Home » News Events » Meeting at the blood-brain barrier – a blog post by Sophie Quick

Edinburgh student Sophie Quick has written a blog post on her experience of starting a PhD in the field of SVD research. 

Sophie and her dog Manohar 

Meeting at the blood-brain barrier 

A close-minded approach will not improve my study of the brain. Though only in the early stages of my scientific career it seems to me all too easy to focus in solely on playing your part, to lose yourself in the day to day of your own project and forget where you sit in the wider scene.

My PhD project at the University of Edinburgh started a few months ago, where I’ll be focusing on cerebral small vessel disease. Recent research into this condition has indicated that the endothelial cells of the small arterioles affected by the condition may be inherently dysfunctional. My hypothesis is that these blood-brain barrier cells have a direct effect on the myelin-forming oligodendrocytes of the white matter, ultimately leading to the neurodegeneration characteristic of the disease. This means that, far from simply being a result of hypertension or even a part of normal aging, small vessel disease is clearly distinct and we might even have a new therapeutic target in these endothelial cells. I’d like to pick apart why they become dysfunctional and how we can manipulate and repair them.

Recently I attended my first conference as a PhD student and I was fascinated at how venerable PIs would occasionally start questions with “I’m no expert in this area…” and I couldn’t help thinking that it was likely they had forgotten more about the area than I currently understood. It made me realise that when you become engrossed in one topic, your knowledge of other topics pales in comparison. When you understand one thing deeply, it feels like you’re a novice in everything else.

Luckily, there will nearly always be someone who is actually an expert in the area you’re lacking, and I don’t just mean Google Scholar. Networks like those funded by Fondation Leducq are a great resource to engage with other scientists who have an overlapping but distinct area of research. My own project has been enriched by making it a collaboration with two different labs with different backgrounds, cardiovascular and neuroscience. The very hypothesis for my project, that these dysfunctional endothelial cells affect the oligodendrocytes, brings together two distinct areas of research to meet at the blood brain barrier. I see it as a great opportunity to get these areas (and these people!) interacting with each other to hopefully develop an ongoing link. The fact that they can share a common goal of understanding the neurovascular unit better is a great reason to do so.

The initial ten-week thesis committee meeting I had to set me up for my project progression brought together a group of PIs, all of whom I find really inspiring as scientists. Despite my nerves in the run-up, I actually enjoyed discussing the future of my work and I just hope I can deliver on it all. What was particularly great was the different areas of expertise brought, quite literally, to the table by each group leader. The blood-brain barrier itself is made up of a number of constituent parts and having experts in the various aspects meant the conversation could go in many directions. I am lucky to have supportive supervisors who have honed their skills in their respective fields and having a world leader on small vessel disease as part of the panel gave an amazing insight to the clinical relevance of the project. The variety made it uniquely useful.

For me, interactions like these not only broaden my knowledge but contribute to the depth of understanding as each side pushes questions perhaps the other hadn’t considered. I hope that one day I’ll be able to bring something to the table more significant than the snacks – though I know those were well received and perhaps didn’t hinder the overall positive response…

I’ve also found it particularly helpful to talk to other students about my work, even if their projects have extremely different focus to mine. Some of the best ideas come not from lab meetings but from chatting more informally. I had a breakthrough on the bus when a friend recommended I shift my efforts into a different technique that should progress my experiments a lot faster. A useful collaboration came after I loaned a flask of cells to another lab, which led to me learning a new and incredibly useful protocol. Social events with other scientists inevitably lead to discussions of science, and I’ve learnt about new papers in fields I wouldn’t have otherwise known about.

It’s easy to think that the way we’re doing it is the right way and we don’t need any help from someone outside our little bubble. In my project I feel it’s essential to widely gather information about the different areas of the blood-brain barrier, which is perhaps an unusual but exceptionally valuable meeting point.

Sophie is a 1st year Ph.D student at the Centre for Regenerative Medicine, working with Professor Anna Williams, Professor Charles ffrench-constant, Dr Mairi Brittan and Professor Joanna Wardlaw