Job title/role in FutureNeuro
Principal Investigator and Professor of Neurology, Trinity College
Tell us a little about your background and what led you to a career in science and research?
I studied Medicine at University College Dublin. Half way through my undergraduate course I was awarded a scholarship to pursue an additional degree in Human Physiology. That year, during which we had to design and conduct a research project, was how my interest in clinical research started. I was originally scheduled to work on frogs, but I talked my supervisor into letting me work on humans instead, and I looked at the effects of stress (mental arithmetic) on the blood flow in the forearm. I recruited some of my classmates and made them stressed–( some of them still talk to me!.)
When I returned to finish my medical studies, I knew that my “dream job” would be as a clinician scientist, where I would spend part of my time being a doctor, and that my research would be built around the scientific questions posed by the groups patients that I would look after. I was torn between whether I should train in Neurology or Psychiatry. I eventually decided on Neurology. I trained for 2 years in Dublin in Neurology and Neuropathology in the old Richmond Hospital. As there was no formal training available in Neurology in Ireland in the 1980s I did my Residency and Fellowship training in Neurology at Harvard, where research was fully embedded into the programme. I had a choice to work with mice or with human tissue, and I chose the human work. Following my training I was awarded a Newman Scholarship and returned to my Alma Mater (UCD). I worked for 5 years doing research in muscle cell biology of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, and lecturing in Physiology. There was very little opportunity to do any clinical work ,so not yet my “dream job”.
In 1996 I was appointed as a Consultant Neurologist in Beaumont (the 11th in the country!). I spent 10 years as a busy clinician, seeing over 100 patients each week, and participating in a 1:3 on call rota. My research career was confined to evenings and weekends, but I gained enormous experience as a clinician. I set up a Register for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (also known as Motor Neurone Disease) during that time. This Register is now recognized as the longest running and most complete Register for ALS in the world. I also set up the Neurological Alliance of Ireland (NAI), which is now one of the most successful advocacy groups in the country.
In 2007 I received a HRB Clinician Scientist Award, which allowed me to spend 50% of my time as a researcher, and 50% as a clinician, and in 2013 I was appointed as the first Professor of Neurology in Trinity College.
I am now where I had always hoped to be in my career (my “dream job”) . I lead a team of 30 researchers , focused on different aspects of ALS and divided into 7 thematic areas. Our collective aim is to improve the outcome of people with ALS, by further understand disease variability in terms of genetics, clinical presentation and outcome, by finding new and better treatments, by enhancing our outcome measures, working on clinical trials, and by improving the patient journey from diagnosis to end of life.
What does a typical day look like for you?
My days are very varied. I work in Beaumont Hospital 2 days each week, one of which is devoted to our large National Multidisciplinary clinic for ALS and related disorders. This is a mammoth clinic lasting 8-10 hours, where we see over 80% of all Irish people with ALS/MND.
The remaining days are devoted to research and administration, which includes mentoring and supervising our Post Doctoral and graduate student researchers respectively, managing the administrative parts of our large research team, grant writing and reviewing, and data analysis from our various research projects. I am also Academic Director of the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute, and I spend at least 1 day each week working on management issues within the Institute.
Evenings and weekends are usually a struggle between work and family time. I edit a Journal and this usually happens on a Sunday afternoon.
I am PI on a Consortium that is studying ALS in Latin America, and am PI on a number of trials, so I have a busy travel schedule. Also as a senior researcher within European ALS, and Deputy Chair of our European Consortium, I also have quite a lot of travel to Consortium meetings , grant review panels and other advisory panels.
What do you find most challenging about your job?
Keeping everything on track, while also trying to have a work life balance. My 4 children are all grown up now, but that doesn’t mean that one stops being a parent. And we have our final Leaving Certificate this year.
What has been the highlight of your career to date?
Managing to find my “dream job” when there were very few sign posts along the way.
Tell me about someone who has influenced your decision to pursue your career?
The people that I have met along the way who have lived with ALS. Each clinical encounter teaches us something new.
What would you tell someone who is thinking about pursuing a career in STEM?
Go for it! We need people who are mathematically and scientifically literate. Biomedical science going to be a really exciting field in the coming years- and people who can understand and analyse “big data” will be in great demand.
What impact do you hope your role in FutureNeuro will have over the next five years?
Building a large multidisciplinary research programme that benefits people in Ireland with neurological illness. I think that the clinical domain of research is underdeveloped but has great potential in Ireland. We have an enormous bank of talent but sadly we still lose many of our best and brightest to other larger and better funded countries. My aim for ALS to get the correct treatment to the correct patient at the correct time and in the correct dose to make a difference in the progression of the disease.
What might someone be surprised to know about you?
I would have been a historian if I hadn’t studied medicine. Maybe when retire... And I am very fond of dark chocolate.
What do you do in your spare time?
Mostly reading (history, politics and current affairs), listening to early polyphonic choral music and travelling. Staying in touch with my family (there are lots of us and we are close) and my non-scientific friends. I play some musical instruments but I should practice more, and have been learning Spanish to facilitate my collaboration with colleagues in South America, but I need to work harder at this.