Interviews with Scientists: Abigail Abrahams
Next in our interviews with scientists, meet Abi Abrahams! Abi is currently a neuroscience PhD student at the University of Nottingham as part of the BBSRC Doctoral Training Programme. She’s originally from Somerset and did her undergraduate degree in pharmacology at the University of Bristol. She went straight from her undergraduate degree to start her PhD in Nottingham, researching the neural mechanisms of oxytocin and its effects upon social cognition.
Alongside her PhD, Abi also volunteers for both The Loop UK as a volunteer analytical chemist and a theme leader with Pint of Science within the ‘Beautiful Mind’ theme.
Great to speak to you, Abi! Firstly, tell us a bit more about your PhD...My PhD is researching the neural mechanisms of the neuropeptide oxytocin, and whether oxytocin could potentially be used as an adjunctive therapy to treat the social deficits seen in schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder. I am currently in my second year of four and I am just finishing my first major in vivo study.
Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger, and why?
I have always wanted to do something in science because it was always my favourite subject at school. I originally thought I wanted do something like medicine. It wasn’t until I was studying psychology and chemistry A Levels that I started to become really interested in disorders such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s and decided that I was far more interested in the research side of science as opposed to something more patient focussed.
What are you enjoying most about your PhD?
I really enjoy the lab work but my favourite part is working with the fellow PhD students I have met. I am very lucky to have a great lab group to work alongside and we all get on really well – it makes long days in the lab or office far more enjoyable!
What advice would you give to someone just starting out with their PhD?
Definitely make sure your project is something you are genuinely passionate about – it will make it so much easier when you have to do a lot of reading and writing about your subject. Also, the location of your PhD is so important. You’ll be spending the next three to four years of your life there so make sure it’s somewhere you’ll be happy.
What's the most important lesson you have learned so far in your PhD?To not compare my progress in the lab to other people’s. Everyone’s projects are so different, and will naturally progress at different speeds. Also, everything will take twice as long as you think it will!
Tell us a bit more about your volunteering with The Loop?
The Loop is a non-profit organisation that provides drug safety testing and harm reduction at festivals and night clubs across the UK. My role with them is to work in a pop-up lab at festivals using multiple techniques such as FTIR spectroscopy to determine the contents and strength of the drugs handed in, as well as those seized by the police. The testing can then allow us to identify substances of concern that may put users at a greater level of risk and to give harm reduction advice to users from qualified professionals. The information we obtain can also be used to allow medical and welfare staff to give targeted treatment to those needing treatment for drug-related incidents. It is a fantastic organisation that does some brilliant work and I am very proud to volunteer for them.
Would you recommend volunteering to your fellow PhD students?
Volunteering is a great way to meet people with similar interests to you who also work in the same areas of research. Through volunteering with both The Loop and Pint of Science during my PhD I have met some fantastic people and learnt a whole host of new lab techniques which is always useful! I would definitely recommend volunteering as it can be really nice and refreshing to do something in science that is unrelated to your PhD.
What do you think are the biggest challenges currently facing life scientists and their work at the moment?I would have to say the replicability crisis. It’s a huge problem with so many contributing factors.
Tell us a bit more about what you’re working on at the moment…?
Alongside the in vivo work I have been doing I have also been developing an in vitro calcium assay to look at the biological activity of the oxytocin receptor. The aim is to use the assay to assess the activity of some novel oxytocin receptor targeting peptides we have.
What does a typical day in the lab look like for you?
If I have an animal study ongoing I tend to get in early to make up drugs and ensure we have everything needed to start behavioural testing. The days themselves can be quite long and repetitive as you just repeat the same dosing schedule and behavioural test for each animal! If I’m not experimenting I tend to spend most of the time in the office either reading, writing or analysing data.
Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing most?
I do a lot of swimming. I used to be a competitive swimmer but now just go for fun. Last summer I tried open water swimming for the first time and loved it – so now the weather is getting warmer I’ll be going back outside and swimming in lakes again! Nottingham is also really close to the Peak District so I also spend a lot of time walking around the Peaks.
If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing?
I have always thought if I wasn’t a scientist I would love to be an architect! Although I’m not sure how successful I would have been…
What is it about your field of research that gets you most excited?
I think one of the most amazing things about neuroscience is that there is so much left to discover, and so much we will probably never know and understand. I also think the idea that my research could one day contribute towards the development of new treatments and improve people’s quality of life is also an amazing thought.
Which scientists working today do you most admire, and why?One of my favourite lecturers during my undergraduate degree was Professor Emma Robinson. She is so engaging and passionate about her work and is a fantastic speaker. As well as teaching us about her research she also spoke a lot about other issues in science: from the replicability crisis to the importance of having good animal welfare in in vivo research. So many of the things she spoke about are so important in science and are things I still think about and consider when planning my own research now
What's the biggest achievement in your career to date?
Probably getting a first in my undergraduate degree. I worked so hard and it was such a nice surprise when we got our results and made all the hard work worthwhile.
What’s your favorite science quote?
“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” - Isaac Asimov
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
There’s so many, but I would probably say electricity because it runs the world!
Thank you so much for speaking to us, Abi! We wish you the best of luck with your PhD, and keep up the amazing volunteering work!
You can follow Abi on Twitter at @abiabrahams
And you can connect with Abi on LinkedIn here.
Abi is a member of the British Association of Psychopharmacology and will be going to their summer meeting in July this year. Her funding comes from the Nottingham BBSRC Doctoral Training Programme and Abi also received a BBSRC in vivo Skills Award which provides additional funding for in vivo researchers on the DTP.
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