Cristiana Vagnoni (2015-2020)
Project: Characterisation of VIP+ interneurons in the mouse whisker barrel cortex during development
Supervisors: Prof Simon Butt and Prof Zoltán Molnár
After a BSc in Biotechnology from the University of Turin, I graduated from the same institution in 2014 with an MSc in Molecular Biotechnology. My thesis, supervised by Prof. Ferdinando Di Cunto, focused on the molecular mechanisms underlying microcephaly using in vitro systems. During my studies, I was awarded a Giovanni Armenise Harvard Summer fellowship, which gave me the opportunity to visit the lab of Prof. Christopher Walsh (Boston Children's Hospital, Harvard Medical School) and study in vivo models of microcephaly. These experiences deepened my interest in neuroscience and brought me to Oxford, where I was awarded a Clarendon Fund and Christ Church Joint Award in conjunction with the Medical Research Council and a Schorstein Research Fellowship to study for the MSc in Neuroscience followed by the DPhil in Neuroscience. During my MSc, I worked on dopamine dynamics with Dr Mark Walton and Dr Elizabeth Tunbridge and on the characterization of circuit development in a mouse model of autism with Prof. Simon Butt.
My DPhil focused on the characterisation of a specific neuronal population (the vasointestinal positive [VIP+] interneurons) in the mouse cortex during early postnatal development. In particular, I investigated how their local and long-range connectivity is established during the first two postnatal weeks, as well as their role in early sensory processing. This work combined developmental genetics, viral transduction approaches, optical circuit mapping methods as well as in vitro and in vivo electrophysiology.
Since the beginning of my academic path, I have always been fascinated by science outreach and worked in school workshops, museum events and science festivals across Italy. During my studies at Oxford, I nurtured my passion for public engagement with science by organising family-friendly activities for events such as Brain Awareness Week and Oxfordshire Science Festival. In parallel, I explored different media to engage with the public: I refined my storytelling skills at “Communicating your science”, a Genetics Society-funded workshop; I wrote for the Neuroscience blog Neurobabble; I co-won a SNAPSHOT Scientific Image Competition in Phenotype Magazine; and I co-won the Bristol Science Film Festival 2017 with the short science movie “Just a Touch”.
These experiences guided me as the chair of the Oxford branch of the British Science Association (BSA), where I led a team of volunteers and developed interdisciplinary public engagement initiatives, including expert-led pub talks and a microscopy art exhibit (“Through the looking glass”). To share my insights and promote science outreach, I was invited to speak at the DPAG Away Day 2017, the BSA Science Communication Masterclass 2017 and at the BSA Away Day 2017, where I helped communication officers and science communication enthusiasts to develop new events and engagement strategies, with a particular focus on volunteer management and use of social media.
To promote inclusivity and diversity in academia, I took part in Soapbox Art and Science Oxford 2017, where I collaborated with a local artist to create an art piece inspired by my research. I also interviewed women academics for the international podcast Stories of Women in Neuroscience and I co-chaired the Oxford International Women’s Day Wikipedia Edit-a-thon 2020.
In parallel, I developed a strong interest in using science to inform policymaking, which started with a Houses of Parliament training workshop for academic researchers, followed by a volunteering experience at a student-led global-health think-tank. Finally, thanks to the DTP-MRC supplementary funding, I had the opportunity to spend three months at the Academy of Medical Sciences as a science policy intern. There, I worked in policy areas across the British political landscape, including end of life and palliative care, medical technologies, clinical trial regulation, and global health policy. As part of my internship, I seconded at the Health Research Authority, where I shadowed the Director of Policy and observed a Research Ethics Committee; and at the MRC, where I observed the Neuroscience and Mental Health Board panel reviewing grant applications. My experience at the Academy taught me how to harness my scientific background together with my science communication skills to contribute to evidence-based policymaking, illuminating a new career path for me, where science can have a more direct impact on society.
I am extremely grateful for the endless opportunities I had during my DPhil in Oxford and I could not recommend this programme enough: it allowed me to perform cutting-edge research, leverage my passion for bridging science and the public, and get first-hand experience for my future career path in science policy.