Photo:

Joe Bathelt

Favourite Thing: I like the excitement of findings out new things. It’s a bit like a murder mystery with lots of puzzle pieces and some advanced technological aids to help one figure out the culprit. The added bonus is that it is all about discovering things that have the potential to help people and understand one of the most mysterious things in the universe, the brain.

My CV

Education:

I did my PhD at the UCL Institute of Child Health and Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children

Qualifications:

I’ve got a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree and a Master of Science (MSc) degree

Work History:

MRC Cognition & Brain Sciences Unit

Current Job:

I’m currently a post-doctoral researcher, which is a stepping stone between studying and becoming a fully-fledged independent scientist

Employer:

Medical Research Council UK

About Me

I’m a cognitive neuroscience working with children. I really like brains and cats – don’t worry, I’m not a zombie

I live in a house in Cambridge with two housemates, Jon and Steven. Jon is also a neuroscientist and Steven is a translator. When I’m not working, I like to play my guitar, read novels, or binge-watch on Netflix. My housemates and I like to watch the most awful shows together and make fun of the plot. I also enjoy playing board games with friends like Settlers of Catan, Pandemic, Munchkin, and Flux.

When I’m not lazing around, I do a fair bit of running and yoga to stay in shape and balance the long days of sitting on a desk. My proudest achievement is that I managed to stand on my head for a minute without falling over – it’s still a work in progress.

My Work

In my work, I’m trying to find out what thinking skills are most important for school and what makes some kids brains different from others.

I’m working on a project that investigates reasons why some children find school very difficult. Part of that involves doing detailed tests that can tell us about particular thinking skills that may be contributing to this. For this, we do a lot of game-like tests that help us to measure how well someone can keep things in mind for example. The ultimate goal is to identify the most important thinking skills so that children can receive the right support before they encounter any problems in school.

The brain develops considerably as children grow up. Therefore, we are also very interested to find out how brain development relates to learning and thinking skills. In order to do that, we do brain scans with the children. The youngsters lie in a big tube-like machine for us so that we can take pictures of their brain. The machine is a bit noisy, but the scans do not hurt at all and the kids are allowed to watch a movie while they are in there. A big part of my role is to make sense of these brain images and find out how brain development relates to thinking skills.

 

My Typical Day

Most days I write computer programs to make sense of brain images and on some days I do psychological tests with children.

On a typical day, I spent most of the time on my computer either devising computer programs to make sense of brain images, writing up the results of that, reading the work of other people, or writing emails to coordinate the practicalities of research. I also attend a number of meetings to exchange ideas and plans with other researchers at my workplace and go to talks to learn about the work of people from other research centres or universities.

On some days, I do psychological tests with kids. These are game-like tests that tell us about particular thinking skills. For example, in one game I read a short story and would ask my participant to remember as much of it as possible. After a break, the participant has to tell the story again and we note down how many details he or she could remember. This tells us something about their memory. Because this test has been done with lots of children with different ages, we can compare how well someone did compared to kids of the same age.

What I'd do with the money

Teach children about difficulties with keeping things in mind and what can be done about it

Were you ever given instructions and forgot halfway through what you had to do? This is quite a common problem and is more of an issue for some children than for others. We call the ability to keep things in mind and manipulate them working memory. Researchers at our institute found out that this ability is very important for success in school. We currently offer advice to teachers online and at workshops on how to make things easier for children who have trouble keeping things in mind. We would also like to teach children about this. We would use the prize money to develop school lessons with demonstrations that we can take to local schools and also create a website to make this information available more widely.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

curious, creative, down-to-earth

Who is your favourite singer or band?

I like a lot of music – my current favourites are Radiohead, Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, and alt-J

What's your favourite food?

anything with aubergines – I love aubergines!

What is the most fun thing you've done?

driving in an old car all across Europe

What did you want to be after you left school?

I wanted to be a marine biologist and work in exotic locations

Were you ever in trouble at school?

I got into trouble quite a bit for forgetting to do my homework

What was your favourite subject at school?

I really liked Biology and Chemistry, especially when we got the chance to do classroom experiments

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

I put people in an MRI scanner – we can take images of their brains, that’s seriously cool

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

I had some amazing illustrated science books as a kid that made me think that this is exactly what I want to do when I grow up

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

probably a secondary school teacher

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

I would like to 1) have at least one cat 2) be able to eat chocolate without any harm to my health or shape 3) have unlimited money to do research

Tell us a joke.

Why did the neuron cross the street? It had action potential

Other stuff

Work photos:

Here is an image of my own brain:

myimage1

 

This is our lab group in the garden of our institute:

myimage3

 

This is a reconstruction of white matter connections in the brain that I use for my research:

myimage2

 

This is where I work

myimage4

 

Here I’m showing a kid our pretend MRI scanner

myimage5