Alison Diaper is at the forefront of the NHS, quietly but confidently working behind the scene to improve our scientific knowledge. She is studying a range of drugs including hypnotics, anxiety inhibitors, antidepressants and drugs that inhibit pain. She is also working to improve deep brain stimulation (DBS) therapies and systems.
In this interview with ScienceGrrl’s Jessica Simpson, Alison takes some time out to tell us a little more about DBS, its remarkable results, and with refreshing honesty, more about her job and who she nominated as her favourite female scientist on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
So Alison, what exactly is Deep Brain Stimulation?
Deep Brain Stimulation involves implanting electrodes (the neurosurgeon does that bit!) deep inside the brain at targeted areas, and it’s thought the stimulation, which you can program with the electrodes, serves to functionally turn off these brain areas. It’s most widely used for Parkinson’s disease. The company I work for, Bioinduction Ltd, is in the process of manufacturing and trialling a new DBS system in patients with Parkinson’s. However, for the NHS, I experiment with using DBS for other conditions such as pain, depression and hypertension.
How did you get into your line of work?
I started with an undergraduate degree in Psychology after A levels in Maths, Further Maths, Chemistry and Psychology. I always knew I wanted a career in science and I knew I wanted a doctorate, but didn’t think much further than that! I became interested in consciousness and applied to do a PhD in sleep research – sleep being the ultimate in altered consciousness! A strange state that we all seem to accept – but why would passing out and not remembering a large chunk of our day be normal and acceptable?! I really enjoyed the electrical work in electroencephalography (EEG) and after my doctorate went on to work with wake EEG. A large part of me regrets not studying Physics and I would still like to go back and maybe do a Maths related masters one day.
However, my PhD led me into drugs and clinical trials as I was investigating sleeping pills and antidepressants. This in turn led me to a post running clinical trials for Prof David Nutt in his Psychopharmacology Unit, looking at various prescription and illicit drugs and mental health. Here I met many talented biochemists, pharmacists, medics and psychologists and I miss the team very much. A crossover study of depression and DBS lead me back to my electrical roots, which is where I am now.
What has been a highlight in your career?
Obviously graduating with my degrees has been a highlight in my career, but the environment in which we work means that these qualifications are the norm, rather like completing a Health and Safety course in any job! It’s almost just the minimum requirement to join in with everyone else. I think this is why scientists are often misunderstood – no, not misunderstood – not understood at all! We tend to work in strange environments doing things that seem too detailed to be relevant to normal life. I know my family certainly don’t understand what I do all day, or what I’ve achieved. I think this lack of understanding contributes to the segregation of scientists, assuming we are odd or weirdly intelligent. This really isn’t the case! A PhD, for example, is a qualification of endurance and perseverance, not intellect.
Who did you nominate as your favourite female scientist for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science?
Ok, so this is going to sound a bit strange given the method of these nominations and the push to move science online and into the digital lives of the masses, so brace yourself. I nominated Prof Lingford-Hughes because of her quiet and solid achievements. I grow more and more disheartened by “media scientists”, blogging and touting their views as fact. In these modern times, the person who shouts the loudest is often the one most heard. And believed, and trusted. Like the number of Twitter followers is a mark of expertise. It is not. I look at all the evidence and see through that.
I worked with Prof Lingford-Hughes in Prof David Nutt’s group when it was in Bristol and I always admired her modesty and resolve. She’s worked hard for her position, often in spite of personal issues, and is now one of the leading experts in Addiction Psychiatry, Neuroscience and Biology. Her career spans both the patient and the brain as she combines neurosciences and imaging with drugs research, and clinical practice as a well-respected alcohol and substance misuse Psychiatrist. I have always found her kind, supportive and honest, qualities I have found disappointingly uncommon in females of standing.
I didn’t nominate a famous female scientist. We are becoming good at recognising those. But I expect there are so many Prof Lingford-Hughes’ out there, unrecognised, uncelebrated and unaware of their impact on others.
What would be your advice to girls (and boys) wanting a career in science?
My advice to any girls or boys feeling the pull of science is to embrace it. Go with it! It’s obviously been a long while since I was at school but in my experience those wanting to understand the world and to know how things work are thought of as misfits. This is irrelevant of gender. It’s hard to ignore this prejudice but as we specialise, we meet like-minded people and grow from it. Keep doing what you feel drawn towards, and you’ll find your community sooner than you think.
We also contacted Professor Lingford-Hughes, who would like to thank Alison for her nomination, calling it a “lovely surprise”. She is grateful to be acknowledged for her work. She is driven to educate and volunteers for Speakers for Schools to talk about how the adolescent brain may be impacted by drug abuse, encouraging discussion, breaking down barriers and addressing any myths and stigma attached to addiction.