Photo:

Ria Vaportzis

Favourite Thing: Travelling to share science with the world

My CV

Education:

I finished high school in Greece and studied sports journalism. I then moved to Australia where I studied psychology at the University of Melbourne and Monash University.

Qualifications:

Diploma in Sports Journalism, Bachelor of Arts (Psychology/Spanish), Honours (Psychology), PhD (Psychology). I also hold qualifications in ballet, jazz dance, personal training, and languages (Italian, German).

Work History:

During my studies, I worked as a psychology tutor and lecturer at Monash University, and also taught Greek. I have also worked as a sports journalist for a couple of years in the Greek media.

Current Job:

Postdoctoral research fellow

Employer:

Heriot-Watt University (Edinburgh)

About Me

I have three nice places to call home: Greece, Australia, and recently Britain. How lucky am I…

I’m a Greek-Australian living in Edinburgh. Edinburgh is an amazing city, although a bit cold for me (I’m slowly getting used to the weather). I live all by myself and wouldn’t change it for the world. I love my job and my life in general. When I am not at work, you can find me at the gym lifting weights, on the dance floor or climbing up a wall. Exercise has always been a big part of me. I have done various sports such as gymnastics, football, tennis, and volleyball to name a few. Apart from exercising, I like playing the piano, listening to music, drawing, shopping, reading, and travelling. I like trying new things whether this is a new coffee shop or skydiving. I don’t watch TV (I actually don’t have a TV!), but I do watch a movie every now and then. The most important thing for me is my freedom. Interestingly enough, my given name is Eleftheria (Ria for short), which means ‘freedom’ in Greek. As if my parents knew before I was even born!

My Work

Why do some people get dementia while others don’t?

Why does X have Alzheimer’s at the age of 60, while Y has better memory than a 20-year-old at the age of 90? We (scientists) believe that it’s a combination of age, health, genes and lifestyle.

I am interested in the way that brain stimulating activities can make our thinking skills (e.g., memory, attention, speed) better. A brain stimulating activity can be any activity that is new, challenging and will get you out of your comfort zone. For example, if you have never knitted and you start knitting today that could be a new stimulating activity for your brain.

Recently, I completed a project called A Tablet for Healthy Ageing. You can find more information at www.healthyageing.hw.ac.uk. For that project, our team trained older people using an iPad. They had never used a tablet in their lives and this was a new brain stimulating activity for them.

Fifty older people took part in the project. At the beginning, all of them completed some tests and questionnaires on their memory, attention etc. Then 25 people attended classes for 10 weeks and learned to use an iPad. The other 25 people did not learn how to use an iPad and kept living their lives. When the iPad classes finished, all 50 participants completed the same tests and questionnaires they completed the first time. We then compared the results of the two groups before and after the iPad training. We found that the iPad group was faster than the group that did not learn to use an iPad. How amazing is that!

My current project, called The Intervention Factory, is similar. This time however, instead of teaching people to use iPads, we are going to compare several different activities such as dancing, gardening, taking photos, learning a language or playing chess. Will older people who learn to dance be faster or have better memory compared with older people who learn a new language? I don’t know yet, but I’m hoping to find out soon!

My Typical Day

There’s no such thing as a typical day.

My schedule varies a lot depending on a project’s stage and I like this very much as I get bored easily. Generally speaking, my day starts very early (although I’m not a morning person at all) and am at work at 8:00am. myimage2Here I am in my office.  I share it with three other lovely postdocs. We are good friends.

First thing in the morning, I make coffee, and check my emails while having breakfast. For my job, I have to work in front of a computer quite a lot. For example, I prepare materials to test people’s thinking skills (e.g., questionnaires, computer tasks etc), or prepare PowerPoint presentations or posters to present my project to other people. myimage3This is how a scientific poster looks like. I presented it at a conference in the USA earlier this year.

