Interviews with Scientists: Dr Peter Ikhianosimhe Imoesi
Peter Ikhianosimhe Imoesi is a Molecular Neuroscientist and Research Fellow at the Institute of Medical Sciences and TauRx Therapeutics Ltd. at the University of Aberdeen. He has a PhD degree in Medical Sciences (Translational Neuroscience) from the School of Medicine, Medical Sciences and Nutrition, University of Aberdeen and is a Nigerian trained Biochemist from Ambrose Alli University, Edo State, Nigeria.
Peter did his Master of Science degree programme in Molecular Biology (MSc – Distinction) at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK and it was there that he first became fascinated by the field of Neuroscience. He is a recipient of a University of Aberdeen Elphinstone PhD scholarship, as well as the MRC Discovery Aberdeen Research Grant, and grants from the Sir Richard Stapley Educational Trust, British Society for Neuroendocrinology and British Association of Neuroscience among many others. Peter is also a STEM Ambassador for Hub North Scotland.
Thank you so much for speaking to us, Peter! Firstly, tell us a bit more about your research focus during your PhD...
For my PhD research, I was interested in how the hypothalamus controls Vitamin A homeostasis, the disruption of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis via the administration of isotretinoin (an isomer of retinoic acid) as a pointer to depression/suicidal ideation and subsequently the role of Vitamin A in body weight. Vitamin A is an essential lipid soluble micronutrient required in the mammalian diet, but how Vitamin A (retinol) in the circulation is controlled and homeostatically maintained is poorly understood.
We do know that retinoids are known to influence body weight. For instance, studies have shown that within the hypothalamus of seasonal mammals there is increased synthesis of RA during the long days of summer (a period associated with weight gain) and a decrease in RA synthesis during the short days of winter (a period associated with weight loss).
During my PhD, I was able to establish that the hypothalamus may play a significant role in Vitamin A homeostasis, a concept never previously proposed. I also made a new discovery: that reducing the activity of the gene retinol-binding protein 4 (Rbp4) – a gene that encodes the enzyme RBP4 responsible for the transport of retinol – in the mouse arcuate nucleus, may alter changes in body weight and food intake. These changes may be associated with the disruption of the protein pathway – Janus kinase/signal transducers and activators of transcription (JAK-STAT) pathway. The dysregulation of the ROL/STRA6/JAKS/STAT5 complex is implicated in obesity, increased lipid accumulation and other metabolic diseases. These results are currently under review and awaiting final publication.
Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger, and why?
Typical of African parents, I was geared towards studying medicine and surgery. One of the means of getting into med school in Nigeria is through the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB) examination or through a biological or life science degree programme. I opted for the second, and I was accepted to study BSc Biochemistry with the intention of switching after my first year.
At the end of my first year, the university regulation (Ambrose Alli University) placed an embargo on switching between programmes. So, I decided to make the most of Biochemistry by ensuring I got a good grade (I got a Second Class Honours Upper Division). At the time, getting a Second Class Upper in the department was like finding a needle in a haystack!
At the end of my Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry I went ahead and purchased the direct entry form for Medicine at the same university. Finally, I was accepted to study medicine and surgery. However, after I considered the number of years I would be in med school and my passion to remain in academia, I decided to do a career switch to become a proper Research Scientist with a PhD. I have always loved academia and been passionate about research and teaching. Today, I am happy I made that bold decision!
What did you enjoy most about your PhD?
I enjoyed every bit of my PhD, starting from a good supervisory support system, to an enabling and research-driven environment. The ability to learn new techniques and apply them to my research was thrilling. Despite the level of complexity, I was engrossed in stereotactic brain surgeries and designing experiments from start to finish. I can confidently say that every single data in my PhD thesis was done by me, irrespective of the level of complexity.
Also, receiving news of grant awards and congratulatory emails was exceedingly fulfilling. I was equally privileged to have led the Translational Neuroscience PhD programme as the Student Representative, which gave me the opportunity to learn about fellow PhD students’ research through the monthly PhD symposiums I co-organised. I also did a couple of video shoots for the University of Aberdeen during my PhD.
In general, there were ups and downs during my PhD, days of valley low and mountain high – but I would say I enjoyed every bit of the challenges.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out with their PhD?
