Mercy Secondary School, Waterford (1999-2004), Trinity College Dublin (2004-2008)
BA (Natural Sciences), MSc (Neuroscience), PhD (Neuroscience)
Trinity College Dublin, University Paris Sud, University Pierre et Marie Curie.
Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris VI University
Favourite thing to do in science: I get a kick out of discovering something new, like when you get back the results from an experiment and you’re perhaps the first person ever to see this finding! Another great aspect of science, which I didn’t really expect, is the great travel opportunities. It’s important to meet other scientists to work together and share information, so I get to travel to scientific meetings around the world.
I am one of the many neuroscientists trying to figure out how addictive drugs, like cocaine, change people’s behaviour and in the long term can cause addiction.
I am 26 years old and just this year finished my PhD in France. Having a PhD means that you have produced original research that gave new information nobody had before – and you get to add Dr to your name! It’s a pretty important step towards becoming a permanent scientist in a University, which is what I would ultimately like to do.
For my PhD, I study how cocaine affects the brain; this is a hot topic in “Neuroscience” (brain-related) research. Cocaine is an addictive drug used by humans that stimulates certain regions of the brain. We try to figure out what has been activated by cocaine in these brain regions and whether we can block it using other drugs. If we can understand better how cocaine works, we may find a way to help addicted people stay off drugs.
To do this, I perform experiments using mice, because in some ways mice behave like humans do when given drugs like cocaine! Neuroscientists study carefully how a mouse’s brain biochemistry and behaviour changes under the influence of addictive drugs (see here). Cocaine makes people energetic and likewise mice will run around their cages. Mice will even choose to take cocaine over other rewards. Importantly, they will even learn to push a button for cocaine, and will continue to push and push even if they receive an electric shock to discourage them! So mice really become hooked on the drug, despite obviously bad consequences.
We test new therapies on mice to see whether we can prevent the influence of cocaine on their brains and behaviour. During my PhD, we discovered new targets that are activated by cocaine. Our study will be published in an international science journal and tells us more about how cocaine is working, but it’s just part of the story that remains a tricky mystery.
My Typical Day
Before anything coffee with coworkers!, then start today’s experiment. Meanwhile I try to keep up reading new research articles and work on writing my own. If the experiment works, celebrate with coworkers, if it doesn’t, console myself with coworkers!
In my lab there is not a set time for everyone to start, in general people arrive around 9.30am. I’m an early riser so I get in before 9am, except for the odd morning after an interesting evening! Everyone starts off at the coffee machine, and then I spend the morning preparing experiments, making up reagents and chemicals that I will need to use and taking care of any mice I’m going to be using.
We all eat together in the University canteen, its not the best, I’ve even been offered Beef Tongue before (Vive la France!) but its very cheap and people take a long break at lunch (Vive la France again). After lunch I continue experiments, these vary a lot depending on what I need to study but usually it involves working with mice, using drugs on cells cultured in dishes, and observing cells under microscopes. I need to keep up to date with what’s happening around the world in addiction research so I spend a good part of each day reading scientific articles published by other scientists.
The day can vary a lot, some days we have lab meetings to present our work or some days I go do teaching in the University. Sometimes I finish quite late and have to work weekends, but then other advantages make up for that, like being paid to travel to present my work (I have been to the USA, Spain, the UK and around France).
What I'd do with the money
…team up with my friends who run education programmes for schools to develop one with a neuroscience twist!
I heard about “I’m a scientist” from old (in time not age!) class mates from college. Two of them started an organisation together called Green Bee, promoting environmental education in schools across Ireland. One of their projects called Biodiversity in Schools has had a great reaction, getting children interested in science through nature. I’d love to team up with them to develop a workshop that mixes my knowledge of neuroscience with their experience of working with schools!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Another mad scientist!
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Cant choose!..first fave was the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Van Halen, RHCP, more recently RumHoney, mostly rock’n’roll
What's your favourite food?
Roast lamb and mint sauce, by the Mammy
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Oh I cant pick, the last time I cried lauging was just at two friends jumping around! Simple but effective!
What did you want to be after you left school?
I wanted to be a science teacher, because I liked the idea that what you teach would change over time when new discoveries are made.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Not really, I got caught using a mirror to pull faces at people sitting behind me thats about it!
What was your favourite subject at school?
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Found a solution when we were stuck in the project by a technical problem and got non-scientists interested in whats going on
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
After my first practical experience in a lab I loved the environment and challenges, that I found were actually quite different from university classes
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
I would like to be a chef!
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
I could sing!, I had green eyes and I was rich enough to do whatever experiments I liked
Tell us a joke.
“Why did the germ cross the microscope? to get to the other slide” (xmass cracker 2012!)
This is a picture from a scan of my own brain, thankfully everything is in there!