Rachel Harris, PhD Student in Neuroscience,
University of Bristol
LIFE INSIDE THE LAB
What is your work/research topic? I work on Alzheimer’s disease where I’m looking at the interaction between blood vessels and nerve cells in the brain. There is reduced blood flow to the Alzheimer’s disease brain which can lead to nerve cell damage. We’d expect the brain to compensate for this by making more blood vessels, but this does not appear to happen in Alzheimer’s disease. My work is trying to find out why this is and if there’s something we can do to help the brain build more blood vessels and keep nerve cells healthy.
Rachel Harris is a Neuroscience PhD Student at the University of Bristol. Follow Rachel on Twitter @NeuroRach.
What was your best day of science? I can’t really think of one specific day, it just tends to be the most recent day when one of my experiments has worked or one of my friends has been awarded their PhD! I think it’s important to celebrate all the victories you get in science as there are so many setbacks along the way.
What was your worst day in science? The day I was told my PhD supervisor was leaving the university and I had to change my research topic. It was tough but it taught me a lot about what motivates me as a scientist.
What did you study at university? I’m studying for a PhD now and previously completed a BSc in Biomedical Sciences and a Masters by Research in Neuroscience.
What does your average day look like? I usually get in at 8am so I can drink my coffee and start off any experiments early. I check emails (and twitter!) and I either tend to spend the majority of my day in the lab or writing at my desk. I might have the odd meeting with my lab group but otherwise I’m free to plan my own time and run experiments as I want. I have lunch with other PhD students in the building, which helps keep me sane on tough days and I usually cycle home at around 6pm and try to spend my free time not thinking about work.
What is your favorite piece of technology of equipment you get to use in your job? I don’t have a favorite piece of equipment, instead my favorite resource is being able to use human brains as part of my research. It’s a privilege to work with tissue that has donated and it can tell us so much about what’s happening in dementia.
LIFE OUTSIDE OF LAB
Where did you grow up? I grew up in a small town 1 hour north of London. I was captivated by the big lights of the city and moved to London to get my Bachelors, Masters and work as a technician before moving to Bristol.
What profession did you think you would be when you were a kid? I wanted to be a Vet when I was 10, then I didn’t have a clue until I was around 16 and school suggested I look at medicine because I was good a Biology. I settled on a BSc instead as I preferred the lab to patients!
What do you do to relax outside of lab? I meet up with friends, go for a run or cycle and I enjoy exploring Bristol’s many cafes and catching a film at the cinema.
Do you have any pets? Unfortunately not, I grew up with a dog and I hope to live somewhere I can at least own a cat one day!
Do you have any fun hobbies? This isn’t a traditional hobbie but I’m a volunteer science communicator and spend some of my spare time running the Bristol Science Film Festival. I co-founded it last year as part of the British Science Association and it’s become a regular feature of my life for most of my PhD. I’ve also been involved in Bristol Neuroscience Festival, Pint of Science, I’m a Scientist Get me out of here.
If you want to talk about your family, what is your family life? How did your family develop alongside your career? No family just yet!
Is there any one event or person who/that made you want to be a scientist? There’s no one event but lots of experiences along the way helped me to continue in science. I spent time working in 7 labs before starting my PhD I was encouraged and inspired by everyone I met along the way.
Why were you drawn to science? I enjoyed science at school and considered medicine but, after some hospital work experience, I realized it wasn’t for me. I was lucky enough to get work experience in the lab at GlaxoSmithKline and then worked there over summer when I was 17. It was then I found that I enjoyed working in the lab.
I took quite a traditional route (in the UK) taking A levels in Biology, Chemistry, Geography and Mathematics and then applying for Biomedical Science programs. I only really got interested in Neuroscience in the 2nd year of year of my degree after taking those classes on a bit of a whim. It turned out to be a chance decision that’s shaped my life ever since.
What was your biggest challenge during your degree? I found exams very challenging in my degree as there was just so much to memorize. I began to enjoy it again in my final year when I was conducting a lab project and my course taught courses became more specialized.
What was your biggest motivation to obtain your PhD? I really enjoy science and I know I’d always like to work in that field, whether in academia or not. It took me several years to get onto a PhD program so I had to think a lot about what motivated my decision. I enjoy the hands on aspect of science and knew that to continue in research I had to get a PhD. I’d also seen many students leave the lab post-PhD and enter careers where their PhD was still useful, such as medical writing and science communication. So I figured wherever I end up after this, a PhD will have a positive impact on my future.
What is your best advice for girls interested in science? Keep doing what you enjoy and get work experience where you can.
Are there any women in STEM who are inspiring you right now? I’m inspired everyday by my peers. My lab is a shared environment and the majority of PhD students and postdocs are women which has provided a positive environment and an excellent support network.
Why do you think it is important to have more women in STEM? Women make up half of the global workforce but only 21% of the STEM workforce in the UK. Campaigns to increase the percentage of women continuing science at school is beginning to see dividends but there’s still a long way to go. Women continue to outperform their male counterparts in all STEM subjects at A level but numbers entering mathematics, engineering and computing remain low. Women obtain more STEM degrees than men, though this is focused in the life sciences, and still does not translate to the workforce. Women clearly have the skills to contribute to STEM fields but are facing barriers. In a world where women are still paid less than men, equality in STEM is an extremely important cause to fight for.
What is your favorite book? Super tough question! There are too many to choose from but I’m going to go with my favorite autobiography: In Praise of Imperfection by Rita Levi-Montalcini. It’s a personal account of a life’s work discovering nerve growth factor, for which she wins the Nobel Prize. She perfectly describes problems she faced as a women in science and these issues ring ever true today. If you can find a copy, I highly recommend giving it a read.
What is your favorite desk snack? Definitely dark chocolate digestive biscuits (the best biscuit for tea dunking), but I swap them for dark chocolate covered rice cakes when I’m being good.
What is your favorite cartoon? From childhood, The Simpsons for sure and it’s only become more remarkable to me now I realize how much maths was snuck in. As for a new series, I think Rick and Morty is one of the freshest cartoons on tv.
What would you listen to while writing? I often listen to podcasts, even when writing, as I like the background chatter. Otherwise my playlist is an embarrassing mix of songs from my teen years and whatever gets me dancing in the lab.
What was your favorite subject in high school? Biology was my favorite, especially human biology. I enjoyed dissecting eyes, hearts and lungs when we got the chance!
What’s the strangest thing on your desk right now? Where to begin…I have a large sheep soft toy which I go free from an antibody manufacturer (Thanks Abcam!), I have a cuddly neuron (naturally!) and trophies for leading my team to lab pub quiz victory two years running.
Organizational nut or curate chaos? Just in case you couldn’t tell from the previous answer, I would air on the side of curated chaos. Things tend to come together in the end!
What color socks are you wearing? Blue with white spots and polar bears. I have a vast sock collection.
LINKS TO ARTICLES:
Five ways science communication can help you – Blog written for NatureJobs on how science communication has helped with my PhD
How is blood flow linked to Alzheimer’s disease? – Blog written for Alzheimer’s Research UK on my research