Sometimes I have to test people’s thinking skills. People who participate in my project come to me to complete tests and questionnaires, so I can see how good or bad their thinking skills are (is their memory great or not so great? Are they quick or not so quick?). myimage4This is the lab where I test people. Nothing fancy; a small room, a table and two chairs are enough. I don’t even need the computer as most tasks are pen-and-paper.myimage5Here I’m helping some older people to use a tablet for the first time in their lives (photo used with permission of participants).myimage6This is my stand at Spring Fling last year. It was one of the ways to advertise my project and find older people to take part in my study. Finding participants is the hardest part of my job, as not everyone wants to commit their time to lengthy projects. BTW if you know anyone in Edinburgh who would like to participate… See, I never stop…

Often I have to attend meetings with other team members, workshops to learn new skills (yes, I have to do some kind of schooling too!) or travel to present the findings of my project to other people. If you like travelling, being a scientist is a great job, because you get paid to travel. myimage7Here I’m presenting my research in Brazil where I got the Best Presentation Award and a £100 voucher to spend on…clothes! Woohoo!

Sometimes, I present my research to people who are not scientists. For example, I was invited to present my research in a pub at the Edinburgh Skeptics Christmas party. myimage8Ready to sing a song at the Edinburgh Skeptics Christmas party (not really!)

myimage9Here I’m on my soapbox at Soapbox Science in Glasgow last year. This is the first and only time I wore a lab coat. No, not all scientists have to wear lab coats, and luckily, I’m one of them. I’d hate to hide my nice clothes under one of these. Yes, I’m wearing gloves…in July!

Being a scientist is not about science only. For example, I took part at the Step Count Challenge, which encourages people to be active. My team was the highest ranking (out of 16 teams) at Heriot-Watt University and finished 13th (out of 540 teams all over Scotland). Not too bad! myimage10Me on the far left with the rest of the team posing for the university newsletter as the Heriot-Watt University winning team. No medals or vouchers this time! Boohoo!

I finish work about 5:30pm. From work, I go straight to the gym, although sometimes I dance or rock climb. I get back home at around 8pm. I have dinner, prepare my meals for the following day, relax a bit and often Skype with family. I go to bed at around 10:30pm and do some leisure reading before I fall asleep.

What I'd do with the money

I’d buy a lot of ice cream!

Ok seriously now, I’d use the money to share the results of my project with the general public. Often scientists complete projects, and then share their findings with other scientists, but not with the public. How unfair is that! I was thinking of running a public event at the end of my project to share the results with everyone interested. You could come along if you wanted too. It would be an opportunity to get the public’s opinion for future projects as well. The money could help me to advertise the event, create information sheets, hire a venue, provide catering etc I’m thinking maybe I could ask for ice cream instead of coffee – maybe not ;p

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Lively, independent, ambitious

Who is your favourite singer or band?

There are quite a few. I’ve been listening to Ellie Goulding a lot lately.

What's your favourite food?

Ice cream is my old time favourite, but I’ve been addicted to shortbread since moving to the UK a couple of years ago. I have a very sweet tooth.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

My first Ceilidh dance. I had no idea what I was doing, yet hadn’t stopped dancing and laughing for 3 hours. My abs hurt the following day because of the laughter. Good times!

What did you want to be after you left school?

I wanted to be a sports journalist, and that’s what I did. I worked as a sports journalist for a couple of years, but then changed careers. No regrets!

Were you ever in trouble at school?

Oh yes :)

What was your favourite subject at school?

Essay writing

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

Participating at Soapbox Science last year. I stood on a soapbox and talked about my research to bypassers for an hour. I enjoyed it a lot, and got a lot of interesting questions from the crowd. It’s one of the reasons I decided to take part in I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here; I had so much fun, I wanted more! Bring it on!

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

I wasn’t inspired really. I started studying psychology, and loved it. I kept going until one day I woke up and realised I was a scientist.

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

I love sports, so I could be an athlete or a dancer.

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

Be healthy, be happy and have a few more wishes for myself lol

Tell us a joke.

A PhD student, a postdoc, and a professor are walking through a city park where they find an antique oil lamp. They rub it and a Genie comes out. Genie: “I usually grant three wishes, so I’ll give each of you just one.” PhD student: “Me first! Me first! I want to be in the Bahamas soaking up the sun.” Poof! Gone. Postdoc: “Me next! Me next! I want to be in Hawaii relaxing on the beach” Poof! Gone. Genie: “You’re next,” says to the professor. Professor: “I want those two back in the lab after lunch.” Note: This joke is based on a true story…

Other stuff

Work photos: