Meet Nicole Morrissey, a first year PhD student in the University of Exeter Medical School. Here, Nicole writes about her passion for anything to do with the brain, her commitment to engaging with the public about her research and her push for more openness about mental health in academic environments. She will be speaking on June 24th at Soapbox Science in Exeter, giving a talk titled ‘Food for thought: What happens in our brains when we eat!’
By Nicole Morrissey
Living the dream; doing a PhD in Neuroscience!
I am absolutely ecstatic to be undertaking a PhD in a research area that I love. I cannot quite believe that I achieved my ambition! It is a fantastic opportunity, and I work on a fascinating topic with wonderful people in a beautiful city! The study of why we eat – the neuroscience of appetite regulation – is incredibly interesting. There are multiple routes by which our brains control food intake, and it is important to research this to understand why some people struggle to eat the right amount of food for them – for example, in overeating and undereating. My PhD project, although in the early days, is investigating a potential role by which the different cells of the brain (it is not just neurons!) communicate and whether this is involved in the ‘inflammatory’ response of brain cells to eating a lot of food high in saturated fat.
Astrocyte – a type of brain cell
I completed my Bachelor of Science degree in Neuroscience at The University of Manchester, which gave me a lot of varied research experience. For example, I undertook a placement year working for a start-up biotechnology company designing on a medical device to detect infection. While this project was very different to neuroscience, it enabled me to develop important research skills that led me to the opportunity to do a Masters by Research at Manchester. It was in my Masters degree that I was able to pursue the neuroscience of appetite control; investigating how the sensations of satiety and sickness are communicated from the gut to the brain. This work explored the role of different types of neuron – the brain’s main cell – that are responsible for passing on different information from the stomach. For instance, the neurons that respond to the feeling of ‘fullness’ will send this information to different areas of the brain to neurons that respond to ‘sickness’. This experience paved the way for me to apply to my current PhD project.
Me getting hands-on with appetite research by eating a delicious pie
I applied to Soapbox Science for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is incredibly important that we bridge the gap between scientific research and the knowledge available to the general public. After all, especially in the medical sciences, what is our research if we cannot inform the public? In obesity research, there are a lot of myths on what food is healthy/unhealthy. For example, people who diet may focus too much on avoiding fats and sugar – yet they are very important sources of energy for our bodies! People also know that a bad diet is bad for our health, and I think it is interesting to learn why people would still continue to eat unhealthily. There is evidently a gap to fill in making our research accessible to everyone.
Secondly, I applied for personal reasons. Like many others, I have anxiety problems which lead to a diagnosed disorder a while ago. While it is mostly recovered, it still provides challenges. So I decided to challenge my anxiety by doing something new and out of my comfort zone! This is something I would change about the scientific culture: the taboo of speaking about mental health. Though I am sure this is the same in many career paths. I believe we would all benefit, in our research as well as our wellbeing, if the academic workplace could be more open to discussions of mental wellness.
Me slicing brain sections in the lab
Thirdly, while the biological sciences have proportionately a lot of female academics, there are still challenges that women face in biological and other STEM subjects. I really admire the motion of Soapbox Science, to both boost the view of female researchers as well as providing a route by which anyone can learn about scientific research!
Looking towards the day: I am pretty scared, but also thrilled to spread the excitement of studying neuroscience!