Interviews with Scientists: Oliver Steele
Meet Oli Steele! Oli is a PhD student at the University of Sussex in the Penn Lab. His work is part of the Alzheimer’s Society Doctoral Training Center, and centres on the electrophysiological impact of different Apolipoprotein E isoforms. In his research, Oli employs a range of different electrophysiological techniques to interrogate glutamatergic signalling in the hippocampus of mice that express the human ApoE isoform that is associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s Disease. Outside of the lab, Oli plays rugby for a local rugby team and supports a local children’s hospice: Chestnut Tree House.
We spoke to Oli about his PhD research, the importance of looking after your mental health when you work in academia, the advice he’d give to fellow early career scientists, and more.
Great to speak to you, Oli! Firstly, tell us a bit more about your PhD...
I’m coming to the end of the first year of my PhD in Neuroscience at the University of Sussex as part of the Alzheimer’s Society Doctoral Training Center. What I’m really interested in is the Apolipoprotein E (ApoE) and it’s different isoforms; ε2, ε3 and ε4. As part of a lab specialising in glutamatergic synaptic transmission, my work centres around how ApoE ε4 (the isoform most closely associated with Alzheimer’s Disease) may impact excitatory glutamatergic synaptic transmission. I investigate this mostly using various electrophysiological techniques such as whole cell patch clamp and field potential recordings.
Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger, and why?
I always remember loving science, but wasn’t sure how I wanted it to manifest in a career. I had a really inspirational Year 7 science teacher (CJ, in-case you’re reading this!) who was almost certainly insane yet made science the most fascinating and exhilarating subject. I’d also had a family friend who’d suffered with a neurological disorder since we were children. So for a while I thought I wanted to study medicine, specialising in neuroscience. However when I got to uni I realised medicine wasn’t actually for me, as I really wanted to be able to focus down on the individual nitty gritty details and was much less interested in other fields of science. In particular, I was fascinated by neuronal electrochemical communication, so no wonder I ended up doing electrophysiology...
What do you enjoy most about your current work?
Turning the unknown into something known, as esoteric as that sounds. I really enjoy knowing that what I, and any other PhD student, is doing is completely novel. It’s completely new and nine times out of ten, it simply won’t work. Yet that one time it does work, the feeling is incredible!
What's the most important lesson you have learned in your PhD so far?
Maintain some form of balance. Very very few people can work flat out all the time, and those that do likely burn out. Unfortunately mental health in academia has a pretty bad track record, so look after yourself. Sometimes a break, or a nice meal with a friend, can be twice as productive as hitting your head against a brick wall when an experiment doesn’t want to work.
What's the biggest achievement in your career to date?
It would probably be part of my MPhil project. We were working on a really rare epileptic condition in which all of the existing models showed different features of the disease like intracellular signalling and cell morphology changes, yet didn’t show the single most defining feature of the epileptic condition… epileptic activity. Using a multi-electrode array that we cultured the neurons on, and some clever tricks, we were able to show aberrant network activity in the neurons for the first time! We’re currently writing it all up and looking to publish some time in the next year or so (hopefully).
What do you think are the biggest challenges currently facing life scientists and their work at the moment?
I’ve touched on it briefly already, it would have to be mental health. I’ve struggled myself and have seen it prematurely terminate the careers of scientists a thousand times better than me. It’s improving, and a lot of people are now talking about it, but there’s a long way to go. I’m quite open about it myself as I really hope it helps continue to open up a discussion about mental health within life sciences, and further academia.
Tell us a bit more about what you are working on at the moment?
Currently I’m looking at different ways of investigating glutamatergic synaptic transmission. We’re really lucky to have targeted replacement mice expressing the human ApoE ε4 and ε3, so I can have a look at the effect of chronic exposure to human ApoE ε4 and ε3. I’ve also recently been awarded some money from Alzheimer’s Research UK to have a look at the acute effects of human ApoE exposure, and how this may differ to chronic exposure.
What does a typical day in the lab look like for you?
My typical day largely depends on whether I’m performing experiments. If I am, I have to get the acute brain slices I work with and allow them to recover whilst I set up my rig. The majority of the rest of my day is taken up working at the rig. In the lab no two days are the same, which makes everything so much more interesting. I’m not sure I’d be able to do a 9-5 office job.
Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing most?
I play rugby for my local club, Worthing. It’s a change of scenery from being in the lab / office and a great way to keep in shape. Outside of that I spend some time raising awareness and money for a local children’s hospice: Chestnut Tree House. The work they do is out of this world!
If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing?
Haha, somewhere where I get to have lots of debates and ask difficult questions… politics perhaps? I think I’d also really enjoy being an engineer in the forces, there’s a lot of military history in the family.
What is it about your current work that gets you most excited?
That’s a pun itself, ‘excited’... ‘excitable cells’... awful, I know. Once I’ve patched onto a cell and am watching these individual cells fire action potentials and communicate with nearby cells electrochemically, I know that’s happening in my brain as I’m doing it. Furthermore, that’s the only reason I’m able to see and understand (sometimes) what I’m seeing. It blows my mind every time. That, combined with the fact that what we’re doing is completely unknown, like all research, and has the potential to uncover something no one has ever seen or known before. Incredible.
Which scientists working today do you most admire, and why?
Obviously my PhD supervisor here at Sussex, Dr. Penn. Outside of that, there’s several incredible electrophysiologists I’ve been lucky enough to work with in the past that have really inspired me such as Prof. Randall in Exeter and Dr. Tamagnini in Reading. Someone who recently retired actually, but a huge influence also, has to be Prof. Kemp. I hope they’re not reading this …
What’s your favorite science quote?
I frequently make awful electrophysiology puns based around the words ‘excitable’ and ‘stimulating’, but I heard one recently that was so bad it made me laugh. It went something along the lines of someone asking the price of mitochondria, to which the answer is 80p … ATP. Awful, but brilliant.
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
A lot of my work centres around the Hodgkin-Huxley work in the squid giant axon and modelling that as an electrical circuit, so that has to be pretty high up there. However, I’d probably say Flemming’s discovery of penicillin, not only because of the countless lives that it’s saved but I love how it was purely accidental through maintaining a filthy lab space. Interestingly, we’re all now taught to keep a really clean lab space. Perhaps we’re missing something…
Thank you so much for speaking to us, Oil! We wish you the very best with your continued PhD research!
You can follow Oli on Twitter @OGSteele
The majority of Oli’s PhD work is funded by the Alzheimers Society, and recently he was also awarded some funding from Alzheimer’s Research UK, which will allow him to further unpick the effects of acute and chronic ApoE expression.
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