Interviews with Scientists: Elizabeth Thomas

Interviews with Scientists: Elizabeth Thomas
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4 years ago

Interviews with Scientists: Elizabeth Thomas

Elizabeth is a third year PhD student at the Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research centre (MAPrc) in Melbourne, Australia. She completed a Bachelor of Biomedical Science (First Class Honours) / Bachelor of Science double degree at Monash University in 2013.

Elizabeth’s PhD project involves looking at a range of genes from the glutamatergic system and their involvement in cognition in patients across the broader schizophrenia continuum. Elizabeth is passionate about motivating students to be interested in science. She volunteers as a STEM Professional in Schools with CSIRO, is both an Honours and postgraduate student mentor and has been invited to give talks during high school events. Elizabeth is married and has a nine month old daughter.


Great to speak to you Elizabeth! Firstly tell us a bit more about your PhD...

I am in the final year of my PhD, and my thesis looking at the genes involved in cognitive deficits in schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia is a debilitating, chronic, psychiatric disorder that distorts the normal functioning of the brain and impedes the ability to function normally. Symptoms of schizophrenia usually begin in young adulthood and are broadly categorised into three groups; positive (eg. Hallucinations and delusions), negative (eg. Anhedonia, apathy) and cognitive, such as deficits in the areas of working memory, attention and inhibition. Starting to be more prominent in literature is the theory that these symptoms can be found not just in patients but can also be observed in the general population to some degree. This theory suggests that a continuum exists with those who do not exhibit any symptoms on the lower end, patients on the severe end, and in between are what we call high schizotypy individuals; these are the people that display mild forms of symptoms, but are otherwise healthy and do not have any diagnosis.

I have chosen to focus on cognitive symptoms as they respond poorly to current treatment and contribute to an employment rate approximately half of that of the general population. My research aims to identify genetic pathways and mutations, looking specifically at the glutamatergic system, that influence cognition across the schizophrenia continuum. Mainly, I use eye movements as a measure of cognitive performance in areas such as memory, working memory and attention. Observing these mild traits present in high schizotypy individuals may also help us better investigate what tips the balance from being healthy and having only mild symptoms to having a clinical diagnosis of schizophrenia. I am still at the stage of analysing my genetics data, so hopefully the results can shed some light on potential risk and protective factors associated with schizophrenia.

Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger, and why?

Actually, I wanted to be a fiction author when I was younger. I also wanted be a graphic designer when I was in high school. However, I decided that both those jobs were more hobbies as being an author was more a dream that might never happen and I didn’t particularly excel at drawing so I probably couldn’t be a graphic designer as a full-time career. As I did well in science throughout high school, I decided to continue to pursue it in university. I didn’t particularly enjoy my degree, but was unsure what to do after I graduated, so I decided to do an Honours year (which is particular to Australia). I chose my project, which is a narrower version of PhD in the same lab, and the rest is history! I really enjoyed my Honours year, and while it was difficult and stressful, I finished the year knowing I wanted to continue doing research.

What are you enjoying most about your PhD?

I honestly enjoy every aspect of it! Even the writing! Though most recently I went to Germany for a month to collaborate with well renowned researcher in my field, Prof. Ulrich Ettinger, who focuses on schizotypy and eye movements. While I was there, I also got to attend the European Summer School of Eye Movements and absorb lots of knowledge! Travelling and attending the Summer School, as well as several other international conferences over the years, has definitely been a bonus!


What do you think are the biggest challenges currently facing life scientists and their work?

As a new mum, I would have to say the instability of a career in research. It’s scary to think about. To try to help myself get the best start, I am currently trying to juggle multiple things to boost my CV; writing papers, applying for grants, giving presentations and volunteering in the community in order to apply for a fellowship. Not only is this already hard to do as a PhD student, but the number of things you need to have done in order to be competitive is increasing every year. Even if I do secure the fellowship, the stability that comes with it is only for a limited time. Researchers continuously have to think about what happens when the current round of funding ends, which for someone who has a new, young family, is far from ideal.

What advice would you give to someone just starting their PhD?

Make sure you truly love research, which can be hard to figure out. A lot of PhD work depends on self-motivation, and so you need to be passionate about what you are doing. I had my Honours year to figure that out. If there is no option to work in a lab during university, then volunteer at one. Experience it to get a taste before you sign up for years of research and study.

On top of that, make sure you click with your supervisor. I am lucky to have very supportive supervisors who I can always ask for help and advice. Have conversations with potential supervisors before you choose them and their project and ask them lots of questions. A great supervisor makes all the difference; I definitely wouldn’t have gotten where I am without mine.

