Episode 21 of the Tuesday Feature is with Olly Freeman who is beginning on his Post-PhD research here at the University of Manchester. Without further adieu, find out what he’s up to and how he got to this point!
Please explain your research for the layman in ten sentences or less.
I look at energy generation in the brain and the nervous system. Now, the brain is really electrically active and this needs lots and lots of energy to keep it going. There are these cells called glia, which wrap around the neurons, the nerve cells in the brain, and these were classically thought to be like insulation on a wire to insulate the signal. That is the case, but actually what we think now is that they may play a more direct role in energy generation – generate some energy themselves and pass that to the nerve cell. So, this is the research I’m looking into at the moment.
How might your research benefit the person reading this blog?
I look at fundamental mechanisms, fundamental cellular mechanisms at the basic level but what we hope is that these will be able to be translated through to the clinic. There are many neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s which have all seen deficits in energy production in how these nerve cells communicate because they lack the right energy. So what I hope, and it’s paramount to say that this is a long way in the future, that the basic research that we’re doing at the moment could in some future time help patients.
How did you first become interested in Energy Generation?
It’s stemmed from my PhD research really. So, my PhD was looking at a condition called diabetic neuropathy which is a very common condition but it’s not very well known. It’s where patients with diabetes commonly get pain right down in the hands and feet and what we don’t really understand is why you’ve got a whole blood sugar all over the body but painful symptoms right down in the distal areas. So what we found, or what we think we found, is that actually it could be the energy generation could be different at one end of the nerve to the other. So the nerve at the bottom has a problem making its energy while the one at the top is fine. So what I’m now trying to do is look at the fundamental mechanisms behind how energy is maintained in different parts of the nervous system. The role of the glia in energy generation of the nerve seems to be a really important feature.
Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?
So I guess towards the top of the list has to be a guy called Eric Kandel. He won the Nobel Prize in the year 2000 for his pioneering work on learning and memory. What I like about Kandel so much is that actually he wanted to study these big phenomena – learning and memory, but what he wasn’t afraid to do was take it down to a really basic level. And what he did was take a sea slug, aplysia, which is a ridiculous little animal. But he used this against most of his colleagues who were telling him ‘no – you’ve got to study this in the brain of mammals’. He used this little sea slug to study actual cellular mechanisms of learning and memory and he managed to outline this cellular process, which has now been shown in higher organisms in mammals and humans to actually be a fundamental mechanism of learning and memory. I think he’s a fantastic example of just going with your gut and studying what you want to study and it can go really great.
How has working in Manchester helped you?
One of the best things about Manchester is that there is a real can do attitude about Manchester. If you want to do something, you can find people who are willing to support you doing that and just give it a go. It may be a ridiculous idea but people around will support you in chasing that and trying to do what you want to do. There is fantastic expertise in loads of different areas, which will support you to do that.
What do you do outside of work?
One of my great passions is football. I love playing football, I love watching football. Also love to travel which being a scientist is fantastic, you get to go away a lot with work and that really helps to wind down.