Young researchers present on the global stage (Part 12)

In this twelfth edition of the researcher series, three rising stars, competing for Sparrho’s Early Career Researcher Prize, tell us about their work and why they chose to become scientists.

Brenton Hordacre

NHMRC Early Career Research Fellow, The University of South Australia

#stroke #neuroscience #neuroimaging

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

How would you introduce your research to a non-expert? We know that the brain is a complex organ that controls what we think and do, but things can happen such as a stroke or traumatic injury which cause the brain to become damaged, and this can have long-lasting and devastating effects on quality of life. While new treatments, such as brain stimulation or robotics, can offer hope to patients following a stroke or brain injury, the reality is that no treatment will work for every single patient as the brain is far too complicated for this to be possible. My passion is to improve our understanding of the brain to help tailor individual therapies to a patient so that they can make a more complete recovery and enjoy life.

“It’s estimated that a stroke occurs somewhere in the world every 2 seconds, affecting people of all ages.”

What can your field of research contribute to the world? Stroke is a leading cause of disability worldwide and is probably more common that we realise. It’s estimated that a stroke occurs somewhere in the world every 2 seconds, affecting people of all ages. For many people this means living the rest of their lives with difficulty moving, speaking, thinking and paying attention. Even though many people with stroke undergo extensive rehabilitation with traditional therapies, as well as new technology-based approaches, recovery is often incomplete. The need for ongoing, life-long care places significant financial pressure on governments, hospitals and families. My hope is that by further understanding how different brain ‘profiles’ respond to different treatments, and what these treatments do to the brain, we can work towards a tailored approach for therapy based on unique characteristics of each patient’s brain. Developing brain-based strategies for treatment is likely to maximise recovery potential of the world’s leading cause of disability.

“It is really satisfying to see your scientific work make a difference in the world.”

Why are you a scientist? Like a lot of people, when I make a major decision in my life I like to look at all the available evidence and select the best choice. Being a scientist allows me to generate some of the evidence that hopefully helps people to make decisions when treating stroke patients. As a result, I believe that being a scientist is perhaps one of the most challenging, exciting and rewarding jobs. One of my particular interests as a scientist is helping translate health research into clinical practice. While this isn’t easy, and can be a really slow process, it is really satisfying to see your scientific work make a difference in the world. I can’t think of any other job that offers these unique aspects and is primarily the reason I became a scientist.

What advances in your field are you most excited about? I am particularly excited by new treatments or approaches which have potential to facilitate maximum recovery in a patient. One area I have devoted a lot of research to is brain stimulation combined with neuroimaging. Some of the latest research suggests this approach can help select brain targets for stimulation and identify those likely to benefit most from this treatment. However, there is still so much we don’t know and understand about the human brain and how we can better treat people with brain-based injuries or diseases. As a result the BRAIN Initiative was announced by former US President Barack Obama in 2013 with the goal of understanding how the brain works. Understanding the brain is arguably one of the greatest scientific challenges of our time. Although this initiative is in its infancy, the scientific advances that will result are likely to represent one of the most exciting scientific discovery periods in history.

What advice would you give to younger students regarding attending a conference?

“The reward far outweighs the time commitment.”

There is enormous benefit to presenting your work at a conference: it helps you become recognised as a researcher with expertise in a particular field. People will show interest in your work and come and speak to you about new thoughts or ideas which may provide opportunity to develop future collaborations or open your mind to aspects of your research that perhaps had not been considered previously. That information is invaluable and can only serve to benefit your current project and future research direction. While presenting at a conference requires a lot of preparation and effort, my experience is always that the reward far outweighs the time commitment.

Attending a conference can be intense and overwhelming, particularly for large international gatherings. However, they often provide a wealth of information and I believe you can maximise the benefit a conference has on your career if you follow a couple of simple steps:

  • First, select the right conference to attend. This may sound simple, but look for conference that have invited the leading researchers in your chosen field and ensure that the conference theme is in line with your area of research.
  • Second, maximise your ‘information gathering’ capabilities at the conference by studying the conference program before attending and selecting the presentations relevant to your work that you must attend. Time is short and a lot of things are often happening at the same time during a conference: preparation before you attend is critical.
  • Third, take any opportunity you can to present your work at a conference. It provides a great opportunity to get your name out to fellow researchers in your field and allows you to receive feedback on what you have done so far.
  • Finally, don’t be afraid to speak to people and ask questions — that is the whole purpose of a scientific field coming together for a conference. You might speak to someone about your research idea and gauge their thoughts as to its importance or feasibility in science. You might speak to a presenter to ask more details about why or how they did something, what they would do differently or what they are planning to do in the future.

A conference provides you with a unique opportunity to be in the same building as a number of expert researchers from across the globe. There is no other situation in science that provides this fantastic opportunity, so utilise it!

Read more about Brenton’s research here.


Eva Garmendia

PhD student, Uppsala University, Sweden

#bacteria #DNA #microbes

Eva will speak at Analytical Genetics in San Diego, USA in January 2018.

How would you introduce your research to a non-expert? Although bacterial species are many and very varied, some of the characteristics of their DNA content are very conserved. My current research focuses on understanding why those characteristics are important, experimentally assessing how changes to those traits affect the bacteria. Also, using experimental evolution, I can study how bacterial populations adapt to the changes made to those conserved traits.

