Meet the Scientist
Neuroscience PhD Researcher at Cardiff University
What scientific field do you work in?
Visual and perceptual neuroscience
"...I would be Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson..."
Could you briefly explain what your job involves?
I work with individuals who have lost their vision following brain damage, typically due to stroke or head trauma. This injury often leads to damage to the main pathway that carries the signals from the eyes to the part of the brain that allows us to “see” the world around us. Think of this as a major highway, lots of traffic, very direct and almost everyone uses it to get from A to B.
However, despite denying they have seen an object, some of these individuals with vision loss are able to point or move their eyes towards the location of an object that is in their blind field. Some can tell if the object is moving left or right, up or down, or the shape of the moving object. Some can differentiate different emotional expressions. Some of these individuals will even unconsciously reach to catch an object that is thrown toward them.
The idea behind this is that as well as a major highway, the brain has lots of side roads, that allow us to get from A to B. Normal-sighted individuals use these pathways too, but when the major highway is damaged, the side roads become more important for processing the visual world (and easier for us to study).
My research focuses on understanding where in the brain these alternative pathways (side roads) are. Essentially, I am investigating how an individual who has lost their vision in a traditional sense can retain some residual function which allows them to, often unconsciously, process the world around them.
Do you have any secret talents?
I played rugby in Germany for a while and got to play (and win) in some really cool places.
When did you decide you wanted to work as a scientist?
I held a human brain during the first year of my undergraduate degree and I knew I wanted to try and understand how this 3lb bundle of tissue allows us to experience, well, almost everything (as cliché as it may sound!)
"You've got to break a few eggs to make an omlette."
If you could be anyone in the world for 24 hours, who would you be and why?
I want to say I’d like to be a world-leading scientist for the day, but I would be Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. Wake up, have a huge gym session, eat my body weight in sushi, pizza and American pancakes and then go to one of my red-carpet movie premiers in a sharp, immaculate suit.
Have you taken part in any research? If yes, what was your most exciting project?
I have been lucky enough to take part in some great research over the years, from brain stimulation, to electrophysiology, to studies into the perception of time. The most exciting project I took part in (other than my PhD) was investigating the changes in brain structure in patients with macular degeneration.
What's your favourite food?
Easy one. Pizza.
What educational pathway did you take to get to where you are now?
I really didn’t like school all that much when I was younger, but after finishing secondary school, I completed A-levels in Biology, Sport and Religious Studies. I took Psychology as one of my choices but didn’t like it and ended up dropping that course. Ironically, I then completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology with neuroscience. I then completed a Master of Science degree in Cognitive Neuroscience, at the University of York. I began my PhD at Cardiff University a month after finished my Masters, so it’s been a constant flow of education.
What's your favourite movie quote?
"Which would be worse: To live as a monster, or to die as a good man?"
– Shutter Island
What was the best thing about your job?
I work in a really talented research team, alongside some ridiculously intelligent people. I think being able to try and answer questions that haven’t yet been answered is the best thing about my work. I also really like using neuroimaging, I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of seeing images of the brain!
"I held a human brain during the first year of my undergraduate degree..."
What was the worst thing about your job?
Paperwork, without a doubt.
If you could take one thing with you to an island, what would it be and why?
A piano. I can’t play but I figure I’d have a lot of free time on the island so I’d like to try and learn.
Do you have any advice for young people who are interested in your career path?
Be curious and ask “why?” And don’t spend too long worrying about things that have gone wrong or failed experiments. You’ve got to break a few eggs to make an omelette. Research is just one big omelette…
Anything else you'd like to add?
My research team and I are currently looking for individuals with (and without) vision loss to take part in our research at Cardiff University. If you are interested in helping us learn more about the brain, vision and our perception of the world around us, sign up here - psych.cf.ac.uk/home2/nvl.
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