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An Interview with Professor Susan Brain

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Published: 24 Mar 2021
By Aisah Aubdool, Susan Brain

Pharmacology Matters editor, Dr Aisah Aubdool, interviews Professor Susan Brain about her academic career, her achievements in the field of pharmacology, and her advice for early career researchers.

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Hello Professor Susan Brain, and welcome to Pharmacologist in Phrame!

What is your background and career pathway to date?

I graduated in Pharmacology and did my PhD in this area. I have spent my entire career working in London, which is uncommon for a scientist today. I joined King’s as a Lecturer in Pharmacology and am now a Professor of Pharmacology there.

Why did you decide to pursue an academic career?

I am not sure that I officially decided to pursue an academic career, as I have also always enjoyed my interactions with industry. However, I have enjoyed academia from the time I obtained my post as a Lecturer.

What would be your advice for accessing independent funding for future generations of scientists, especially with currently reduced funding associated with COVID-19?

Without doubt, this is a tough time. The difficult thing is that everyone is making new rules to fit with the situation that we all find ourselves in. I think the most important criteria is to keep a flexible approach going forwards. Opportunities for funding are still out there and you need a plan which includes strategic applications. Importantly, as we are in an era of great change for the foreseeable future, it is important to maintain networking as much as possible (for example via social media and listening to webinars and virtual meetings). Hopefully, that will help you to make decisions utilising the best information available.

How did you choose your PhD project and what did you enjoy the most during your PhD?

I did an extramural year during my BSc. I was asked back to do a PhD in the same department (but a different group) and did not look much further. My PhD was a difficult time, as I could not repeat the results of a previous researcher’s earlier study. As this formed the basis of my study, I could not progress. However, after moving to a complementary project, I was able to progress (year 3) and gained my PhD. The positives were that I learnt a huge amount about resilience and perseverance, which I believe has helped me hugely since. Also, there were some great projects going on in the department at the time, so my general exposure into research there inspired me.

How did you feel when your research Calcitonin gene-related peptide is a potent vasodilator was accepted in Nature?

This was very exciting, especially knowing that this was a new research direction. CGRP had only been discovered a short time before and it was amazing to suddenly see an explosion of research in this area. I was lucky to work on this project and it soon took over my research interests, almost completely.

Have you always enjoyed working on sensory neurons?

Yes, I still find sensory nerve biology very exciting and our lack of understanding of their integrative mechanisms is the area of interest that continues to drive me. There is so much potential for developing better drugs but first, we need to better understand the mechanisms.

What advice would you give someone interested in developing a career in your area of work?

This is a difficult question to answer. Potentially the most important thing is to know when to move on and not to get hung up on something that you cannot get clear results on. I have learnt that usually a later time will come when you can go back to it with a new technique and make that step change in knowledge which may have eluded you before.

What advice would you give to supervisors?

Supervision is always difficult, and my experience is that you have to adapt to each person, to ensure you achieve the best supervisor-student partnership.

What does your typical work week look like? How has this changed with COVID-19?

I like to start work promptly and do innovative studies or writing in the morning and then hold meetings in the afternoon. I have tried to do this during the pandemic when working from home. It is difficult though because Teams/Zoom meetings can take over and whilst these technical innovations will stay with us, they can be very tiring.

How do you think pharmacology teaching will change in the next year at your current university? What are your views on the transition to online and/or remote teaching and the ability of students to have access to laboratory-based placements?

This is the big question, ‘can we deliver innovative courses that are just as interesting to the students through a blended curriculum (which I believe will be mainly online)?’. We all have our own ideas of how to do it and some of us have teaching styles which are part-way there anyway. I think the characters of the teachers will still be important.
 
The laboratory aspects worry me most, as lab experience is important for someone to decide whether they want to work in a research environment. This experience will hopefully still be obtained in the future, but we have had to think of ways to teach techniques when socially distancing. I am very lucky in that I have some videos of myself teaching practical lessons. However, I am still trying to work out how to get the students into the lab safely, with social distancing.

What are the current opportunities and challenges for women in science?

I like to think that the gender balance has improved and certainly it has for the middle grades of academia. I am not so sure the inequalities exist in the same way in industry. There is still work to do though without doubt. Sadly COVID-19 has shown how deeper inequalities remain, in that there is evidence that women submitted less manuscripts and grant applications compared with men during lockdown. 

Which outreach activities do you engage in?

I particularly like mentoring young people in their careers. I often give talks on life in academia and on careers and have done this both at King’s and externally, including at conferences organised by the Royal Society of Biology. Just before lockdown, I attended an alumni event for my university where early career researchers spent 10 minutes talking to people about their CVs. I was one of the few scientists there and by the end of the evening, I had lost my voice. I was completely amazed at how each of the people approaching me (and they arrived non-stop) really did need help. Often, their CVs did not include important skills and responsibilities (such as managing businesses), as they thought this would be perceived as a negative if they wanted to be seen as a serious scientist.

What do you enjoy doing outside work?

Outside of work, I enjoy the outdoors. Walking has been wonderful during lockdown and I am always happy when I am working in my garden.

What are on your thoughts on mentorship?

Looking back, I realise now I did have mentors, but I hail from an era where the word was rarely used. I cannot remember any of my peers having independent mentors or being part of mentoring organisations, however, I looked up to Priscilla Piper, who was involved in my PhD supervision and the first senior female international scientist that I knew. She was involved in the discovery of leukotrienes and worked so hard. As my career developed, I worked with a series of senior scientists and learnt from all of them. I was a postdoc with Tim Williams for several years and through him I learnt much about ensuring that my research was innovative and high quality.

What has been your biggest achievement in your career so far?

I think of each of the major publications and grants as being huge achievements. On a personal level, I have won several prizes and I feel very honoured to have received these. I am also very humbled that I have been made an Honorary Fellow of the BPS.

What are your top tips for networking?

Just make sure you make the most of the invitations you receive. It does not matter what mode of networking it is, but you have to be involved somehow and get a different dimension from your local lab life.

Rapid round 

Favourite film? Local Heroes
Favourite scientist? There have been so many over the years, it would be unfair to single one out.
Sweet or savoury? Savoury
Tea or coffee? Tea
Night in or night out? In
In vitro or in vivo In vivo
UK or abroad? UK

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Published: 24 Mar 2021
By Aisah Aubdool, Susan Brain

About the author

Aisah Aubdool 


Aisah graduated with a BSc (Hons) in Pharmacology before gaining her PhD in 2014 from King’s College London, under the mentorship of Professor Susan D Brain. Aisah moved to William Harvey Research Institute in 2016 as a postdoctoral research fellow in the lab of Professor Adrian Hobbs. Aisah’s research focuses on studying the role of C-type natriuretic peptide in vascular remodelling and aortic aneurysms.

Aisah joined the British Pharmacological Society in 2010 and is currently the regional Ambassador coordinator for London. She is also the Vice Chair of the IUPHAR Young Investigator Committee, as well as a member of the Pharmacology Matters Editorial Board and the Public Engagement and Policy Committee at the British Pharmacological Society.
 

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