What can your field of research contribute to the world? My research gives us the foundational knowledge of how things work and answers the “why” questions about the world that surrounds us, which to me is thrilling and very exciting. Applied science relies on proper and thorough knowledge of the basic building blocks of life, and my field contributes to this by helping us understand how bacteria evolve and work.

“My research gives us the foundational knowledge of how things work and answers the “why” questions about the world that surrounds us.”

Many bacterial species have close relationships with humans and animals, both for good (microbiota) and for bad (infectious diseases), and deep knowledge about them is crucial to enhance their benefits and combat their attacks. Plus, the novelties and mechanisms that have evolved in bacteria can potentially be applied to our problems if we have a good understanding of how they work. A beautiful example of this is the CRISPR-Cas system that is nowadays impacting the field of applied biomedicine. The system was originally found in bacterial/archaeal species, meaning it is an old mechanism which originated a long time ago and has been evolving ever since. Years upon years of basic research on the topic has ended up with a revolutionary genome-editing system that can be now applied on demand to correct defects in the DNA or make targeted changes.

Why are you a scientist? When I get this question the first answer that comes to my mind is that I am a curious person that likes to solve puzzles. Ever since I can remember I have been very interested in understanding why the things are the way they are and how they work; from being a child “experimenting” with little insects I found around the house, to wanting to look at everything under a microscope to see what else I could find that the bare eye couldn’t. Being a scientist allows me to use that everlasting curiosity on a day-to-day basis and I feel like even if my contribution to science is small, it is necessary to fill in the gaps and advance the current understanding of our world. As scientists we move on the frontier of knowledge and have the skills to understand recent findings and translate them to layman language for the rest of society, contributing to the education of the non-scientific community and inspiring younger generations to pursue scientific-related careers.

“Even if my contribution to science is small, it is necessary to fill in the gaps and advance the current understanding of our world.”

What advances in your field are you most excited about? At the moment, we are in what we call the whole-genome revolution era. The techniques that allow us to look at microorganisms’ genomes are becoming very accessible and affordable. This exponentially increases our understanding of the microbe world, the relationship between their species and their different lifestyles and characteristics. Until very recently the data we were able to get was a bit biased, because we relied on being able to culture bacteria and there are a lot of bacterial species whose requirements are beyond what we can provide in the lab. From now on, it will be much easier to also include these non-cultivable species in the studies to get a more complete view on what’s out there. New techniques will also allow us to work on new model organisms, broadening our understanding of the possible ways microbes work.

“Ask questions, because questions are never silly.”

What advice would you give to younger students regarding attending a conference? One of the most important things for scientists to develop is the skill of communication. Scientific advances are of little use if they are not communicated, so everyone being trained to be a scientist should put themselves in situations where they have to communicate what they do.

Scientific conferences are a good place for this because the crowd you are talking to already has an understanding, even if just broadly, of one’s topic, and that makes it much easier from the beginning. Brainstorming with people from outside one’s small niche is the best way to take a scientific project further and find new questions that might be relevant to the topic one is researching. And lastly, but no less importantly, one gets to know the most recent and ongoing results in one’s field, which is pretty exciting!

Try to get to know new people, don’t just sit around with people you already know from back home. Tell people about your work and be excited about it because you own it! Listen carefully to people’s talks and poster presentations and write down not only the scientific facts you can learn from them, but also what you like and don’t like about their way of presenting research, to get to find your own style and what works for you. Ask questions, because questions are never silly and everyone understands that as a student you don’t know everything (and you shouldn’t!). And, of course… have fun!

Read more about Eva’s research here.


Xianwei Che

PhD student, Monash University, Australia

#pain #neuroscience #relationships

Xianwei will present a poster at the Australian and New Zealand Pain Society Conjoint Annual Scientific Meeting in Sydney, Australia in April 2018.

How would you introduce your research to a non-expert? As human beings, we all enjoy having families and friends around. Social support from our significant others can help us get through lots of painful moments. My PhD topic is to examine how our brain and body react to social connection when we are in pain.

“Researchers have started to think about the role of significant others in pain management therapies.”

What can your field of research contribute to the world? Numerous clinical studies have shown that having supportive relationships can help chronic pain patients better recover from their condition. Therefore, researchers have started to think about the role of significant others in pain management therapies. Evidence from our research would provide guidance for future pain management trials.

Why are you a scientist? We have a mission to understand the human brain. The more we know about it, the chance is higher to translate this knowledge to better health outcomes.

“With high resolution brain recordings, we will be able to reveal how two brains ‘connect’ in tough, painful situations.”

What advances in your field are you most excited about? I am most excited about the dynamic interactions between the help-provider (significant other) and the receiver (person in pain). With high resolution brain recordings, we will be able to reveal how the two brains ‘connect’ in tough, painful situations.

“It is also critical to inspire your own research by seeing the cutting-edge research taking place in your field and beyond.”

What advice would you give to younger students regarding attending a conference? It is always fun to share your work in conferences. You can talk with other researchers from different parts of the world. It is also critical to inspire your own research by seeing the cutting-edge research taking place in your field and beyond. Sometimes many of the researchers at a conference will work in or near your own research field. One of them may be the inspiration of your future study. So put in some thinking next time.

Read more about Xianwei’s research here.


The above applicants are finalists in Sparrho’s Early Career Researcher Prize that awards £500 to early career scientists who are presenting their work at an academic conference. To apply, follow this link to the 5-minute application form and use the Sparrho platform to share your research. Applications close at the end of each month and are reviewed on a rolling basis.

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