I’ve finally decided to take the plunge and start a blog. I have no idea what will be in it, and no idea who (if anyone) will ever read it, but there has been a lot of discussion in the blogoshpere recently (e.g., here) about women scientists really ought to blog more (because they have so much, you know, free time) so I thought what the heck, it’s now or never.
Not really knowing where to begin, I thought I would start with a little bit about who I am. My name is Kate Jeffery and at this particular point in time I am a professor at UCL and my field of study is behavioural neuroscience – how the brain creates thought, basically. I have a behavioural physiology lab in which we study the action of neurons as animals learn about space, and we’re trying to figure out how the raw sensory mishmash of signals that comes in through the eyes, ears, nose etc is turned into what is effectively a “map” of space in the brain. I am also head of the department within which my lab is situated. It’s called CPB which is short for “Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Sciences” but since nobody, including me, can ever remember this we just call it CPB. This is to distinguish it from CDB – Cell and Developmental Biology – which is a quite different department in UCL. UCL has some nomenclature issues sometimes. Indeed the name of the whole institution – University College London (no “of” in there anywhere, note) – could do with a re-think, but that’s for another time.
Sometimes I am briefly amazed at where I am now because in my head I am still a 25 year old wondering what to do with her life and how to get to where she wants (wanted) to be, which was to be a scientist. Back when I was 25, that seemed almost impossible. Armed with a medical degree, which I had earned in my home country of New Zealand, I had come to London to find myself, as many young New Zealanders do (we call it “OE” – Overseas Experience – and it’s a rite of passage for young kiwis) and had found myself working in a variety of hospitals in London, which was a particularly grim experience back in the days before the working time directive. The long weekends where you checked in at 8 am on Friday and didn’t come out again until 5 pm on Monday, potentially with little sleep in between, are etched into my soul, and doubtless contributed to my certainty that whatever I wanted to be, it definitely wasn’t a doctor. In any case, I had always wanted to be a scientist – medicine was just a detour I took because I thought (probably sensibly) that being a scientist in tiny little New Zealand was not going to earn me a proper crust, or possibly any crust. Medicine seemed like a handy fall-back position.
During that year in London I read a lot and thought a lot and became increasingly certain that I wanted to study the brain. I had been very influenced by Douglas Hofstadter’s masterpiece Godel Escher Bach, which I had read the previous summer while hitchhiking round NZ’s South Island with my flatmate. This book is about meaning, essentially, and I decided that the question of how neurons encode meaning was the most interesting scientific question of the time (I still believe this). However, the path from being a sleep-deprived house officer on the AIDS ward in St Stephen’s Hospital to being a brain scientist was not a straightforward one. I didn’t have any idea how to go about it, and it turned out to be a circuitous route, back to NZ to study for a master’s with Cliff Abraham where I learned about synapses and their capacity to change their strength, then to Edinburgh with Richard Morris where I learned how these new connections might support memory, and finally to London. Here, I found myself in the lab of John O’Keefe, the discoverer of place cells, which are possibly the first neurons to be found in the brain that encode “meaning” as you and I understand it. This was where I wanted to be, and place cells were what I wanted to study, and here I still am and there they still are.
It was not entirely coincidental that I ended up in O’Keefe’s lab. During my year in London I had gone to visit him, on the advice of Cliff Abraham. God knows what he thought of me, fronting up with my spiky hair, dyed orange from a henna experiment gone wrong (not the first of many failed experiments) and Doc Martens. I turned up in his office nervous, being completely awed by the grandeur of UCL and the musty corridors of the old Anatomy Department, and with nothing really to say other than “I want to find out how the brain works”. I didn’t know anything about place cells but something about me must have convinced him I was keen to learn, because he offered me a postdoc several years later and that’s how I came to UCL.
That’s about it really. My nervous young punkette self would be pretty amazed to see that I have become head of a department within that same scary hallowed institution – it just goes to show that stuff can happen, if you are dogged and determined enough. Along the way I also met my husband and had three children, so it has been a busy 25 years. My Nobel prize still eludes me, sadly, but I figure I have maybe another 25 years (I’m generally an optimist) to sort that out. I still think the brain is the most amazing thing in the universe and it is a real privilege and honour to able to study it. As Niels Bohr almost said, “A neuroscientist is a neuron’s way of looking at itself”. I hope to keep looking for a while yet.