Interviews with Scientists: Daniel Austria

Interviews with Scientists: Daniel Austria
2 years ago

Interviews with Scientists: Daniel Austria

Daniel Austria is a PhD candidate and a University Doctoral Scholar at the University of Auckland’s Centre for Brain Research. His current research focuses on understanding the role of non-neuronal cells in Alzheimer's disease using post-mortem human brain tissue and post-mortem human brain-derived primary cell cultures. He hopes that through his research, we can develop better therapies for Alzheimer's.

Besides his research, Daniel is also an advocate for youth affected by Huntington’s Disease via the Huntington’s Disease Youth Organisation – New Zealand (HDYO-NZ). He has a passion for science communication and teaching and teaches a range of practical undergraduate medical science laboratories focused on human anatomy and physiology. Beyond his teaching and research, he also loves a good game of basketball or a nice trek up the mountains with his partner and his trusty camera.

It was our pleasure to speak to Daniel for our latest Interviews with Scientists!

Hi Daniel, thanks so much for speaking with us! Firstly, we’d love to hear more about your PhD research...

My research focuses on Alzheimer’s disease (AD) which is one of the most common brain diseases in the world. For a really long time, neuroscientists have focused on what happens to the brain’s primary cell – the neuron – during the progression of this disease. However, there has not been a lot of research on the brain’s blood vessels until much more recently, which is what I am interested in. The brain’s blood vessel system is special and unique, it is a very specialised barrier – much like a border or a wall. It is very selective of what it lets in and out to try and protect the environment within the brain – this is because of its complexity and importance. This job is carried out by several types of cells, which are collectively called the neurovascular unit (neuro = brain, vascular = blood vessels).

I am specifically investigating what happens in these cells involved in the human brain’s blood vessels. Unlike most neuroscience research which utilises animal models, I have the advantage of investigating the neurovascular unit in post-mortem human brain tissue from AD patients that have donated their brains at the Neurological Foundation of New Zealand Human Brain Bank. This allows for me to pathologically assess changes that occur directly from the human brain.

Furthermore, one of the cell types involved in the neurovascular unit, called pericytes, are critical in maintaining the barrier properties of blood vessels but are still poorly characterised. Hence, to further characterise these cells and to see how we can harness these cells for AD therapy, I am utilising post-mortem-derived human brain pericytes from the Hugh Green Biobank. This allows me to assess whether these cells are changing or not due to the disease, and to figure out if we can utilise them for AD therapy.

Overall, my research is critical to discovering what can potentially be targeted for AD therapy. Furthermore, as the blood vessels are critical for most (if not all) drug delivery pathways, we can also utilise this research to understand how we can further improve the efficiency and effectiveness of drugs that pass through the blood vessels into the brain.

How is the COVID-19 pandemic currently impacting your research?

Due to the restrictions from New Zealand lockdown, the University facilities are closed except for any COVID-19 related research. Because my research is mostly lab-based, a lot of my experiment plans have been postponed or they had to be halted quite early. Although that sounds like a hindrance, I have tried to take it as a blessing in disguise. I have been holding onto some results that need to be analysed, so I have been remotely accessing my computer at work to do those.

I also have several findings that I am trying to put together into figures for publications and/or my thesis, so I am taking the opportunity to draft those up. I have also tried to take up new skills, such as R programming, which will be beneficial. Of course, Zoom meetings are now more common than they used to be – these have been helpful to contact my supervisors and my lab group.

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

I have to admit that when I was younger, I did not think I would be a scientist. I wanted to be a president. But, I have always been curious and wanting to understand how the world works. A lot of the adults in my life knew me as “Bakit” which means “Why” in Filipino because I always asked them “Why?” It was in high school back in the Philippines that my interest in science grew, and I realised that it was a way for me to understand the world. I was initially interested in Astrophysics and Meteorology.

In my later high school years, I realised I wanted to pursue something that was more practical and focused on humans. So, I decided to switch my attention to Medical Sciences. I pursued a degree in Biomedical Sciences and in my first year, I had my first neuroscience lecture from Distinguished Professor Sir Richard Faull. It was then that I fell in love with the brain.

I have always loved a challenge and studying the brain felt like one. As Sir Faull says, it is the “final frontier of medical research,” and aptly so. The brain, I believe, is the most complex organ in the human body, and with that comes very complex brain diseases to treat. I thought that it would be great to study these complex brain diseases, and understand what changes happen in the brain.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out in their science PhD, based on your own experience?

Think about and remember what motivated you to start this journey and why you are passionate about it. A PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. Throughout your PhD, there will be times where you will not feel at the peak of your motivation. This is when you will need to remind yourself why you are doing what you are doing. You are part of a bigger picture. There is a purpose in what you are doing. Be open to taking opportunities that come to you, even when those opportunities are out of your comfort zone.

What's the most important lesson you have learned in your PhD so far?

Similar to the advice I would give, the main lesson I have learned thus far is that you need to do what you love and what you are truly passionate about! Doing a PhD is hard. Being an academic is hard. But what has kept me going and kept me pursuing this career path is that I am passionate about serving people, I love science and I love teaching – all of which I can do as an academic. Finding what you love and what you are passionate about is one of the greatest feelings because it gives you a sense of purpose and belonging in a much bigger and grander picture.

What’s your biggest achievement in your career to date?

