University of Queensland – Mater Research Institute
Dementia - what goes wrong before the symptoms?
I research dementia, the leading cause of death for Australian women. Dementia describes a group of symptoms including the loss of memory and intellect associated with the most common dementia, Alzheimer's disease. Our likelihood of developing dementia is normally determined by our genetics and environmental factors that influence our health e.g. diet and exercise. I study a type of dementia that is unusual because it occurs due to a mutation in a very specific gene. Interestingly, this mutation only affects the brain’s support cells, microglia. Yet, it is our thought-creating neurons that die in dementia. This is analogous to a marathon runner being unable to complete their race because nobody handed out water enroute! Unfortunately, nobody knows what goes wrong with the microglia to cause the neuronal death. I am working to uncover this, with the hope that it will lead to new therapies for all people living with dementia.
There is no cure for dementia. No new drug therapies have been approved in Australia for over 20 years and the few drugs that are prescribed provide minimal benefit. It is imperative that biomedical scientists uncover the root causes of dementia and novel treatments to stop cognitive decline. Dementia research and drug therapies have been heavily focused on neurons. However, it is increasingly evident that neurons die after something goes wrong with the brain’s support cells, microglia. My research is innovative because it is focused on understanding what goes wrong with microglia that have a specific genetic mutation. This mutation occurs in patients with a form of early-onset dementia. I am working to understand what microglial functions the mutation disrupts, and why this leads to neuronal death. If we can identify this, then new treatments can be developed to restore microglial function and prevent more neurons from dying.
Effective and early treatment is key in preventing further cognitive decline in patients. This will also reduce the social, emotional, and economic costs associated with dementia. The increase in Queensland’s population aged 65+, means that these costs will be felt acutely by our state in the future. Furthermore, with more than 40% of Queensland’s population outside of major metropolitan areas, delivering the healthcare and support people living with dementia require is especially challenging. I hope that through researching dementia from a different perspective, we will find new answers that will improve outcomes for people with dementia, their families, and communities.
In addition to my research, I have demonstrated my commitment to improving the lives of Queenslanders through my volunteering. I served on the Queensland Country Women’s Society Brisbane City Branch committee for four years. During that time, I have organised and assisted in fundraising activities that have raised over $2000 for the Queensland Public Rural Crisis Fund. This money goes towards supporting women and their families in times of need.
I also volunteer as a Young Science Ambassador for Queensland’s Wonder of Science Program, delivering workshops to students as far away as Cairns and Blackwater. It is vital that Queensland interact with everyday scientists, understand the benefits of STEM for the whole community, and that everyone can participate. I am passionate about fostering a positive STEM culture in Queensland schools and educational institutions.
I currently serve as a student representative on the UQ Faculty of Medicine Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee. This year, I have been drawing the committee’s attention to the barriers faced by people living with a disability while pursing a higher degree by research. I have also shared my lived experience of undertaking my PhD with a disability at our Faculty’s International Woman’s Day event, and proposed solutions to reduce barriers and prevent attrition.
I have demonstrated many qualities that make me a good role model for women in STEM. I endeavour to set a good example for others and undertake leadership roles because they enable me to give back to my community, facilitate change, and make me a visible role model. I am known as a great corporate citizen within my research institute and the wider university. Whilst serving on multiple committees I have organised events online during covid lockdowns, fundraising, and social events for students. These activities show my commitment to fostering a positive STEM culture.
I am passionate about improving access to STEM opportunities and encouraging people from all walks of life to consider a career in STEM. I do this through my involvement with Wonder of Science and my Faculty’s EDI Committee. I grew up in a small town in Scotland where few people undertake any form of tertiary study. I am also honest about my experiences working in biomedical science with a disability. In sharing my background and experiences, I demonstrate that diversity and inclusion is valued within STEM. I also hope that by sharing, students may be inspired by my perseverance and commitment to pursuing a STEM career. My work with the EDI Committee shows my respect and concern for others, and my desire to improve access and conditions. For example, I am currently campaigning for UQ to provide better financial assistance to student who live with the significant financial burden that is often associated with have a disability.
I continually demonstrate my commitment to helping others succeed. I have tutored health science, biomedical science, engineering, and medical students at UQ. I connect with my students professionally by sharing certain aspects of my identity. In telling them a little about my background and research area, I hope to reinforce the idea that everyone is welcome in STEM and spark their interest in research. I also work hard to create a positive learning environment. When students make a mistake, I put them at ease by giving examples of mistakes I have made and what I learnt from them. This demonstrates my integrity and empathy.
My passion for teaching, finding novel ways to explain tricky concepts to students, and love of communicating my research have led to numerous awards for oral presentations. I have been very successful in UQ’s 3 Minute Thesis competition. I have gotten through to the Faculty of Medicine Final each time I have competed, and recently went through to the Wild Card round. My strong communication skills have also seen me invited to speak to potential research students, current students, and as a panel guest for an International Woman’s Day event . As a role model, it is important to demonstrate that women can present confidently, overcome challenges, and succeed in STEM.
During my PhD, I have volunteered to give Queensland school children a hands-on science experience. I assisted a TRI-led event for Indooroopilly High School Students to extract DNA from fruit, and last year I became a Young Science Ambassador for Wonder of Science. I am particularly passionate about going to rural and regional communities as part of this program. This is important for reducing the geographical barriers to opportunities that rural communities face. I have travelled as far as Cairns and rurally as Blackwater to tell students about my research and assist them in starting their own research project. I also volunteered to be on a panel for Y10 indigenous students considering a career in STEM, during which they could ask about my experience of university and working in STEM.
I have successfully participated in UQ’s 3 Minute Thesis competition, winning numerous People’s Choice awards, and proceeding to the Wildcard round. Participating in this meant being able to clearly explain my research to the general public and enabled me to share my research with a wider audience. I have also presented my research to some of the Mater Foundation donors, and a group of senior students from a local high school.
Within the wider UQ community I am an active tutor for both the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Medicine. While assisting students to get through their laboratory practicals, I take this time as an opportunity to expose them to real life research. I tell them about my PhD project and how I use the techniques that they are learning to help me answer my research questions. Tutoring is another opportunity to be a visible role model for students. Through tutoring I have assisted numerous students to secure a research experience.