Rachel Harris

Favourite Thing: Being the first person in the world to know something new about the brain!



The Hertfordshire and Essex High School (2002-2009), University College London (2009-2012), Imperial College London (2012-2013)


GCSEs, A Levels, BSc Biomedical Sciences, MRes Experimental Neuroscience (Masters by Research- no lessons!)

Work History:

Nuffield Bursary Student at GlaxoSmithKline (2008), Brain Bank lab technician at Imperial College London (2014)

Current Job:

PhD Student – I’m spending 3 years working towards a PhD on dementia research in labs at the University.


University of Bristol

About Me

Neuroscientist, film watcher, food eater, keen cyclist and science fan!

I live in Bristol. I moved from London 2 years ago to start my PhD. I watch a lot of films and documentaries both on Netflix and at the awesome cinema’s in Bristol. I enjoy cycling and running in and around the city. I love travelling (I’ve been to 30 countries and counting) so I try to take holidays whenever I can! I also like cooking and getting together with friends in the evenings.

My Work

I use human brain tissue to find out what goes wrong in Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia. In Alzheimer’s disease nerve cells in the brain die and we don’t know why. To try and find out, I work with donated human brains from a brain bank.

The brain bank collects fresh tissue from individuals who have chosen to donate their brain after death. The scientists dissect (cut up) the brain and store it either in a very cold freezer (-80 degrees Celsius) or they ‘fix’ the tissue which helps the brain keep it’s shape and stops it decomposing.

I use the frozen tissue to measure levels of proteins in the brain. I compare levels in people who had Alzheimer’s disease and people that did not have any disease or damage to their brain.  By comparing the two groups I can try and find what caused the disease, which is the first step to finding a treatment. I also cut very thin slices of tissue from the ‘fixed’ brain and use that to see where proteins are in the cells of the brain.

My work focuses on blood flow in the brain. In Alzheimer’s disease the brain doesn’t get enough blood. The lack of blood may be causing the nerve cells to die as they don’t receive enough oxygen. I’m trying to find out if they brain can make new blood vessels grow, which will increase the oxygen supply and hopefully keep the nerve cells alive.

My Typical Day

I’ll usually do experiments in the lab using human tissue and in breaks I also read about latest research and write about my own.

I’ll usually do experiments in the lab using human tissue.
I use different methods for finding out the levels of proteins in human brain tissue. These methods can take 1 hour or up to 3 days. I enjoy working on the lab as it’s practical and hands on. Sometimes it can be frustrating when you find out your method hasn’t worked! Then you just have to change it and try again.
I also read the latest research. This is important as I have to keep up to date with the most recent developments in science. It’s exciting to read about brand new findings and apply them to my own work.

Write about my own work. To communicate with other scientists I need to write about the work I’m doing. I spend part of my time making sure my lab book is up to date and writing up my work for others to read.

I also spend some of my time teaching other students at University. This term I’m teaching neuroanatomy. I’m using human brains that have been ‘fixed’ so they hold their shape and don’t decompose. I then teach the names of different parts of the skull and brain. I enjoy teaching others and like that it’s part of my job.

What I'd do with the money

I’d like to put the money towards the Bristol Science Film Festival and Big Bang Near Me event!

I volunteer with the British Science Association and last year a group of us created the Bristol Science Film Festival. We ran a film competition where anyone could submit a short (less than 10 minutes) on any topic to do with science. We received films from all over the UK from entrants as young as 14. In British Science Week we held a screening and awards ceremony to congratulate our prize winners. This year our Film Competition and Festival is back and we’d like to make it bigger and better! Some of the money would go towards a Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) night. I’d like to ask local science film makers to produces short films about any aspect of being a women in STEM. We’d then have a screening and make the films accessible to all (schools and the public) by putting them online so they can be used by schools and the public as well as future events.

Our branch is also creating a Big Bang Near Me Science Fair in Bristol. We’re hoping to get lots of local schools along talking to scientists and to finding out about all the different career options in science.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Easy-going, adaptable, curious

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Florence + the Machine and Taylor Swift tie

What's your favourite food?

Anything spicy!

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Hmmm I went abseiling down a waterfall once, that was pretty cool!

What did you want to be after you left school?

I didn’t really know, just something to do with science.

Were you ever in trouble at school?

Not really…

What was your favourite subject at school?

Biology – I enjoyed learning about the heart and cells

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

Collecting and dissecting donated brains has been a highlight. It’s a real privilege to work with the tissue.

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

Lots of people really! I did the CREST Awards at school (in science club) and got work experience in a lab, that really inspired me to study science at University.

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

A job where I could travel and live abroad.

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

1. That I could teleport to anywhere in the world. 2. That I could find anything I’d lost (I lose things in the lab a lot!) 3. That I could make all my experiments work!

Tell us a joke.

What did parietal say to frontal? “I lobe you.”

Other stuff

Work photos:

This is part of my lab space – I spend most of my time here.


Here is what the brains look like when they’re ‘fixed’ – so they go brown/grey and bit less like jelly!
On the left is the brain from a healthy individual, on the right is a brain from someone with Alzheimer’s disease.
The disease brain is smaller because the nerve cells have died.


Here are some slides with very thin slices of brain on.
We can use a method that picks out specific proteins in these slices.


We use fluorescent dyes to look at some cells.
Here we’ve labelled the nucleus of cells blue and nerve cells green.


Part of my job is teaching other students about neuroscience.
This is at the Bristol Neuroscience Festival 2016.


Here we have brains from lots of different animals – here you can see similarities and difference between the brain sizes and shapes.