In week one we caught up with long-standing Faculty professor, Matthew Cobb. Next, we went Stateside to have a chat with alumni Matt Paul. And now, in week three of the Tuesday Feature, it’s time to catch up with a relative newcomer.
Dr Jack Rivers-Auty has been with us for five months, but as you’ll see below he’s already getting into some fascinating research.
Jack studies Alzheimer’s Disease, which made him a perfect candidate for this week’s chat, right in the middle of Brain Awareness Week. We hope you enjoy it!
Could you please explain your research, for the layman, in ten sentences or less?
Alzheimer’s is a disease in which there’s a build-up of an unwanted protein that seems to be toxic to the cells and sets off a chain reaction in the brain that kills neurons. It seems to kill the neurons in the area of the brain associated with memory first and then goes on to kill things in the outer cortex. There seems to be many processes involved and one of the processes is inflammation.
When you roll your ankle it swells up and you tend to put ice on it to mend. This is because you want to reduce the amount of immune cells in there because they produce toxic compounds. We’re investigating whether the diet will affect the inflammatory response in Alzheimer’s disease in a similar way. What we think might happen, and this is just a hypothesis, is that people who are deficient in zinc will be shown to have an exaggerated inflammatory response which causes swelling and tissue damage in the Alzheimer’s brain. So we’re really testing whether having a healthy diet will slow the progression of Alzheimer’s.
How can your research benefit the people reading this blog?
Fingers crossed, and it’s always a long way away because I’m doing pre-clinical research and takes a long time to confirm that the research works in a clinical setting, but it could lead to dietary interventions into Alzheimer’s patients and slow the progression of the disease.
It’s really interesting actually, because older people have worse absorption of micronutrients so having a good diet is even more important as you get older. So the older an Alzheimer’s patient is, the more likely they are to be zinc deficient. The more likely they are to have a hyper-inflammatory response to their condition causing accelerated Alzheimer’s disease.
Can we ask how you first got interested in your area of research?
I guess it goes back to a long time ago. My general area of research is neuroinflammation and I really stumbled into it, which I think most scientists will tell you; they stumble into their research fields.
I did a degree in neuroscience and then I did an honours, which is kind of like a masters, in botany. Then I was looking for a PhD topic and there were several being advertised around the University of Otago, where I’m from in New Zealand. One of them was on the effects of cannabinoids, marijuana like substances, on stroke. This combined my degree and my honours.
Marijuana is anti-inflammatory, so we were seeing if marijuana-like substances could suppress the inflammation following stroke and prevent the swelling, just like the ice when you roll your ankle. What we found was that it did supress the inflammation, but then actually made things slightly worse.
So that was really what it was. I was interested in the combination of botany and neuroscience and that got me into the neuroinflammatory field. But I always want to be a scientist of some kind.
Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?
I have lots of science heroes. This is such a suck-up, but Nancy Rothwell is highly climbing up my science heroes list.
But other than that – oh, there are so many I want to talk about.
Ernest Rutherford – he’s a New Zealand physicist, so that’s why I like him. And he came here to Manchester to do his amazing research. He’s such a hero of mine.
In New Zealand we have this term for doing something on a budget and it’s called ‘number eight wire.’ Fencing wire is number eight wire – you can fix anything with it. It’s the cheap way of doing things. Ernest Rutherford is famous for being the ‘number eight wire scientist’. He was the guy who could just do anything on a budget, and he ended up with Nobel worthy science.
Another guy is Richard Feynman. He’s a physicist as well – damn physicists! But he is fantastic for being incredibly critical of science. He has beautiful commentary on how science shouldn’t get carried away and how there should be proper controls and how we should be really self-critical and self-reflecting. To really produce something meaningful you need to be rigorous and self-controlled, which is what he advocates.
But there’s so many, I could talk for hours.
Can you tell us a little bit about your interests outside of science?
I’d love to say cricket, especially at the moment with the English flying home from the World Cup and New Zealand top of the pool. And I have loads of other interests. I play rugby, I golf, I play cricket, and I surf. I like hiking and I like a lot of activities.
But the other thing, and this is one of the great things about my job, is that I go home and I’ll read a science book. I love science at all times. I’ve got science experiments sitting on top of my fridge right now.
One of my extra-curricular activities is science, which is completely geeky. But that’s one of the great things. I get to do what I love for a job as well as well as going home and doing it. And I write blogs about it. And I read about the latest science and the latest science books that are coming out.
How has working in Manchester helped you?
The first thing I noticed about coming to Manchester is the amount of opportunities that there are. We get emails on a daily basis about millions of things that you can do. You can go see Nobel laureates doing talks, which you could never see where I’m from in New Zealand.
You can do outreach programmes like this through blogs and the Minute Lecture series. I’m also going to schools. So there’s such an amazing encouragement to develop your skills and your outreach here at the University.
The other thing I noticed was that it’s such a team environment. It’s unbelievable. The whole building all gets together and every Friday we talk about the research we’re doing and we get positive feedback. I’ve really just found that amazing – how much of a hive of activity it is and how interested everyone is in other people’s research.
There’s a real team environment. It was an awesome environment to land in when I got here five months ago.
And that’s wraps it for this week. Jack has got us feeling extremely positive about the Faculty with that last answer, so we’re off to find our next interviewee!
Our thanks go to Jack – it’s great to see somebody so enthusiastic about what they do. Thanks for reading and please come back next Tuesday!
Interview by Fran Slater, Videos by Matthew Spencer, Images courtesy of Nicholas Odgen