“Why astrophysics and neuroscience look the same to a rubber duck” is the title of Charlotte Clarke’s session at Soapbox Science Brighton on 29th July, 1-4pm. During her career, Lottie as studied theoretical physics, astronomy and is currently at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School, switching fields from astrophysics to neuroscience to investigate the link between depression and inflammation in the body and brain. We are grateful to Sussex University Research Staff Office for sponsoring Lottie, and to the Brighton and Sussex Medical School for supporting the event.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
CC: I feel like I’m supposed to say something grand here, like how our research (I hope) will be making a real difference in people’s lives, and that is true. But really it’s that I get to look at pictures of people’s brains all day and get paid. It’s fascinating because it’s amazing we can take pictures of the inside of someone’s head, but yet you get used to it. Whilst the general structure of a brain is similar enough person-to-person, people have really varied head shapes so different parts of the brain are squashed or stretched. When you’re working with a small dataset to test code you become familiar with the heads and you have favourites. Is that weird? Wait – don’t answer that.
I had a similar quirk in astrophysics where I knew what patch of sky I was looking at by the pattern of dust and gas across the image. I had to remove the dust and some of those dust patches I treated as mortal enemies, they plagued my dreams. After staring at the screen for a while you do have to take a step back to appreciate what you’re actually looking at before it becomes too routine though! Space and brains are really amazing!
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
CC: I’m not sure what sparked my initial interest, but when I was about five my Nan and Granddad bought me a science book for Christmas called “The Usborne Book of Knowledge”. You can tell I was obsessed with space as to this day the book falls open on the page about black holes. I decided around then that I was going to be an astronomer, a brain surgeon, create the special effects on films or be a Blue Peter presenter. My family have always supported me in my endeavours, and I think having a family that say “you can do it!” is so important, they’re the buffer against self-doubt. We were never a well-off family either, both my parents worked and still do, and my grandparents looked after me and my sister during the holidays as it was hard for my parents to get time off. But we made good use of free museums in London when we could (me usually doing the dragging) and my parents took me to weekend astronomy classes in Greenwich one year so I could get a GCSE in astronomy (Mum fed so many squirrels). Now I’m a qualified astronomer, get to look at brains and love doing public engagement so that’s kind of Blue Peter-like? All that’s left is STEMM-ing my way into special effects and I can retire. Dad says he wants a swimming pool as payment though so I should start saving!
How did you get to your current position?
CC: By thinking laterally! My degree was in theoretical physics, but my project partner for the final year had the fantastic idea to apply our knowledge to the social sciences. We studied the network of links between pages on a website about the history of mathematics. How’s that for transferable skills, eh? During PhD applications season the project seemed to go down well despite not being an astronomy project, and I eventually moved to Sussex to work with a very pro-interdisciplinary supervisor. During my PhD he collaborated with the Clinical Imaging Science Centre on campus, and another PhD student in our group instigated a number of projects with medical researchers. I gave a talk about some of his work, highlighting how important working across disciplines was.
Towards the end of my PhD a postdoctoral position arose at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School to work with brain imaging data in a huge collaboration called NIMA (Wellcome Trust Consortium for the Neuroimmunology of Mood Disorders and Alzheimer’s Disease). Whilst I didn’t understand all the acronyms on the job listing, the particular statistical and computational skillset I’d cultivated during my PhD was exactly what was required. I believe in practising what you preach so here was my chance to demonstrate how important interdisciplinary work was. Switching disciplines is terrifying as in some ways you’re back at square one, but it’s a million times easier when your collaborators appreciate that and what skills you do bring. Being able to focus on data analysis and implementing new techniques is great fun. I’m not the only ex-astro person in the collaboration, either. We do get about!
SS: Research in STEMM is becoming increasingly multi-disciplinary. Which STEMM (science, tech, engineering, maths, medicine) subjects do you use in your work?
CC: All but engineering! Although, engineering has gone into the work I use, both for equipment like telescopes and MRI scanners, to software engineering from the computer code I use every day. Many of the statistical techniques I learnt in astrophysics are used in neuroscience, just with a different name, so they come under mathematics. This made for a terrifying first week as I thought I had to relearn stats, but thankfully I just needed a translation sheet, haha! The underpinning of my day-to-day work is definitely mathematical, but I very rarely write down equations at the moment; I get a little excited when I have to.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place – and why Brighton?
CC: I’ve given talks in Brighton before and have found people of all ages are excited to find out more about Science and what they can do to help. Brighton’s like that, there’s a real creative and teamwork culture in the city that permeates the Universities too, everyone has an idea for collaborative work (often between the arts and sciences) and it’s fantastic! The more Brighton people we can get interested and offering their particular knowledge and support the better for science all-round.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – Excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?
CC: Sunshine? We can hope! No, I’m definitely eager to talk to people about space, brains, and what that’s got to do with rubber ducks. If anyone’s going to see the sense in rubber ducks it’ll be Brighton. Maybe I’ll have a few converts!
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
CC: A similar answer to many I would guess, but it would be the “publish or perish” mantra. Whilst it’s important to publish your research and be accountable, the emphasis on (quick) individual achievement over (slower) collaborative works currently disadvantages those on big projects and is in my humble opinion disincentivising the move towards larger, more robust studies. The Times University ranking doesn’t take into account research papers with over 1000 authors. [https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/world-university-rankings-blog-dealing-freak-research-papers]. This sounds sensible, until you realise that some institutions specialise on being a team player in these collaborations, doing the groundwork and being part of long author lists to allow others to do the final analysis. Often the people who have worked on the technology or data pipelines that are included in these long author lists are looked-over for permanent positions (too few first-author papers). And thus, critical expertise is lost from the field. We do need a better way to credit people’s efforts, but it would require a huge cultural shift and will take time.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
CC: This goes for everyone, and it would be to remember to be a little selfish. People talk about getting their PhD and it’s true. It’s your few years to not only work on a cutting-edge research project but to develop yourself as person or your skillset to benefit you in the competitive postdoc market. Experiences like teaching and public engagement are great as they hone your understanding. Working with another PhD student on a side project is fantastic because you’re learning to collaborate and you’re both expanding your knowledge base. Running around doing bit-jobs for your supervisor a summer student could do probably isn’t helping you. Ask yourself “is this developing my transferable skillset, or can this go in my thesis?” If you answer “no” to both of those, then say no to the request. You can say no. It’s hard to disappoint someone, but you need to pre-emptively prevent burnout.
SS: What words of encouragement would you give to children who might be interested in a career in science?
CC: In my first science class in secondary school we had to use a Bunsen burner to boil water and monitor how the temperature changed with time. Simple, right? Wrong. I managed to knock over the beaker, smashing it to the floor. I was so distraught my teacher had to send a letter home to explain why I’d been upset.
In my A-level physics practical exam I connected the ammeter straight to the power (never do that, always connect ammeters with resistance in the circuit). There was a puff of smoke, and my teacher had to fetch me a new one.
At University I tried to make a digital counter count to ten and it counted ‘1,2,3,8,4,F,E,7,A,0’. It was hilarious, but to this day I don’t understand what I did wrong.
My point is you don’t have to be good at everything to be a scientist. Electronics is still a wonderful magic to me and I tip my hat to people who do understand it completely.
And never write your skillset off as not being suitable. Science is a creative endeavour at heart and equally needs people who like to write and communicate, or can break down complex problems into small pieces (like when drawing) as well as people who can do maths. In fact, a lot of scientists do art or writing or music in their spare time! So never write yourself off as someone who can’t be a scientist because you’re not good at all the sciences or only good at “the arts!” You’re just as in need by Science.