Interviews with Scientists: Oisín C. Joyce

Interviews with Scientists: Oisín C. Joyce
3 years ago

Interviews with Scientists: Oisín C. Joyce

Oisín C. Joyce is a second year PhD student at Trinity College Dublin, researching concussion and traumatic brain injury in sport. His current work involves investigating the brain health of current and retired athletes across a range of contact and non-contact sports, and he also leads a long-term collaborative project with current and retired professional rugby players in Leinster and Ireland.

In addition to his research work, he is also involved in scientific education, communication, and outreach projects, working both as an academic tutor for second-level education programmes and as a problem-based learning tutor for first year medical students.

He is also passionate about lab sustainability and is active on two green lab committees at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, who were recently awarded the Platinum Level Green Lab certification from My Green Lab - only the second lab in Ireland to achieve this status.

We caught up with Oisín to find out more about his career, his current research, his love of comic books and more...

Thanks for speaking with us, Oisín! Firstly, please tell us a bit more about your background as a scientist...

I’m a second year PhD student at Trinity College Dublin under the supervision of Prof. Áine Kelly. If my name seems familiar (and maybe still a little difficult to pronounce!) it may be because I recently wrote a blog on lab sustainability with a superhero twist for Hello Bio, which is where you may know me from!

My interest in research and academia began when I undertook my MSc in Neuroscience which provided me with the opportunity to travel halfway across the world from the Emerald Isle to Boston, Massachusetts where I worked as a Research Assistant ll in Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. It was here that my interest and development as an early career researcher began when I joined as co-chair on the Executive Board for basic and translational research as part of the committee on the Program for Research Assistant Development and Achievement. I carried the goal of creating a scientific network for skill development, professional advancement and learning back to Ireland when embarking on my PhD journey in 2019 where I became a co-founder and organising member of Neuroscience Ireland’s Early-Career Research Network.

As well as being a full-time student I am also the current project manager for a long-term collaborative project with current and retired professional rugby players in Leinster and Ireland, and beyond my role in research, I have a vested interest in scientific education, communication, and outreach. I am an academic tutor for several second-level education programmes associated with Trinity Access Programmes and AccedEd, and a problem-based learning tutor for first year medical students aiming to develop the student’s clinical application of knowledge and theory gained through tutorials and self-directed learning.

To top this all off, I am also on two green lab committees where just recently at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, we were awarded the Platinum Level Green Lab certification from My Green Lab, making us the first in Trinity and second in Ireland to achieve this status.

What is the focus of your PhD research?

My research revolves around concussion and traumatic brain injury in sport. At present I am investigating the brain health of current and retired athletes across a range of contact and non-contact sports using a neuropsychological measure of multisensory integration and perception. I aim to determine whether self-reported concussion history and exposure to repetitive head and body impacts throughout a sporting career can influence brain health, and if there is an associative link to cardiovascular health and disease. Having previously worked on preclinical models of TBI in small and large animal models, it’s a nice change to move into clinical-based work.

What is it about your field of work that excites you most?

Personally, I feel that, like all other areas of scientific research in the health sciences, despite the vast mechanistic and theoretical advancements in the world of concussion and traumatic brain injury, there are still so many avenues yet to be explored. Beginning to pull on one thread in someone’s niche area of concussive research pulls on several others in a variety of disciplines. Comparable to a multiverse and challenging all we know about our current understanding of space, time, and the proposed inflation system from the birth of the universe that we live in today, the research field of concussion remains in its infancy. James Crichton-Browne, the man who founded the journal Brain in 1871 once wrote that “Concussion is, of course, the most important element in the vast majority of cranial injuries, in relation to subsequent mental infirmity. Not only does it accompany, in a greater or less degree, almost all of those other injuries which produce structural lesions themselves; but it is by far the most frequent kind of cranial injury, and the most fruitful source of ulterior misfortune... Everything points to the conclusion that the evil of concussion really consists on what may be called dynamical changes in the nerve cells and their connecting fibrils”. Since then, our comprehension of the neurometabolic cascade of concussion has developed tremendously, although we still are unclear as to the extent to which a lifetime of exposure to repetitive head impacts and concussion can have on a professional athlete. This is a question which I hope to expand upon throughout my future career in research.

Did you always want to work in science when you were younger, and why?

My interest in science really didn’t develop until I was coming to the end of my second-level education where I knew I did not want to study anything business-related in college as it just wasn’t me. The more I read, the more I wrote, and the more I questioned everything that I read and wrote about science, I was left with more questions than answers. This is when I knew that I had the passion, curiosity, and inquisitiveness to become a scientist, and pursued it as a career path.

What’s the most important lesson you have learned in your career so far?

