Interviews with Scientists: Lucy Lewis

Interviews with Scientists: Lucy Lewis
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4 years ago

Interviews with Scientists: Lucy Lewis

Lucy Lewis graduated from Cardiff University with a Bachelor’s in Neuroscience in 2017, and is currently entering her second year as a PhD student at Cardiff. Lucy is studying Behavioural Neuroscience as a part of the BBSRC SWBio DTP, and attempting to understand how we process rewards and the underpinnings of reward-deficits as seen in psychiatric symptoms.

We spoke to Lucy about her passion for her work, what she’s loving most about her PhD, what led her to a career in life science, and more.

Hi Lucy! Thanks for speaking to us! Firstly tell us more about your PhD...

My PhD is investigating three aspects of how we process ‘rewards’: motivation (i.e. drive/‘want’), cognition (‘learn’) and hedonia (‘like’). I am attempting to separate each aspect with in-depth behavioural assessments, and elucidate the neurobiological changes, relating to stress and the immune system, which underpin each aspect individually.

I do this by using pharmacological agents to manipulate stress and immunological pathways in rodents, measure their behaviours to characterise how these manipulations may contribute to disruptions in specific aspects of reward processing, and finally use immunohistochemical and Western blotting techniques to identify changes that occur in the brain.

My aim, ultimately, is to help our understanding of how these aspects of reward processing can be disrupted in psychiatric disorders, particularly in depression. Depression is one of the leading causes of mental illness in the UK, with many patients unresponsive to antidepressant therapy and others having to trudge through trialling various ones before they find one that works.

One of the problems we have in treating such a disorder, is that it is heterogeneous – patients are so varied in their symptoms and severity, and this means it’s becoming clearer that treatments need to be personalised based on the patient.

There are three symptoms common in depression: Anhedonia (a reduced ability to feel pleasure from things that used to be enjoyable); Apathy (reduced motivation or interest); and negative cognitive bias (focusing on negative events even when positive ones are present). However, not every patient experiences all of these symptoms, some may only have one. Therefore, we need to understand the causes of these symptoms individually, rather than focusing on the diagnosis of depression alone – and that’s where my research will hopefully help.

Additionally, I will investigate the impact that early life stress or immune activation has on these depression-like behaviours, and how environmental factors may also influence our brain chemistry.


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

I did actually. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do when I was younger as nobody I knew worked in any science-related field, but I always thought I wanted to help people. I originally thought I might want to be a doctor, but soon realised that it was the people working behind the scenes that I was most interested in – those who analyse the samples and help the doctors understand what’s happening in their patients.

It was only when I began my A-Levels in Chemistry, Biology and Psychology that I realised I loved being in the lab and gathering data. I also found the links between our biology and behaviour extremely interesting, so it’s no surprise I decided to enter the field of neuroscience!

What are you enjoying most about your PhD?

Generally, I think the thing I enjoy most about my PhD is the variety of things I get to do. I could either be doing this analysis of brain tissue, running behaviour, attending courses / conferences / seminars, teaching or working on engagement projects (e.g. The Brain Domain / Postgrad Cardiff Neuroscience Society).

There are so many things to get involved with, and with them come more people that you get to meet!

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

One of the biggest challenges would have to be the competition and instability of research as a career. As an early stage researcher, I haven’t much experience in these challenges thus far, but hearing about it is enough to understand the struggles. Luckily, I have three years left of my 4-year DTP before I have to worry about this part!

Another challenge that people don’t always talk about is the lack of standardisation in research, particularly behavioural. There are so many subtle differences between each lab which makes it difficult to know what is the best approach to take yourself, and you can end up disappointed when you try to follow someone else’s protocol to a T but come out with entirely different results. This is just another obstacle in the progression of research.

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

I would advise anyone to start off organised! Keep detailed notes on everything that you have done from the start, and try not to lose the notebooks that you kept them in! When things get busier, it will be difficult to stay on top of things, but you should always set a day every couple of weeks to try and get your things organised again.