First, I would say do not start a PhD without absolute clarity of purpose. This clarity of purpose will be your anchor in your days of high and lows. Also, do not start a PhD because you think you are smart (i.e. you’re the type who will memorise a subject just to pass a test or an examination), because your mum says so, as a means of earning money, or for people’s praises of how intelligent you are. A PhD requires more than just intelligence: it requires excellent time management, tenacity in the face of repeated failures, mental toughness (because it will certainly get to you), and the ability to drive yourself with or without anyone telling you to get your stuff done.
Therefore, my advice to anyone just starting out with their PhD is: learn to avoid shortcuts or the cheapest way out in every given experiment. Plan your experiments from start to finish, and start to fit the missing jigsaw piece into the missing puzzle of your research question. I would also recommend you read as much as you can, and get the materials and methods bit done – although this may be subject to future modification. In the end, there is no one special recipe: just understand yourself.
What's the most important lesson you have learned in your career so far?
To listen and learn from every single individual. In the process of learning from others, I often find a different way of doing things or improving my own ways of doing stuff. However, when you appear to know everything, your colleagues will simply leave you in your own world.
What are you most proud of in your career to date?
My PhD degree. Most importantly, my contribution to the understanding of Vitamin A homeostasis. I’m equally elated to have secured a Research Fellow position at the University of Aberdeen shortly after my PhD, where I am now researching neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s with TauRx Pharmaceutical. Finally, knowing that I am part of a team in a larger group, researching the drug that could halt the progression of tauopathies in Alzheimer’s disease is incredibly fulfilling.
What do you think are the biggest challenges currently facing life scientists and their work?
The biggest challenges facing life scientists are funding, poor support systems, job uncertainty for early career researchers and mental health issues. We usually joke about this in the laboratory, that the acronym – PhD means ‘Permanent Head Damage.’ The overburdening of peer reviewers and resounding rejections of grants and manuscripts can have a devastating effect on both early career scientists and established principal investigators (PIs).
Tell us a bit more about what you’re working on at the moment...
My current research as a Research Fellow is to study glutamate and acetylcholine release in the tau transgenic mice model at the synaptosomal level of the whole (mouse brain) and in specific brain regions (hippocampus). The abnormal aggregation of tau protein that potentiates neurofibrillary tangles in neurons is a pathological feature of tauopathies in neurodegenerative disorder associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
In line with the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, TauRx Therapeutics Ltd launched Leuco-Methylthioninium Bis (Hydromethanesulfonate) (LMTM) a tau aggregation inhibitor. Since the drug is currently in clinical trial phase III, I won’t say more!
What does a typical day in the lab look like for you?
My day usually starts off with a cup of coffee in the morning (to be specific, a cappuccino!). While I sip my coffee, I check through my emails and figure out what requires an immediate response. When I have experiments to run, it means I need to be in at 07:00am, get all the solutions and apparatus ready, and run the given experiment for the day. For me, there is no standard or permanent routine. Each day comes with a different task!
Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing most?
I enjoy writing my blog about general societal issues, personal development and generally encouraging people to succeed – especially young folks. I enjoy reading non-scientific books and watching the English Premier League… and of course I cheer for Arsenal Football Club always.
If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing?
If I weren’t a scientist, I would certainly be a writer. Though I also consider myself to be a writer since I’m a published author (my book is called Absolute Success). I want to continue to be actively engaged in writing and aspire to become world acclaimed!
What is it about your current work that gets you most excited?
The fact that my input is part of a bigger picture in addressing Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of neurodegenerative diseases.
What’s your favourite science joke?
“Miss Protein, can I catalyse your hydrolysis?”
“Oh Pepsin! Don’t be such a protease!”
This joke gets me every single time as a scientist with a Biochemistry background.
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
“It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.” – Watson and Crick 1953
I will leave you to figure! To me that is the greatest scientific discovery of all time.
Thank you so much for speaking with us, Peter! We wish you all the very best for the future with both your research and your writing!
Peter is a member of several professional societies including the British Society for Neuroendocrinology (BSN), British Neuroscience Association (BNA), Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS) and Alzheimer’s Research UK (ARUK).
His current research funding comes from TauRx Therapeutics Ltd.
Follow Peter on Twitter at @pethianopeters
Connect with Peter on LinkedIn here.
Check out Peter’s blog here: www.pethianopeters.blogspot.com
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