Interviews with Scientists: Harry Potter
Harry is a PhD student at the University of Manchester studying behavioural neuroscience, after completing his undergraduate degree in Biomedical Science at Cardiff University in 2016. His research focuses on environmental risk factors for schizophrenia, particularly maternal immune activation, placental function, and maternal care.
Hi Harry, thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed! First up, tell us: what’s your PhD in?
After large influenza epidemics, scientists realised that offspring born to women who were infected during the second trimester of their pregnancy had a much greater risk of developing schizophrenia in adulthood. I’m interested in how these stressors experienced during pregnancy, and in early childhood, can impact on neurodevelopment in the fetus/offspring.
Specifically, I’m looking at how prenatal infections in the mother influence both the function of the placenta during pregnancy, and the quality of maternal care after birth. I’m then going to relate this to risk for schizophrenia in the adult offspring by measuring behavioural problems, such as working memory deficits.
Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger, and why?
My granny always tells me how she remembers that from a very young age I would often count things around me, like the number of candles on a table. When I continued to quantify the world around me in my school years, I think my family and I knew I would go into something STEM-related. I went through a load of options for my undergraduate degree – maths, chemical engineering, zoology, biology, and finally biomedical science – and eventually stumbled across neuroscience on a placement (and loved it).
So, I think whilst it’s been inevitable that I’ve ventured into a career in science, I’ve been really fortunate to have discovered my love of neuroscience early on!
What advice would you give to someone just starting their PhD?
Fake it ‘til you make it. Within three or four years, you’re literally going to be a world expert in your niche field, so don’t worry about feeling like a fraud. In my first week I went to a talk about life as a PhD student where I was introduced to the concept of impostor syndrome, and nothing has resonated with me more.
Ask the really basic questions, go to the talks where you feel out of your depth, and be content knowing that you don’t need to know everything. Soon enough you’ll gain the confidence to talk about your subject like a pro.
What are you enjoying most about your PhD?
My project is so diverse and multifaceted – I study the immune system, the placenta, maternal care, neurodevelopment, behaviour and cognition. It’s a massive cliché, but I get to do a huge range of science-y stuff. One day I could be extracting RNA from a placenta, and the next day I could be watching a litter of rats as they interact with their mum.
Tell us a bit more about what you’re working on at the moment...
After a year of optimising our model (yes, science takes ages), I’m now ready to start investigating how maternal immune activation affects the offspring. My next experiment will look at what causes the increased risk for schizophrenia in the adult offspring. Does the infection affect the placenta, causing the fetal brain to develop at a slower rate? Or does it interact with the hormones that underpin maternal care, and impair how the mum looks after her offspring after they’re born? These are both risk factors for schizophrenia, so we’re trying to tease out how they interact to alter offspring behaviour.
What does a typical day in the lab look like for you?
At the moment a lot of my work is molecular, so I’m doing very stereotypical lab work – pipettes, white coats, and lots of colourless liquids. For example, we measure the concentration of cytokines, the proteins that are released in response to an infection, in plasma samples. Down in the placenta lab, we’re doing lots of work looking at gene expression changes in the placenta following an infection, to see what pathways could be involved in mediating the behavioural changes in the offspring.
If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing?
I’m really into science communication, so if I were to leave academia I would love to keep that link with the scientific community. I’ve just started a student neuroscience magazine, The Signal, which aims to engage students with neuroscience research and careers options. I love writing articles for this as it gives me a break from ‘academic’ writing. The whole process of planning, writing, and designing the magazine has been great, so I’d love to pursue that as a career if it doesn’t work out for me in academia.
Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing?
During my undergraduate degree I got a job as a line chef in a new Asian street food place, which was run by two MasterChef finalists. I’ve grown up as a food-lover and keen chef, so this re-ignited my hobby and I often get inspiration from my time there in my everyday cooking.
Having never been sporty in my childhood, I’ve surprised everyone and recently got into running. I finished my first 10km race in May, running with the University of Manchester in the largest ever university group to race together, and I’m hoping to run a half marathon soon.
What is it about your field of research that gets you most excited?
Whenever you hear people talking about diseases, they always seem to focus on the heritability – ‘I’ve had X relatives with condition Y, so I think I’ll probably get it too’. Whilst this is often a huge factor, there seems to be much less public understanding of environmental risk factors. People are always shocked when I tell them that something that happens to your mum before you were even born could affect you across your whole life.
What’s more, we now know that things that happen to your grandparents before your parents were even conceived can affect our health – how crazy is that?!
Which scientists working today do you most admire, and why?
In March I went to the biennial BNA Festival of Neuroscience, where Nobel laureate Professor May-Britt Moser gave a stunning plenary lecture. She, with her colleagues Edvard Moser and John O’Keefe, made huge discoveries about our in-built neuronal GPS system which allows us to navigate the world around us.
After being introduced she ran up onto the stage and flung herself into the arms of the BNA president. Her first slide was a video, called ‘The Nobel dance’, which is 50 seconds of her dancing around the lab after hearing the news of winning the Nobel prize. Her whole talk was so far removed from the typical dry, information-heavy, formal talks of many scientists. Aside from the fascinating methodology and awesome data she presented in her talk, I’ll always admire her for smashing the stereotypes about both women in STEM and scientists in general.
What’s your favourite science joke OR science quote?
I guess this is a mixture of both, but I’ve always loved this graph (typical scientist). It goes back to my point earlier, that we really do start to become experts in our own (very) narrow niche – a lifetime of people being bored when you talk about your PhD ensues…
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
I’m biased towards biology, but our understanding of genetics (and of course, how genetics interacts with the environment) is so pivotal in solving pretty much every disease mystery. We use PCR to look at gene expression, we can sequence hundreds of thousands of genomes and compare mutations, and so much more. This is all fundamentally based on the X-ray diffraction work of Rosalind Franklin (and later Watson & Crick), without whom modern-day genetics would probably be a lot different!
Thanks so much, Harry! It’s been fascinating talking to you. We wish you all the best with your PhD.
You can follow Harry on Twitter at @HPNeuro or connect with him on LinkedIn here. You can also follow The Signal magazine on Twitter at @TheSignalmag and take a look at the magazine at the links below.
The Signal magazine (full): https://issuu.com/thesignalmagazine/docs/issue_1_-_stress_oct17
The Signal blog (individual articles): https://thesignalmag.wordpress.com