Dr Jennifer Bizley (JB) is a Research Fellow and group leader at UCL Ear Institute, London. Her research looks at the brain’s ability to make sense of the cacophony of sounds in our modern world. By participating to Soapbox Science (SS) London on the 29th of June, she hopes to offer children and adults a better understanding of the way the ears detect sounds, and to amaze them by how the brain combines this information with what we see in order to create our perception of the world around us. Here, Jennifer tells us about her career path, her passion for her research, and what she would change if she had a magic wand. You can follow Jenny on tweeter @bizifer
SS: Hi Jenny! We finally managed to get you on our soapbox! We are thrilled to have you there this year. To start with, maybe you could tell us a bit about you and your career path. How did ou get where you are?
JB: A combination of bloody-mindness and luck! … And a fair amount of hard work! I first dabbled in hearing sciences as a undergraduate summer student. I wrote to a bunch of lab heads whose research sounded interesting, and one wrote back (Prof Jonathan Ashmore at UCL) and I spent a great summer failing to prove his hypothesis, developing the certainty that I didn’t want to be a molecular biologist, and falling in love with the cochlear – it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen! My undergraduate degree specialised in Neuroscience but beyond knowing I wanted to work on the brain, I didn’t know what research area I wanted to do a PhD in, so I applied for the 4-year Neuroscience programme in Oxford. While I didn’t go there necessarily with the intention to work on hearing, one of my rotation projects was in Andy King’s Auditory Neuroscience Group and I never looked back. By then I’d figured out I wanted to be a “systems” level neuroscientist – I’m fascinated in the mechanism by which individual brain cells form circuits of neurons that ultimately determine perception and behaviour. The Oxford group was a brilliant environment in which to do science – so good, that other than two short spells in other labs in Israel and the USA, I stayed for 11 years! While this isn’t what one is ‘supposed’ to do it meant that I could concentrate on doing good science and I was very lucky to have great colleagues and mentors who allowed me to develop my independence. I set up my own lab at UCL three years ago.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
JB: My parents were both scientifically trained (my dad is a chemical engineer and my mum a pharmacist). I didn’t have a clear idea about what I wanted to do but I was always fascinated by the natural world and biology and once I got to university I was captivated by neuroscience – so many big questions, so much to learn, so little known.
SS: Tell us what you believe is the most fascinating aspect of your research
JB: Listening to the sound of neurons talking to one another always blows my mind, as does looking down a microscope and seeing individual neurons beautifully stained and wondering how it is that these tiny cells can, by firing little bursts of electricity to one another, create the perception we have of the world around us.
I’m very intrigued as to why quite a large number of neurons in the auditory cortex actually respond to visual stimuli – such as a light flash. Our perception is seamlessly multisensory – yet the information we have about the world comes in in very different forms through our eyes, ear, nose, sense of touch etc. Somehow this information is put together and it seems that there is quite a lot of crosstalk between the sensory systems at a much earlier stage than we imagined.
SS: We might know the answer to this one, but what attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
JB: I’ve known Serian and Nathalie through the L’Oreal FWIS network for a number of years – their enthusiasm for Soapbox Science is infectious so it was inevitable I’d sooner or later succumb!
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? fear? thrill? anticipation?
JB: All of the above?!
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
JB: Its reasonably well accepted that males are generally more confident and better able to sell themselves. I think one of the biggest challenges to equality (in the broadest sense) is the difference between candidates who were educated at independent schools and those from the state sector and how this interacts with confidence and gender. These are obviously gross sweeping generalisations, but my feeling is that differences in educational background are taken into account when selecting students for undergraduate university places, but are not (perhaps not unreasonably) for graduate student entry and beyond. My observations are that differences persist even in MSc students applying for PhD positions. This may be particularly problematic for female candidates who are also inclined to be more modest. What to do about this? Solving the problem likely requires fundamental change in the educational system and can’t be achieved on a short time scale, but awareness is probably a necessary first step, as is being proactive about ensuring that admissions/recruitment operates in a way that assesses candidate’s abilities rather than measuring how polished they are. Additionally I guess we, as mentors, have to work hard to make sure that all of our graduate students can confidently present themselves and their work.
SS: Finally Jenny, what would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
JB: Persist, persist, persist! This really applies to any early career researcher rather than a female one specifically. I recently gave a careers talk where I started by showing my CV – and then added in all the countless things (fellowships, jobs, grants) that I’d applied for but failed to get. I think (hope) people found it helpful as you only ever see what people do achieve; you never see all the failed applications that I’m pretty sure everybody has. Its easy to give up and write yourself off when you get knocked back for something but you have to remember everyone fails at some point and its only by picking yourself up and trying again that you’ll get somewhere.
My other top tip would be make sure you get to conferences and network from an early stage. Drinking a beer with your fellow PhD students isn’t just about having a great time (though hopefully it will be) – but in a few years time these are the people will be your collaborators as well as reviewing your grants and papers. Make sure that people know who you are and what you do.