took the opportunity to study Game Theory further by writing my second year vacation essay on the topic. I researched many areas of Game Theory and went through a short online course. I discovered how it can be applied to statistical physics, in the Ising model for ferromagnets, and really enjoyed learning about how ideas from quantum mechanics could produce Quantum Game Theory, where a player could play multiple strategies at the same time. In my fourth year I undertook a project with my current PhD supervisor on a population of individuals who had the choice of two behavioural strategies to interact with. The population evolved by the number of individuals playing the more successful strategy increasing, but this model also considered the effect of time delay, such as a gestation period in nature. I really enjoyed my project with my supervisor and through this I continued onto a PhD with him.

Going Further…

Here is a link to my supervisor’s webpage, if you are interested in my research you could look at his publications:

https://www.theory.physics.manchester.ac.uk/~galla/

Here are links to the undergraduate Mathematics and Physics courses webpages:

http://www.maths.manchester.ac.uk/

https://www.physics.manchester.ac.uk/

If you are interested in game theory, here is a brief course:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iZKErrvVMaY&list=PL76B0EB6DDFC42D02

If you are interested in “The Selfish Gene” here is a brief summary of the book, chapter 12 discusses game theory:

http://old.unipr.it/arpa/defi/econlaw/SELFISH%20GENE.pdf

and the full text can be downloaded here:

https://www.zuj.edu.jo/download/the-selfish-gene-r-dawkins-1976-ww-pdf/