Abi Herrmann is a postdoctoral researcher and neuroscientist at the University of Edinburgh.
What is your project about?
My work focuses on synapses – the connections between nerve cells that are central to memory formation and forgetting. These connections are lost in Alzheimer’s and we know that the extent of their loss in the brain correlates really well with the memory and thinking difficulties experienced by people living with the disease. Two proteins heavily implicated in Alzheimer’s disease, amyloid and tau, are both found at synapses. I hope to work out whether these two proteins act together to drive synapse loss, and then determine which forms of these proteins we should be targeting in order to rescue synapses and hopefully improve symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
Why did you decide to be a dementia researcher?
I studied Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh, and was always fascinated by how the brain works, and also by how it goes wrong in disease. After university I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, so I went away travelling. But after a few months to clear my head, I realised that I missed the challenges of academia, so came home and looked for neuroscience PhD positions. One particular dementia project jumped out at me, focusing on how blood flow to the brain decreases as we age and how this might drive Alzheimer’s disease. I applied and was lucky enough to get it! I loved my PhD, and was hooked on the importance and intricacies of dementia research, so haven’t looked back from then.
Have you always wanted to be a scientist?
When I was a kid my “When I grow up I am going to be a…” statements changed as quickly as the weather. Librarian was up there for a while (I loved the quiet and calm of my local library), horse riding teacher (the reality was I actually wanted to be a horse but I knew that was silly…!) and for a while Doctor was top of the pile. When it came to university applications, I realised that I probably don’t have the stomach to be a medical doctor, so decided instead to build on my love of biology at school and opt for Neuroscience, luckily I loved it.
What’s the best thing about being a scientist?
Good question. I think for me it is the variety of my days that I love; no two are ever the quite the same. One day I am running my own experiments in the lab, the next I am designing studies with the PhD students. Then there are data to analyse, papers to write, posters to make and conferences to attend.
What do you do in your free time?
I recently became involved in the newly-formed Women’s Equality Party, a political party set up in March this year by broadcaster Sandi Toksvig, and author Catherine Mayer. The core aims of the party are for equal representation for women in politics and in the boardroom, equal pay, equal parenting rights, equality of and through education, equal treatment in the media and an end to violence against women. Gender imbalance in academic research is also a big issue that needs to be addressed.
Realising the importance of these aims and keen to get involved, I contacted the central group and was encouraged to set up an Edinburgh branch, which I did! I was amazed by the wealth of enthusiasm and support the people of Edinburgh and beyond had for this new political party, and offers to help and requests for more info came flooding in.
It’s early days yet, but I can’t wait to see where this all leads…!
What one thing couldn’t you live without?
Sad but true; on a practical level I’d struggle without my iPhone and charger. Most importantly though is the support of my family who have always encouraged me to do what makes me happy, and I am very happy.