The Researcher in Focus of this edition of DRNI CONNECT is
Dr Sarah Nicolas, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department
of Anatomy and Neuroscience at University College Cork.
Sarah took time out of her busy schedule to speak to us and
tell us about her research.
What is your area of research?
I am interested in understanding how physical activity impact brain functions, with a particular focus on cognitive function. I am working in the research group led by Prof. Yvonne Nolan at UCC, our research is directed towards unravelling whether hippocampal neurogenesis, neuroinflammation, or the gut-brain axis significantly contribute to the positive impact of exercise on the brain and behaviour.
What made you interested in this area?
During my PhD I was interested in how an enriched environment (which is an environment that stimulate social, cognitive, and physical activities in rodent) was able to reduce depressive like symptoms in a mouse model of depression. While the beginning of my PhD was very focused on the brain I realised that neuroscience research should integrate a more wholistic approach: it must be complemented by a sound body, encapsulating the concept of "mens sana in corpore sano."
Consequently, my intrigue shifted towards investigating the interplay between metabolic hormones and their regulation of brain function and behaviour. This line of inquiry naturally led me to delve into the broader landscape of metabolism and the gut-brain axis.
What impact would you like your research to have?
Although the benefits of physical activity for our well-being are widely acknowledged, the precise molecular mechanisms driving these effects continue to elude us. Unfortunately, certain individuals may face barriers preventing them from engaging in exercise due to various factors. In light of this, I believe that identifying a specific cellular or molecular pathway, that involve maybe our metabolism or our gut-microbiome, that then could subsequently be targeted through pharmaceutical interventions, might offer a potential solution, particularly for specific diseases or conditions.
Who has helped or inspired you in your area of research?
Prof. Yvonne Nolan, my mentor at UCC, serves as a genuine wellspring of inspiration. We are sharing a lot of research interests, and she has proven to be a true guiding figure in my academic journey. Her unwavering support and guidance have been instrumental in fostering my growth as an autonomous researcher. I firmly believe in the significance of collaborating with individuals who not only motivate you but also possess a genuine human touch. Considering that academia can sometimes be a challenging environment, it's important to be surrounded by individuals in whom you can place your trust.
What current research are you most excited about (your own, or that of others)?
I think we are doing a lot of cool things in the lab but I can’t tell you more about it for now :-)
Otherwise, I think that all the work about motivation to exercise and how this can be regulated by our gut microbiota is very exciting. I realised quite recently how motivation is important when we do pre-clinical research as it can be a big influencing factor when using a voluntary exercise paradigm as well as behaviour tasks that require investigation (and thus motivation).
What do you do when you are not working?
I am trying to apply what I am studying so I like cycling and go swimming. I was doing a lot of horse riding in France, before I moved to Cork. I enjoy going out for long walk or hikes and I like going to the cinema and play some video games.
What is your favourite pastime?
I love cooking as sometimes I feel it’s like running an experiment where I can completely change the protocol with my gut-feeling without taking too much risk (unless I am trying to cook pastries) and then I have the chance to taste it and share it with my friends and family.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Research is to see what everybody else sees, and think what nobody else has thought.”
It is not an advice but more an inspiring quote from Dr Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, an Hungarian biochemist who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1937, he was the first who isolated vitamin C.
Email : firstname.lastname@example.org
Twitter : @_Sarah_Nicolas