Interviews with Scientists: Professor Emma Robinson
Emma Robinson is Professor of Psychopharmacology based within the School of Physiology, Pharmacology & Neuroscience at the University of Bristol. She completed her BSc (Hons) and PhD at the University of Bristol, and after working with Prof David Nutt in the Psychopharmacology Unit in Bristol for 5 years, she was awarded an RCUK Academic Fellowship during which she worked at the University of Cambridge, Experimental Psychology Department with Profs.Trevor Robbins and Jeffery Dalley, before returning to Bristol to establish her independent research group.
Her research focuses on studies to investigate the neural and molecular mechanisms which regulate normal and pathological emotional behaviour and how these are disrupted in psychiatric disorders. Complementing the psychopharmacology research, her group also runs a programme focusing on using objective measures of affective state in rodents to better understand the welfare of laboratory animals. Alongside her research, Emma is involved in teaching across the science and professional programmes and is actively involved in public engagement in science including organising the biennial Bristol Neuroscience Festival.
We spoke to Emma in more depth about her current research, her passion for animals, and her advice for early career life scientists...
Thanks for speaking with us, Emma! Firstly, please tell us a bit more about your current role...
My current role is Professor of Psychopharmacology at the University of Bristol, and I run a research programme studying the neurobiology of emotional behaviour and mechanisms which underlie rapid-acting antidepressants. Arising from an interest in the 3Rs and animal welfare, we also now run a programme looking at methods to objectively quantify affective state in non-human species and applying these methods to ask questions about how we can best refine the experience of laboratory rodents used in research. I have various editorial and committee roles associated with my research and I am involved in undergraduate and postgraduate teaching in pharmacology. I have a passion for public engagement in science and have for the last 10 years run a neuroscience festival in Bristol attracting more than 4000 visitors.
What was the focus of your PhD research?
My PhD used antisense oligonucleotides to investigate the role of alpha2-adrenoceptors in antidepressant efficacy. Conventional antidepressants were known to induce a down-regulation in this autoreceptor and it was hypothesised that this may contribute to their efficacy and hence, using antisense to induce a rapid knockdown of the receptor could induce a rapid antidepressant effect. My PhD gave me a great opportunity to learn a range of techniques and develop skills in both receptor pharmacology and behavioural methods although it also revealed to me the limitations of the current animal models, a topic which has become the focus of my current research.
What is it about your field of work that excites you most?
Mood disorders are highly prevalent and on the increase and we still know very little about why they develop or how best to treat them. Although a field with many challenges, particularly when you work with animal models, it is also an area that has seen major advances in recent years. The discovery that the NMDA receptor antagonist, ketamine, has rapid-acting antidepressant effects has provided a new avenue for exploration and these studies are beginning to reveal all sorts of exciting new biology and psychology. One of the most intriguing aspects of these rapid-acting antidepressants is the observation that they can induce sustained changes in mood which last long after their pharmacological effects.
Did you always want to work in science when you were younger, and if so, why?
I always wanted to be a vet and this remained the case right up until the final year of my pharmacology degree (I didn’t make the grades in my A Levels for Vet Science and so was aiming for a postgraduate route). Doing a research project in my final year changed everything and I was lucky to get a fantastic PhD position and never looked back.
What's the most important lesson you have learned in your career so far?
To make the most of the opportunities presented to you and not to dwell too much on things which have not gone to plan. There are always options.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing life scientists today?
I think that probably depends on the area you are in. Within academia we are facing a lot of change particularly with numbers of students and the way we teach. The amount of information has also increased exponentially and keeping abreast with developments whilst also meeting the expectations on an academic to be an excellent researcher, teacher, writer and mentor is a challenge but not necessarily a bad one - I really enjoy the diversity of my role.
What advice would you give to a young life scientist just starting out in their career?
Make the most of opportunities offered to you and be prepared to work hard but make sure you also enjoy it.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work/research?
We have had to adapt our work dramatically as lab-based researchers but this has opened up new avenues and has not been as detrimental as it might have been. I have also caught up on some of the papers which needed writing up.
What does a typical day at work look like for you?
I don’t think I have a typical day and each week varies hugely. Sometimes I am busy with preparing and delivering teaching then another week I might be involved in getting a paper finished or grant application submitted.
Outside of your career, what do you enjoy doing most?
I have two dogs and so spend plenty of time out walking and enjoying the countryside around Bristol. I also have a small farm on the edge of Dartmoor and I am slowly restoring its ancient farm buildings. I also have a horse there and enjoy riding.
If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you would be doing instead?
When I finished my A Levels and didn’t get into vet school I had an opportunity to be an amateur jockey. I had been riding out racehorses for many years and loved the sport however, I decided against it and headed to a pharmacology degree instead. I guess my passion now is training animals and I currently train dogs and horses in my spare time and would happily do this full-time.
Who has been your greatest role model, and why?
I am not sure I would say any one person has been a role model but there have been key people who have inspired me. I still lead my life based on the advice of a great friend of mine – always have a priority list and a positive mental attitude. At university I was inspired to work in Psychopharmacology by Prof David Nutt and had the pleasure of working with him for my PhD. I have also had great mentors from Hilary Little and Will Watson, who supervised my project to Prof Trevor Robbins and Jeff Dalley who I worked with in Cambridge.
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
And finally, what’s your favourite science quote?
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” - Charles Darwin
Thank you so much for a fantastic interview, Emma! We wish you all the very best with your ongoing research.
Connect with Emma and her team on Twitter: @psychopharmbris
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