How Sparrho Hero’s sprained ankle led to stroke research

For Brenton Hordacre the idea of a practical application of science is quite literal. When not busy researching ways to protect the brain after a stroke, he works as a physiotherapist. We spoke with our November Research Prize winner about his unusual path into science and the challenge of explaining what goes on in the lab at the dinner table.

Sparrho: So, how did you become a researcher, Brenton?

Dr Brenton Hordacre

Brenton: It was kind of by chance. I studied physiotherapy at university and an opportunity came up to research the impact of stress on motor learning.

I enjoyed it so much that I decided to pursue it through a PhD, which lead to a post-doc and a fellowship.

Sparrho: Working in physio first — it sounds like you have a strong motivation to help people…

Brenton: I actually sprained my ankle a year before I decided to study physiotherapy and that was my first exposure to it. I enjoyed learning about the body — how it heals and how healing can be facilitated.

And then through the different streams of physiotherapy I learned about brain injuries or strokes, and hip or knee replacements, so about how to help people back to everyday life.

I guess that’s why I’ve gone down the path of researching stroke and in particular how much and which patients respond to brain stimulation therapy that triggers the brain’s ability to heal. (Read about Brenton’s research into stoke recovery through brain stimulation here)

A slide from Brenton’s presentation about neuroplasticity

Sparrho: It’s pretty amazing that you work clinically and in research at the same time. What’s the reason behind it?

Brenton: It’s to see where the challenges are clinically and to find out through patient contact where that gap to perfection lies. I’m talking about the research gap that can lead the best possible results for patients and that’s what I’m trying to fill.

“My passion is to improve our understanding of the brain to help tailor individual therapies to patients, so that they can make a more complete recovery and enjoy life.”

I like research because I can be my own boss and I can go away and answer the questions I want to answer.

Sparrho: Many people dread the isolating experience that can be part of PhD life. What’s the Brenton recipe of coping?

Brenton: I think I’m a pretty organised and structured and I set internal deadlines. I tended to treat my PhD as a 9 to 5, Monday to Friday type job and was working clinically at the same time on Saturdays and then Sunday was rest.

I did not feel isolation as I was based at a hospital, and there were PhD students, doctors and some research staff. So, I had frequent contact with supervisors and they were always there if I needed to talk with them.

The environment I was in was a good one for a PhD student, but even with that there are times when you feel a bit like you’re working around your computer and it gets a bit lonely.

I think I was lucky, because I worked in such a large building that if I felt like it I could get up and go and have a coffee with someone and have a chat.

Sparrho: OK, that’s fellow scientists, but how do you talk to friends and family about your research if they might not understand the detail?

Brenton: I do find that sometimes I want to talk about what I’m doing, but I may be underselling what I do. I think to myself ‘maybe they wouldn’t understand or appreciate it’.

So sometimes I tend to avoid it.

I can quite happily talk about sports or other things in life, this is again me underselling what I do, but I try to avoid that topic.

But having said that, I’ve actually had a couple of friends come through for research projects about two years ago, so it was a good chance to show them what I do in terms of the practical … I had them in the experiment, where they had some brain stimulation, and it was just a really good chance to show them rather than actually explain it to them.

And from there it makes it a bit easier to talk about it in the future because they have actually experienced it.

A Sparrho Insight, releated to Brenton’s research

Sparrho: You touched a little bit on science communication and it seems you’re happy to do your research and talk about it a bit less. Would that be s fair assumption?

Brenton: I think it’s a fair assumption. I think it’s important to talk about it, but it doesn’t necessarily come naturally. So that’s why things like Sparrho are very good for researchers who can sit down and describe what they do in simple terms.

“I try to communicate science by giving presentations to clinical groups, for example at the physiotherapy department of a different hospital, just to that experience talking about what I do in a jargon-free language.”

Sparrho: So, you feel like you need to reach out to the wider public.

Brenton: Yes.

Sparrho: And you feel presentations help? Is there anything else that helps?

Brenton: Things like social media obviously help as well and presenting at conferences.

(Brenton will speak at the 10th World Congress for NeuroRehabilitation in Mumbai, India in February 2018.)

I try to go to different types of conferences that are relevant to my research. I was at a national physio conference recently with a very clinical audience, but with not strong science background. So, it was a good exercise in communicating science to a wider audience.

But then, at other conferences I go to, like a brain stimulation, they’re pretty strong on the science and less on the clinical significance of the work, so I feel I’m that link between very strong science and the clinical translation.

“The challenge is to make it both clinically important and scientifically correct. So, I try to bridge the gap between the two.”

Sparrho: And what would you like to achieve in your scientific career?

Brenton: I would like to see my research make a difference to people’s lives. I think a lot of people who work professionally do that. I think you can lose a bit and get bogged down in the science of it, but I want to try to make sure that my research has a real clinical impact, that it can be important for people’s lives.

“…I want to try to make sure that my research has a real clinical impact, that it can be important for people’s lives.”

It might be a number of years before what we’re doing is actually used every day in rehabilitation hospitals, but even if I’m not known for it, if I play a small part in getting it to the point where it’s helping people, I think it would be quite an achievement.

Brenton is an Early Career Research Fellow at the University of South Australia, Adelaide.

Read more about his research here

Brenton will speak at the 10th World Congress for NeuroRehabilitation in Mumbai, India in February 2018.

Inspired? Submit your application for the Sparrho Early Career Researcher Prizefor the chance to get £500 conference travel funding.

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