Also, get involved with social events, societies and whatever activities you can find that might be interesting or relevant to you. Some people miss out on the opportunities available to you as a PhD student by thinking that the lab is the most important thing. Of course, to write your thesis or publications it’s very important, but you’ll find that extra activities will give you a well-deserved social life to relax in, as well as increasing your confidence and network! You may even meet someone that could help teach you something for your next experiment, as I have found that collaborating with others has been a necessity for me to learn some techniques.

One of the most important things to remember is that you’re not alone. You are most likely suffering the same problems as someone else, and getting to know more people means you have more people to talk about these problems with!

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

Currently, I am in the biochemical analysis stage of an experiment I started a while ago. I am analysing the dissected hippocampus and frontal cortex from two cohorts of animals, some of which received chronic corticosterone treatment (corticosterone being the stress hormone, analogous to human cortisol) to mimic the biological process that occurs following exposure to stress, and some of which were controls.

The two cohorts are from different time points – either immediately following corticosterone treatment, or 7 weeks later. I am using Western blots to determine if chronic corticosterone treatment resulted in changes in glutamatergic transmission, and immunohistochemistry to determine if this resulted in neurodevelopmental / neurogenic changes. The two time points will allow us to determine if these changes are long-lasting or can recover over a period without additional treatment.

My previous behaviour results showed that corticosterone reduced hedonic responses to a reward, so these additional results will give us an idea of what pathways / substrates might be responsible for this anhedonia-like effect.

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

A ‘typical’ day doesn’t really exist in my PhD! There is so much variety, but generally I will start my day with a coffee in the office, preparing for what I plan to do. Then I could either be running behaviour experiments, followed by writing up the data from that day, or spend the entire day performing biochemical / histological analyses with a quick 20 minutes to eat.

Some days are spent just reading papers and trying to make notes on the relevant ones, or planning my next experiment and what I’ll need to order for it. I’ll always try to leave at 5pm, as I think treating a PhD as a 9-5 job is really important to keep your motivation up, but of course some things take a lot longer than you think.

Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing?

I enjoy spending time with my family and friends, travelling and reading!

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

I can’t imagine myself not being in a science-related job, so I think that if I wasn’t a lab-based scientist I might work in medical / science communications, or maybe even something forensics related!

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

The idea that my research may help us to understand a significant disorder which impacts so many lives is exciting. It also not only relates to those with depression but the general population, demonstrating how best to look after our mental health.

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

There are so many fantastic scientists, but one that has had a personal impact on my science career is Dr Mariah Lelos, of the Brain Repair Group in Cardiff. During my undergraduate degree I was able to undertake a placement year within the Brain Repair Group, with Mariah as my supervisor, working on a project that had me running behaviour tests, immunohistochemical analyses, and various types of neuroimaging in animal models of Parkinson’s disease!

It’s important to have a female inspiration in science, and Mariah’s dedication and enthusiasm both to her research, my project and all of the other things she had going on, really encouraged me to pursue this career path, and definitely contributed to my aspiration to become a great scientist.

What’s your favourite science joke?

The classic: “I think I’ve lost an electron. In fact, I’m positive.”

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

As a life scientist, this has to be the molecular structure of DNA, discovered by Watson and Crick. So much of our modern-day research revolves around genetics: from pinpointing the causes of genetic disorders, such as Huntington’s disease, to manipulating the genome of animal models and observing how this affects their behaviours. Even outside of life sciences, DNA profiling has changed the world of forensic science to improve the criminal justice systems.

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Wow, thank you so much Lucy! Your research sounds fascinating and so important. We wish you all the very best with your research, and for the future.

If you would like to find out more:

Useful resources for PhD students

Are you a PhD student like Lucy? We have also put together a few extra things that may be of help and support once you get going in the lab:

And finally - don't forget to check back in to the Hello Bio Blog - with features from experts, posts on lab support, events, competitions and some fun stuff along the way!

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