My biggest achievement would have to be my PhD scholarship – the biggest “grant” I have succeeded in. It took months of working from when the lab opened to when it closed, and a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get to a point where I could even start a PhD, let alone be awarded a scholarship. It meant so much to me when I found out about the news – it brought me to tears.

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

I think that plenty of life scientists will say that funding is a big challenge in our field. The process of applying for grants, publishing, and building up our research and teaching profiles, are just some of the many struggles that are associated with the search for funding. Add the pressure of the lack of job stability for most of us, and you can understand why our personal lives tend to be put on the backburner. With the work-life balance shifting more towards work than life, the problem of mental health issues arises. This is especially true for early career researchers who experience a lot of pressure to be a well-rounded academic – more often than not without enough remuneration. Mental health concerns, such as imposter syndrome, anxiety and burnouts, are very common in academia. These have a major impact on productivity (and sometimes even affects other people’s productivity as well), which then leads to further mental health issues – it can become a downward spiral. I do recognise that we are making progress in this area, but the system still needs a lot of improvements.

Regarding the work itself, I think there needs to be more cross-talk between scientists and the public. The challenge for scientists is a lack of resources and support to provide more opportunities for such ventures. Furthermore, this is very commonly considered “a waste of time,” due to the heavy weighting that we put on publications. Yet, I believe this relationship is critical because not only do taxpayers fund most of our research, they are also benefactors (directly or indirectly). This means the public has the right to know about the research. Furthermore, public engagement increases trust and makes them more involved in the research. It provides them with a platform to feedback to scientists what they want to know, which can then provide key insights into future directions. Finally, the more involved the public are, the more invested they will want to be. This can come in monetary form or even sample donations – as is the case for clinical trials and pathology research.

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

One of the things I love about science is that one day is never the same as another. My research utilises a wide range of techniques, which means that I could potentially be doing something different every day. One day I could be taking care of my primary pericyte lines and doing experiments on them. Another day, I could be on the microscope looking at beautiful (and colourful) cells on human tissue. So really, there is no such thing as a typical day in the lab.

What does your typical day look like at the moment while you’re unable to work in the lab?

My typical day at the moment usually starts off with trying to take care of myself and getting myself in the zone to do some work. That usually includes physical exercise and prayers/devotion. I am a planner, so I also tend to write or look through a checklist of tasks to accomplish for the day. Then, I start to get on with work, which could vary from reading journal articles for writing up my own papers and my thesis, gathering data from image analysis that I can do virtually, doing my statistical analyses and making figures, as well as Zoom meetings with my supervisors, lab group, and committees.

Outside of science, what do you enjoy doing most?

I love getting active – I play basketball and soccer when I can. My partner and I also love going outdoors – going hiking and tramping. I am a huge fan of landscape photography, so I make sure to take my camera when we go outdoors. More recently, I have tried to get into astrophotography as well. My partner and I are foodies and so before the lockdown, we used to go to different restaurants and try out different cuisines. If the weather is not great, at home I read a lot of science fantasy books, watch a lot of comedy TV shows, or play board games and computer games with my partner and friends.

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

My other passion is teaching, so I would have pursued that if I wasn't a scientist. I think I would have loved to do higher education teaching anyways, but high school teaching would also be great!

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

The fact that I get to work with specimens from real humans. Not only is it unique and exciting, but also very humbling. These people who have suffered from the disease have donated one of the most precious gifts they could give to neuroscientists – their brain. It is a surreal experience every time in the lab, knowing that I am working with something so personal. That makes me more motivated and committed to doing world-class, high-quality science, just so we can give enough justice to this amazing resource that has been given for us to use.

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

I have always admired Sir Richard Faull. He has an extensive list of accolades that exhibit his scientific rigour and excellence, yet he is one of the humblest people I have ever met. Besides being an expert and a pioneer in the field of neuroanatomy and neurodegenerative diseases, he also has a huge heart. He has inspired me to view my science as part of a collaborative community involving other scientists, clinicians, community support groups and the patients and their families. He also has a very persistent approach to science, exemplified by one of his common quotes: “There are no such things as problems, only challenges.” I also admire his passion for teaching, which has made him an excellent lecturer, arguably one of the best in the field. He is an incredibly well-rounded academic.

What’s your favourite science quote?

I have two Albert Einstein quotes:

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the universe.”

“Many people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.”

I also like to use this, though it is not necessarily a science-specific quote, but it is a Maori proverb that we have been using in our centre as an encouragement: He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. It means: “What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.”

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

Even though I am a neuroscientist, I have to say that the invention of the internet is one of the greatest discoveries of all time. It has sped things up in so many areas. For example, we are able to communicate with people who are not physically in the same room in a more expedient way. This is particularly beneficial for science as it allows faster and more diverse ways of sharing data and information. Overall, it has been a gateway for us to be able to speed up our scientific advancement.

Thank you so much for speaking to us, Daniel. It’s been great to find out more about your work!

Daniel is a member of the Australasian Neuroscience Society (ANS), one of the biggest neuroscience societies in the Australasian region. He is also affiliated with Brain Research New Zealand (BRNZ), one of New Zealand’s Centres of Research Excellence (CoRE). He is also a student representative for the Australasian Winter Conference for Brain Research (AWCBR) organising committee.

Daniel’s research is funded by the University of Auckland Doctoral Scholarship. The resources he uses in the lab are funded by the New Zealand Health Research Council, Neurological Foundation of New Zealand, the Hugh Green Foundation, the Freemasons Foundation of New Zealand and Brain Research New Zealand.

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