Jacqueline Pumphrey interviews Sarah Finnegan, a postdoc working in the Breathe Oxford research group at the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences. As a teenager, Sarah visited the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, met lots of inspiring scientists, and wondered what it would take to get a job like theirs. This summer, she is leading her group’s own participation at the same prestigious exhibition, where she hopes to inspire the next generation.
String and meccano
Sarah was a curious child, always wanting to know how things worked. As a little girl, she spent hours devising complex systems of levers and pulleys using string. Taking things apart, and sometimes managing to figure out how to put them back together, became a constant source of amusement for her — not to mention frustration for her parents, who wanted to use the clocks and gadgets she dismembered!
It’s possible that this fascination with the mechanics of things was inherited from or inspired by her grandpa, who used to fix tanks when he was in the army. This practical gentleman was once kind enough to insert a petrol engine into a plastic meccano model that Sarah had made: she was terribly impressed by how fast this addition made it go!
Fortunately for Sarah, her family encouraged her interests, and her mother in particular was keen to ensure that her and her sister’s education was supplemented as much as possible with trips to museums and galleries. The family would often visit London for the day, taking in a museum before a meal at TGI Fridays in Covent Garden. It was in her early teens that Sarah was taken to visit the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition.
She remembers crowds of people and a population health map showing the prevalence of different kinds of disease across the world. She also recalls being delighted that everything was so interactive: there were things you could touch and ask questions about, like bridge stress testing. But it was in the basement that she had an encounter that could be said to have had a direct influence on the course her life was to take. On the wall she found portraits of famous Royal Society Fellows such as Hooke, Newton and Boyle, and wondered: ‘What does it take to get there?’
Journey into neuroscience
Sarah was determined to pursue her dreams and was the first in her family to attend university. She got a place on the Biomedical Science course at King’s College London. Having endured a brief but trying period of work experience as an auxiliary nurse when she was 17, she had soon realised that she didn’t want to become a nurse or a doctor — what she really wanted to do was find out more about how the human body worked. Even during her undergraduate years, though, she says she still didn’t really know what it meant to be a scientist. ‘I didn’t know then that the job I do now even existed’, she tells me.
It was the psychology module in her final year that really got Sarah interested. She discovered cognitive neuroscience and neuroimaging, and decided to spend a summer working in the Babylab at the University of Surrey. Her supervisor there was a young inspiring woman called Anna Franklin — perhaps the first real-life science role model who Sarah could identify with. The whole experience, learning about psychological testing and analysis, convinced her that neuroscience would be her field, and she enrolled on the Neuroscience Masters at University College London. Under the tutelage of another inspiring Professor, Marty Sereno, Sarah discovered MRI scanners, which she used in her research to find out more about the brain’s capacity to perceive words visually.
From being fascinated with string and mechanics as a child, Sarah became fascinated with neuroimaging as a young adult. After her masters, she went on to be a Research Assistant at UCL, as a scanner operator. She found out that one of the biggest and most powerful MRI scanners in England was housed at what is now the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging at the University of Oxford, and applied to do a PhD (DPhil) with Holly Bridge. During the ensuing four years, she was to experience what she cites as one of the main highlights of her science career so far: attending a conference in Hawaii, where she was able to talk to scientists from all around the world.
Breathing and the brain
Now armed with an undergraduate degree from London and a DPhil from Oxford, what would Sarah’s next step be in her scientific career? She wanted to do something that would really have an impact on people’s lives. Science is important, as she says, ‘because it helps us understand the world around us, and can bring massive benefits to humanity’. A post-doc opportunity came up in the Breathe Oxford group, working with Kyle Pattinson, who is looking at the relationship between breathing and the brain.
This field of research is very exciting because it is only now that the psychology and neuroscience of breathlessness is starting to be realised. Sarah’s aforementioned grandpa died of lung cancer, so she has a personal interest in breathing and what it is like to experience chronic breathlessness. Her curiosity about the mechanisms of the body and brain drives her desire to help make new discoveries about the connection between the two — which might lead to new treatments.
For most of us, breathlessness passes, but for many people, feeling breathless is a defining part of their lives. Breathe Oxford is a diverse group of neuroscientists, psychologists and clinicians studying the neuroscience of breathlessness. Their work shows that breathing is about more than just the lungs: the brain has a powerful influence on our experiences. The group explores how the brain controls our feelings of being out of breath using cutting-edge neuroimaging. They use new analysis techniques to identify patterns in the data they have gathered in the course of their studies with patients who experience breathlessness.
Sarah believes that the next logical breakthrough in her field will be personalised medicine: as we discover more about how people’s past experiences and mood influence their breathing, we should be able to develop targeted treatments for different individuals. Some people may need inhalers or new drugs targeting pathways in the brain; others may benefit from a course of cognitive behavioural therapy to break patterns of thought and association.
Science is for everyone
Sarah knows she is lucky to love her job. She insists there was nothing special about her at school: ‘there was nothing that would have led my teachers to say that I should be a scientist’. She was not necessarily the brightest student in the class; she was not confident in physics or maths. But with great persistence and large helpings of encouragement, she is now a post-doctoral scientist working at the cutting edge of an exciting field of science in Oxford. And she wants to share what she and her group are doing with a wider audience this summer.
Sarah is no stranger to talking about her science in public. In 2017, she took part in Curiosity Carnival, a great extravaganza of public engagement activity that took place across the city of Oxford as part of European Researchers’ Night. She participated in the Living Library, where members of the public could choose a researcher to talk to one-to-one. And she got to the final of ‘I’m a Researcher, Get me Out of Here!’ which saw her addressing an audience at the Weston Library on Broad Street. It is not surprising that she ranks this experience as being up there with her trip to Hawaii. Communicating her science is a major priority for Sarah, as she wants the upcoming generation to understand that science is not just for a certain type of person: all kinds of people can work in it, and it can benefit everyone.
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