In a recent survey we conducted 65% of life scientists (72% of women and 55% of men) interviewed said it wasn't easy to have a family and be a scientist. What's been your experience?

I am still on maternity leave as my daughter is only nine months, so I can’t comment in great detail. However, I definitely have already come across issues when having to juggle having a family and trying to move forward in my research career. I recently went to Germany in September for the entire month for a collaboration, and luckily my husband was able to take that time off and become the full-time carer during our stay. However, I would have had to forgo that opportunity if I didn’t not have a husband that was willing and able to do that. I also went to Glasgow for a conference in October, and unfortunately as my husband could not come, I had to leave my daughter behind in Australia. I think that’s what’s hardest – a lot of times you have to choose between growing as a researcher or being around for your family. It’s very rare to have both.

Tell us a bit more about what you’re working on at the moment...

I am currently in my last year of my PhD, which means lots of writing! I’m mainly doing my data analysis and trying to write my last couple of papers, which are mostly on genetics. We recently did a microarray analysis looking at gene expression differences between schizophrenia patients with high cognitive performance and those with low cognitive performance. Preliminary results suggest that glutamatergic genes are involved, which is in line with my thesis. We weren’t sure what the results would be like, as we took peripheral blood to assess what is going on in the brain. It’s nice to see that the gene expression is in line with what candidate gene studies have shown so far.


What does a typical day in the lab look like for you?

As I said, I’m mainly writing now. Before going on maternity leave, a typical day usually included 4 hours of testing a participant. A healthy control was completed the full assessment in one day, while a patient with schizophrenia would need two 4-hour sessions. The testing included a clinical and cognitive assessment, plus a blood test for genetics analysis. Cognitive tests assessed memory, working memory, attention, problem solving and performance in other cognitive domains. This was done in a combination of ways; verbally, written or on the computer.

The rest of the day might be spent trying to recruit more participants by placing ads online, calling back people who had responded to ads and screening them, or it could also involve entering data digitally, as the testing session is mostly done on paper. If there wasn’t anything else, then the day usually involved writing and working on my thesis.

Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing?

As my daughter is nine months, my focus really is on spending time with her, as well as with my husband and dog. I don’t really have much time for anything else at the moment – though pre-baby I did enjoy reading a good book or going out for a movie.

If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing?

To be honest, I have no idea. I often wonder what would have happened if I didn’t enjoy my Honours year. I would have decided not to pursue research but would have had no idea where to go from there. That’s how I truly know I’m meant to do research, because I cannot imagine myself doing anything else.


What is it about your field of research that gets you most excited?

That my research may help us understand a mental disorder, which may lead to better treatment options for cognitive deficits. Patients with cognitive impairments have difficulty holding down jobs, so if they could improve cognitive performance then it would help them live a more independent life. I meet patients face to face when testing them; they are so happy to help with research as they really want us to find a better answer. It’s great to have their support and also be able to see how much research means to them.

In addition, more research on the theory of schizotypy will hopefully help to reduce the stigma surrounding schizophrenia and mental illness. If the public could see that it’s not as simple as having the symptoms or not, but rather that they exist on a continuum in the entire population, they might be more understanding of people with mental illness, which would be a great result.


Which scientists working today do you most admire, and why?

I relate everything now to being a mum, so I would say any woman who is juggling being a mum and a researcher. My supervisors Dr. Caroline Gurvich (Monash University), Prof. Susan Rossell (Swinburne University) and Dr. Kiymet Bozaoglu (MCRI) are all amazing, as they all have children and are doing extremely well in their careers. It’s so impressive to see women making strides in their fields while also raising a family. Similarly, my mentor Dr. Annie McAuley has young kids and has her own startup TailkPlay while also doing research. Honestly, I’m just really lucky to be surrounded by empowering women who are great role models and are happy to give me a lot of guidance and advice.


What’s your favourite science quote?

"Science is not only a disciple of reason but also one of romance and passion." – Stephen Hawking

What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?

As someone who loves genetics, I would have to say the DNA double helix!

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Thank you so much for speaking to us, Elizabeth!

If you’d like to connect with Elizabeth online, here’s where you can do so:

Twitter: @Lizzie_ThomasAU

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/elizabethhxthomas/

Google Scholar: https://scholar.google.com.au/citations?user=0clzM...

Research Gate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Elizabeth_Tho...

You can also read Elizabeth’s paper on schizotypy: https://doi.org/10.1177/0004867418769746

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