Manager of the South West Dementia Brain Bank, University of Bristol.
“The best thing you can do is gain experience, whether that’s in the lab or in a voluntary capacity. Learning how to speak to people is a key skill.”
Start of career
Career in brief
I did my undergraduate degree in pathology and microbiology at the University of Bristol. While I was at university my grandmother had a series of strokes and developed vascular dementia. I didn’t know much about dementia so I did some research into it and became really interested. I learned how many people it affects and what a widespread disease it is.
When I saw a job advertised here at the brain bank, I knew this was my opportunity. I really wanted to make a difference in dementia research.
Things have changed dramatically in the brain bank while I’ve been here ― we’ve gone from collecting about 12 brains a year to around 50. Also during that time I’ve worked my way up from technician to manager. I began a part-time PhD in the renin-angiotensin system ― the hormone system that regulates blood pressure ― and Alzheimer’s disease two years after I began working here.
I completed it over the following eight years.
How I spend my days
My main role is speaking to potential brain donors and their families. I’m very involved in coordinating the donations so that means liaising with families, funeral directors, GPs, coroners and mortuary staff. I write the diagnosis letters to families once we have the report back from the neuropathologist. I also manage my team’s workload, and make sure we comply with the legislative and ethical aspects of brain banking. This legislation protects our donors’ tissue ― it dictates how we look after it properly, carefully and respectfully.
The highlight of my career has been completing my PhD. Eight years is a long time to commit to something, and trying to work, study and have a life outside of those things was really challenging. It was important to me to do a PhD and prove to myself that I could undertake independent research. I also think it will help my career ― it improves your planning skills and teaches you to see things from different perspectives. It also means I can offer help and advice to those who want to access our tissue for research.
The most difficult thing about my job is when I have to refuse a donation. This might be because of an infectious disease or a brain tumour, or because we are unable to coordinate, receive and process the tissue within the set timeframe of 72 hours.
My most valuable skills
Negotiation skills are really important, followed by empathy. A lot of my job involves seeking cooperation from others ― asking people to do things that might be over and above their ordinary job roles when they’re already very busy. You need to be extremely organised and pay attention to fine details.
What inspires me
I have huge respect and admiration for the people who decide to donate their brains as it’s not an easy decision to make. Every donation is a person to us, and they all inspire me in my work. I’m also driven by the motivation to make as much tissue available for research as possible – that’s the aim of the bank after all.
Words of wisdom
The best thing you can do is gain experience, whether that’s in the lab, a voluntary capacity or a completely different job. Adapting your communication style is a key skill that can be hard to learn without experience. Working in a supermarket pharmacy taught me a lot about how to speak to people when they’re feeling unwell and worried, for example.
I fully intend to stay here at the brain bank for the foreseeable future. There are lots of things I hope to achieve in the next year. One of the key projects that I hope to take on is the scanning and digitisation of our donor’s medical records. This would both enable the protection of the records and allow for detailed electronic searches for specific criteria for inclusion of selected samples in tissue requests. We now hold the notes of over 1200 donors in paper format that we are simply unable to mine effectively at present and unlocking this valuable data will enable vital new insights and analysis of past, present and future research studies. I can see that the true value of this undertaking will only be realised in years to come as we find ourselves able to answer more and more complex clinical questions and meet the ever-increasing size and complexity of tissue requests from national and international researchers. I feel very closely attached to the brain bank ― we’ve grown together while I’ve been here. I hope it’s very much a part of my career going forward and I want to see it go from strength to strength.