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Scientist Focus: Andy Randall

Dr Laura PhippsKirsty MaraisClaire LucasRobin BrisbourneKaty StubbsEd PinchesGlyn Morris

While visiting the South West Research Network Centre, I took the chance to chat to Prof Andy Randall, Grant Review Board member, in his lab at the University of Exeter. Prof Randall is interested in how nerve cells talk to each other and how that changes in dementia.

Have you always worked in dementia research?

No! Since my final year project as an undergraduate I’ve been a neurophysiologist – so I’ve been interested in the fundamental biology of how nerves cells talk to each other for almost 30 years. Both my PhD project at the University of Bristol and post-doctoral project in the United States focussed on understanding how nerve cells work in the healthy brain. Fundamental brain research was also the focus of much of my efforts when I set up my first academic group in Cambridge in the mid-90s. It was only when I started working in the pharmaceutical industry that I began to apply my expertise to disease biology more directly. This included working on multiple dementia research projects, which forged my interest in this huge area of unmet medical need.

After over seven years in the pharmaceutical industry, I decided I wanted to return to academic research. With the help of new collaborators in the pharmaceutical sector I set up a new lab at the University of Bristol. This combined research into basic brain mechanisms and abnormal nerve cell communication in disease. Since 2013, most of my work is carried out in the new University of Exeter Medical School where I am a professor, but I also have a post in Bristol where some aspects of my research remain. Our largest focus is dementia research but I retain interests in other disease areas including pain and epilepsy – all of these share a common theme of altered electrical signalling between nerve cells.

Could you explain your research interests in a nutshell?

As a neurophysiologist, I study the electrical signalling that is absolutely fundamental to how the nervous system functions. We spend most of our effort trying to understand how and why such electrical signalling is disturbed in diseases like Alzheimer’s.

What areas of dementia research look particularly promising right now?

Stem cell research is fascinating and holds a lot of promise for the future. But while this area of research holds remarkable potential, there are still some substantial challenges we have to tackle that we need to make sure to focus on. More research is necessary to make sure we can fully realise the potential that these technologies can deliver.

What advice would you give to someone at the start of their academic career?

Follow something you find fascinating. Never forget you’re in a lab to learn – talk to people, ask questions and don’t be afraid to say you don’t understand. I’ve supervised 30 PhD students and I love training the next generation of researchers. It’s also important to remember there will always be bad times in research, so work out how to leave those behind, whether it be yoga, mountain biking or a modest intake of a good claret!

Beachnboard-400What is your favourite bit about being a scientist?

I get to see (and sometimes understand) things no one has seen or understood before. Even after 30 years of being a neurophysiologist, I’m still fascinated that I can look at a computer screen and see the brain working in real time before my eyes. It’s hypnotic!

What’s it like being on the Grant Review Board?

I’ve been on the GRB now for over five years and it’s been great to see both the number of applications and the funds we have to assign grow. But it’s also bitter sweet – we can’t fund everything and some very good projects slip below the funding line (including my own!). I’m from a working class family and growing up learned the value of money and how to make it go far; this means I’m always keen to make sure valuable charity money is used wisely.

What do you do in your spare time?

[Andy points to tennis racket poking out of his bag] Tennis and dinghy sailing. Also I like to cook. I make lots of handmade bread.

What one thing couldn’t you live without?

An interesting question, I think the recuperation I get from holidays is very important. However, I am not by nature a beach/poolside sitter; consequently holidays tend to involve active days followed by pleasantly tired-out evenings – this combination is especially good as it stops my mind slipping back to thoughts of grant deadlines and unfinished papers. This summer I will be surfing in Portugal, and next year’s annual winter alpine pilgrimage was booked soon after returning from the slopes this year.

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