Talk to everyone! No matter your mood or enthusiasm for work on a given day, talk to everyone you meet and extend a vested interest into who they are. Not just what they do as a professional career but who they are as a person, where their personal interests lie and what their goals are for the future. The ability to communicate effectively, build personal relationships and expand your network is crucial in today’s world. Whether you achieve this in person at events and conferences, or virtually through email or professional media platforms, who you know will form the keystone to all your future and successful endeavours.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing life scientists today

I believe that the biggest challenge facing life scientists today is the recruitment and attrition of budding young scientists willing and eager to take on the mantle of their predecessors. The extent of scientific communication and outreach to children and students at a young age is quite limited, with a focus on gaining entry into third level education to secure a degree but not on discovering the breadth of research among academic institutes which have the capacity to bring about scientific advancement and humanitarian impact on a global scale with the proper collaborative process. The ability to engage and inspire will be a key attribute for all early career researchers to expand the research community of the future by dissemination of all scientific research and debunking so many myths and lore that have become all too common in the modern age.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your research?

I think it’s safe to say that I was one among many whose research was brought to a screeching halt when the pandemic hit back in March 2020. I had just had my ethics for my research approved and was about to start the exciting but arduous process of data collection. With my research being of a clinical nature working with human participants I have had to undertake an extensive literature review relating to my doctoral research, reading and writing, planning and networking for over a year now. To say that I am not jumping with excitement to get started collecting data again, having those brief but enjoyable conversations with all those undertaking my research protocols, and seeing my data coming to life graphically is the understatement of the century! The long days of Zoom calls and virtual presentations with a presentable shirt, comfy sport shorts, and a cozy pair of slippers I hope will be few and far between in the future (that’s not to say I don’t thoroughly enjoy the comfort and brief excitement of a rebellion against the formal in-person dress code!).

What advice would you give to a younger life scientist just starting out in their career?

Do not worry and don’t rush anything. Talk to those who have chosen a similar path to you and ask them about their journey. You do not need to know what you want to do for the rest of your life, and you may even decide after 20 years in science that you want to branch out and change career paths. That’s okay and moreover is achievable in today’s world. Our present working climate is not like that of previous generations where you started a career and continued in it until you retire. Enjoy the journey and trust in the process. Life, both personal and professional, is a series of choices, some may be beneficial, others not so much. But that is okay as you will learn what you don’t like, and invest your time and effort in what you do like.

Outside of your career, what do you enjoy doing most? (e.g. hobbies, passion projects, etc.)

Outside of the lab I love to box. (I know, completely counterintuitive and will probably make myself into my own test subject at some point!) but I also like to collect comic books and am just basically a huge nerd! I believe that my curiosity of fantasy and science-fiction has influenced the way I view the world. My non-linear viewpoint has endowed me with a more evolved sense of creativity and intuition, to which I feel can only be of benefit in the field of research. I also love going on adventures and thrill-seeking activities with my other half and lifelong partner, Valerie. Whether that’s hiking, rock climbing, sea swimming or go-karting (pictured above with the clunky neck-brace), getting out and about seeing the world is a huge passion of ours.

If you weren't a scientist, what do you think you would be doing instead?

I think that I would maybe be a helicopter pilot given the opportunity as when I was a kid, and as crazy as it sounds, my parents brought me to see Santa Claus one winter and he arrived in a helicopter and my mind was made up. But to be fruitfully honest, I love being a neuroscientist. As hard as the job can be at times, from long hours in the lab and always staying up to date on the literature hot off the press, I jump out of bed wanting to immerse myself in my research. As corny as it is I really can’t see myself doing anything else and I love what I do.

Who has been your greatest role model, and why?

My dad would have to be my greatest role model, no question about it. The sacrifices he has made throughout both his personal and professional life, his commitment to his role as a father and the endless love and support he gave me throughout my childhood and adult life has without a doubt moulded me into the man I am today. Taking time off work to watch me compete in rugby matches for my school as a teenager on a Wednesday afternoon, teaching me about the link between hard work and success, imbuing me with the self belief that I can achieve all that I want in life with creativity, passion and a solid work ethic has made me strive to be not the man I want to become, but the man I know that he would want me to be.

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

The invention and application of cochlear implants in my opinion would be the greatest discovery of all time. When you venture down a deep, dark rabbit hole of YouTube videos at 2am and come across the most uplifting video of a child and their family in a clinic with the nurse carefully making final adjustments on the machine and apparatus. The brief moment of fear and stress passing over a small child’s face as they hear the hum of noise for the first time brings such joy and faith in the future of science. It’s incredible to see the smile and light in their eyes, hearing their parents call their name for the first time. If that’s not a life changing discovery I don’t know what is.

And finally, what's your favourite science quote?

My favourite science quote would have to be “It is important to realize that if certain areas of science appear to be quite mature, others are in the process of development, and yet others remain to be born” quoted from the Godfather of Neuroscience himself Santiago Ramón y Cajal in his text ‘Advice for a Young Investigator’.

But in saying that I cannot answer this question in full without embracing myself and my nerdiness. My favourite superhero quote which resonates with and inspires me on a daily basis is from a less well-known Marvel superhero Franklin Richards, “The door is more than it appears. It separates who you are from who you can be. You do not have to walk through it. You can run.”


Thank you so much for a fantastic interview, Oisín! We wish you all the best with your future research.

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