From the Azores to Exeter to become a “Neuroepigeneticist”: Meet Isabel Castanho

Isabel CastanhoIsabel Castanho is an Azorean PhD student in the University of Exeter Medical School, funded by the Alzheimer’s Society. Her current research is focused in understanding the association between epigenetics (the mechanisms that control how our genes are turned “on” and “off”) and the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease. As a Neuroscientist, she is amazed by the brain and is always keen to share her excitement. Come meet Isabel on her Soapbox, June 11th in Exeter (Princesshay Square, Exeter City Centre), where she will be talking about the human brain, how it works, and how you can make it stay “young”!


SS: Isabel, how did you get to your current position?

IC: I found “Genetics” fascinating from day 1 (since the first contact in high school), but it took a while for my involvement with it to evolve from the classroom to the lab. At the end of my first degree (Biomedical Laboratory Sciences) I decided not to give up in trying my luck in research (that always fascinated me), enrolling in a second degree (Applied Biology) and continuously aiming to work in Genetics in the future. In my final year I met a great Neuroscientist in a general job fair, who quickly became my supervisor for my final year’s project (and later Master’s), inspiring me to pursue Neuroscience. In the final year of my Master’s degree (Health Sciences, Neuroscience) I started thinking about the next step I wanted to take (a PhD) for which Genetics was not forgotten and I came across this “new” field called “Epigenetics”. Everything else from that point just rolled naturally as a sum of coincidences (or not?) and investigations, as well as hard work. I came to visit Exeter for personal reasons and considered applying to do a PhD here. After exploring where and with whom I would like to work with, I found this particular group that I was immensely interested in. So you can imagine my surprise when I read the name of this group’s lead Professor in the programme of a major conference planned to happen in my department at the time. As a result of contacting one of his students and later himself (as a consequence of his inspiring talk in the above mentioned conference), everything just sparked from there. And here I am – happy with my decisions and excited about how everything unfolded in the end.



SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

IC: I would say it all started in high school, at the point I became fascinated with Genetics. At the age of 16 I was really excited with my Biology classes, studying the cell and DNA in particular. My Biology teacher back then was definitely a key point. Furthermore, the school’s Biology team invited a number of scientists to come and talk about their work – I vividly remember a talk about the use of transgenic food and a talk about in vitro fertilization. Following that, at the age of 17 I participated in a Summer internship promoted by “Ciência Viva” (translated to “Live Science”- the Portuguese National Agency for Scientific and Technological Culture that promotes public awareness of the importance of science and technology in Portugal) and, as a consequence of having a close contact with the research laboratory, I decided I wanted a career in Science. I did stray away from it for a while to pursue a career more related with diagnostics, but I felt incomplete and felt I had to get back to the idea of following a career in research. In sum, although I would say my inspiration has been growing over the years as a consequence of coming across many amazing scientists, it all started with my Biology teacher in high school and the students who organized the summer internship who all had “a scientist” in them.



SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

IC: As a scientist, naturally curious to explore the unknown in order to understand how life works, I would say it is to have the opportunity to explore unanswered questions related to how cells control when and what genes are expressed (meaning “read”) in order to develop disease. As a person, the fact that my research can potentially contribute for the delay and reduction of the devastating consequences of Alzheimer’s disease for patients and their families.



SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

IC: Being passionate about science, research and what I do, I love to share my excitement and knowledge with others. Explaining what scientists do, and how they do it, brings me a lot of joy as well. When I found out about Soapbox Science I immediately thought that it could provide me an excellent occasion to do just that and, perhaps, even inspire future scientists. Also, I am always keen on demystifying the idea of the “crazy scientist” by replacing it with the image of passionate people that dedicate their heart to an idea or a cause, in order to contribute to the increase in knowledge and potentially a better tomorrow. Finally, unfortunately the job market is still tougher for women compared to men, and the scientific career is no exception. The fact that Soapbox Science encourages the promotion of women scientists and the work we develop makes me even more excited about being involved.



SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?

IC: Adventure.


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

IC: I would make the access to knowledge and the latest findings in research free and of equal access to everyone. Starting with the publishing system that does not benefit neither the minds behind the research nor the readers, often building walls to promising students and even slowing down the advance of Science just because they were “born in the wrong place”.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

IC: Being a PhD student myself (considering a career in academia as well), my top recommendation would be to take a look around and be inspired by the academics around you. Events like Soapbox Science can be of great help: I am having a blast by being involved not only because I become naturally excited whenever I can share my enthusiasm and knowledge with others, but especially by having the opportunity to be amazed by other female scientists’ excitements, know-hows, experiences and careers. As for the challenges that usually come with the job, such as the long hours and dead ends, I have been learning that if you work with people who inspire you and can help you move forward, involving a subject you are excited about, the good days will always overcome the bad ones. Also, lately the world has been shouting at me that there are so many options out there that “the sky is the limit” really.


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