Senior Research Fellow
Department of Psychiatry
Tell us a bit about your role
The focus of my research is on improving treatment approaches for psychiatric disorders such as depression and anxiety. These disorders are extremely common and whilst we have some effective treatments (both psychological and pharmacological), there are many people whose symptoms are not well managed by current approaches. However, developing new treatments is extremely challenging – most of the antidepressants that we currently use are based on serendipitous discoveries in the 1950s and there has been limited progress in new treatment development since.
One of the challenges of developing new treatments in this area is that it is difficult to adequately model these disorders in animals and this makes it difficult to characterise the likely effects of potential new treatments early in development. As an alternative, my research uses experimental models in humans to test novel treatment targets. By using neurocognitive tasks and paradigms, we can model psychological processes that are relevant to depression and anxiety and use these to test the effects of potential treatments. I work in collaboration with the pharmaceutical industry to implement this experimental medicine approach and facilitate the decisions that are made in treatment development by giving an early ‘read out’ of the likely clinical profile of a new treatment.
My interest in this area was originally sparked by my ‘gap year’ before starting my undergraduate degree, which I spent working in a homeless hostel in London. Many of the homeless men who lived in the hostel suffered from mental illness. In particular, I worked closely with a man who had schizophrenia and I saw first-hand the devastating impact his illness had on his life and his family. This experience had a profound effect on me and stimulated a lifelong interest in the brain basis of mental illness. At this point, I already had a place at St Andrews University to study Economics and on my first day I made a desperate plea to be allowed to change to Psychology. I was delighted that they agreed, and this was the beginning of a very rewarding career studying psychiatric illness. Following my Psychology degree, I went on to do an MSc and DPhil in Neuroscience at Oxford University - and have stayed here ever since.
What is the most meaningful aspect of your work?
I really enjoy mentoring researchers early in their careers. I have benefitted enormously from the generous support and guidance of many colleagues over the years, and it is a privilege to have the opportunity to emulate the support that I was given in my early career. Each person has, I believe, a unique set of skills and interests – and I love the process of discovering what makes a young scientists ‘tick’ and how they can capitalise on this as they launch their careers.
Can you tell us about something you've done, contributed to that you're most proud of?
I have recently completed a project that was commissioned by the Wellcome Trust to review the existing evidence about the effects of antidepressants in young people. As part of this project, we held a series of workshops with young people with lived experience of depression to hear about their experiences of antidepressants. This project revealed a fundamental gap in our understanding about the effects of antidepressants in young people and raised many important questions about the potential risks and benefits of antidepressants that have not yet been adequately addressed by research in this age group. I am proud of the outputs from this project, which highlight the important questions raised by the young people we spoke to and the pressing need for more research in this important area.
What changes would you most like to see in the Medical Sciences in the next 100 years?
I am fortunate to have benefitted from the many structural and cultural changes that have been made to the University to reduce the barriers that are faced by those juggling an academic career with caring responsibilities – and I have valued the opportunity to continue this important work through my leadership of the Psychiatry Department Athena SWAN process. However, there is still a long way to go before the University is the equal, diverse and inclusive space that it needs to be in order to fully benefit from the talents of under-represented groups. I sincerely hope it doesn’t take another 100 years before universal access to the many fantastic opportunities that our University offers is achieved.