After only seven episodes we’ve already seen an exciting array of research being carried about by Faculty members. From air pollution to immunology to Alzheimer’s, it’s fascinating to see the things were affecting.
This week, we speak to movement researcher Dr Emma Gowen. Taking a trip to her lab, it was interesting to see the experiments her team carries out. With tin cans full of beans and door handles stuck to the wall testing people’s motor skills, it was refreshing to see that great work can still be done without expensive equipment. Emma is co-director of the Body Eyes and Movement (BEAM) lab and also recently set up the exciting Autism@Manchester project. You should check them both out. She’s also faced some challenging personal circumstances, which make her achievements all the more impressive. More about that in the interview below:
Could you please describe your research, for the layman, in ten sentences or less?
I study how we make and control, or how our brains make and control, movements and actions in response to objects or people that we might see in the environment. This is actually quite important for survival. If you think about crossing the road, you’ve got to make the appropriate movements with your head to look at the cars moving. Then you’ve got to coordinate your body to get you across that road. Another example is in a social situation – if you’re interacting socially you might find that it’s useful to imitate somebody to try and increase the social rapport and liking of that person for you. But on the other hand, if you imitate them too much, that could annoy them. So you have to get the balance right. So this seems quite simple to most of us – how we move our bodies and control our actions. But the complexity of these actions and how we produce them really comes across when people have certain conditions. If you think about if you have a stroke, or people with Parkinson’s disease or autistic people, it really becomes more obvious how complex it is for our brains to control our movements.
How can your research benefit the people reading this blog?
In the last few years my research has turned more towards real world problems. I can give you one example. Most people when they hear about autism will know about the social interaction problems that autistic people have, but fewer people, including those in the research community, are looking at the motor problems that autistic people face as well. These can come across as problems with balance, difficulties with hand-eye coordination, and general clumsiness.
Even though these movement problems are very important, there are very few therapies at the moment. So at the moment I am trying to develop a motor therapy for autistic children. This involves combining my work on motor control in imitation with the Xbox Kinect. This is a new area for me – it’s involving a games company, a software company, occupational therapists, parents, and teachers. So quite an exciting project – very early days, but what we’d hope is that, if we can find some evidence that this motor therapy can help the motor skills of children with autism, they could then use this to help improve their motor coordination.
Can we ask how you first got interested in your research area?
I started off with eye movements. That was during my PhD. Then when I did my post-doc at Birmingham I broadened out into more general motor control, so eye-hand coordination for instance. It was also at Birmingham that I started my research on autism. I think autism is a really quite challenging but rewarding area to work on. Autistic people have many different aspects that affect them so they’ll have sensory perception problems, they’ll have the motor problems, they’ll have the social cognition problem. So you as the researcher really need to have a broad understanding of all these different disciplines. The other element is that my research really involves working with people. So rather than being in a wet lab, I actually invite people into a lab and we ask them to do a few simple things such as imitating some videos of movements. I enjoy working with people and I also enjoy understanding the autistic perspective of the world as well. It can be a quite refreshing view of the world and I sometimes think more people should actually try and understand what the world feels and looks like for an autistic person.
Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?
I’m going to slightly side-step that and say more about the volunteers and the general public. Over the years there have been many volunteers who have contributed to research. Healthy volunteers, but also those who’ve got disabilities or various conditions. Without their help we would know far less about the brain than we do now. It’s often that they come and help and they know that it won’t immediately benefit them, but it’s for the next generation. So that maybe we can develop more understanding of the brain which could lead to improvements in medical conditions.
Could you tell us a little bit about your interests outside of science?
I tend to like being outdoors. I like walking and wildlife watching, so I often go walking in the Peak District or the local area with a pair of binoculars. Also, I quite like gardening as well. But that can play havoc with holidays during the gardening season, when I can’t go on holiday because I’ve got all my veg growing!
How has working here in Manchester benefited your career?
We’ve definitely got some very nice facilities here and I’ve got a very nice lab. It has air conditioning, which is fantastic when you’re doing experiments with people! Also, I have Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and the Disability Support Office here has been very good. They’ve helped me access particular support that I need. For example, my MS tends to affect me in terms of fatigue – I can get cognitively and physically fatigued. I have to be really careful about how much I do in one day. The Disability Support Office helped me to identify a government service that allows me to get taxis to and from work a few days a week, which really helps. Before, it was always train and walking. That really impacted my fatigue levels.
So how has MS impacted your career in general?
I suppose having the MS and trying to be an academic at the same time can be quite challenging. As you’re probably aware, academics tend to work quite hard. Before MS I used to work weekends and evenings as well – and now I have to really make sure that this is confined to the week so that I don’t have a relapse and increase my symptoms.
In some ways in can be like having small children I suppose, except the MS won’t go away or grow up at the end of it. But a more positive aspect of having MS, I think, is that it’s given me balance and perspective. I think all of us could benefit from sometimes standing back for a while from a problem, such as a science problem that you’re trying to work out. Stand back from it and have a think and just have a bit more of a balanced lifestyle and you can often work through those questions and work out which ones are the most important – which ones you need to be spending your time on.
Well, what a nice inspiring thought to end this Tuesday Feature on. We definitely agree with Emma and it’s great to hear she’s overcome her own struggles to forge a great career. Thanks for chatting to us, Emma. We’ll be with Ben Stutchbury next week. Ben’s a PhD student who has a pretty inspiring story to tell himself. See you next week. Interview by Fran Slater. Photos and videos courtesy of Matthew Spencer