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Researcher Spotlight: Professor Scott Waddell

12 Aug, 2014
Professor Scott Waddell

Professor Scott Waddell (Credit: Wellcome Images)

Professor Scott Waddell is a Professor of Neurobiology at the University of Oxford and a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow. Scott studied biochemistry as an undergraduate and completed a PhD in cancer biology before taking a leap across the atlantic and in to the field of neuroscience for his post-doctoral research. He studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and spent 10 years leading a research group at the Department of Neurobiology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. We talked to Scott about his current research and what drew him to neuroscience. 

What are you working on?

We work on many things. How and where are memories formed? Why do some memories last a lifetime and others are transient? How are memories retrieved so that you can use them when they are needed? Recently we have also started to work on neural transposition; that is the unexpected alteration of the genome within neurons caused by the somewhat random activity of small pieces of mobile, or ‘jumping’, DNA. Transposition could in principle lead to individual differences in behaviour, sporadic neurological disease and so forth.

What does your average day involve?

Drop off daughter at school, bike to work, check the overnight email, chat to people in the lab getting an update on progress, lab meeting if we have it, lunch with the group, more discussion with lab sucking in the new data, writing mostly in afternoon, check on those doing the most exciting experiments of the day, ride the bike home, run, dinner, family time, write, sleep, repeat.

Why is your work important?

I study the fabric of life and I try to explain where intelligent behaviour comes from. What could be more interesting and important than that?! A better understanding of the brain will likely improve our chances of treating a number of neurological disorders.

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

I hope our work will help us to understand how the brain works and that it will interest and inspire others.

How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?

From university onward I was fascinated by research and followed opportunity. My PhD advisor John Jenkins used to irregularly leave photocopied articles on my desk and it was one of those that initiated my switch from cancer biology to neuroscience.

Yeast studies of cell-cycle control and the circadian clockwork in flies tipped me towards using genetics to study memory in Drosophila. From then on I have been lead by the data in front of me; new approaches, my curiosity, the scientific literature and old science books.

A fly brain

A fly brain

How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career?

The Wellcome Trust has been instrumental. They funded my transition from cancer to neuroscience as a postdoctoral fellow in the USA and 15 years later, they facilitated my return. I would still be in the USA without my Senior Research Fellowship.  Support from the Trust to myself and the Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour, allows us to continue to follow the most interesting and difficult avenues of our work in Oxford.

What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?

Why do you work on flies?

Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?

There’s nothing I dread. I think it’s important to think about and explain what we are doing and why.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

Hmm, tough choice. There are a few things! How about a brain one? 10 years ago I had a 5cm left frontal lobe bleed.

What keeps you awake at night?

My hectic life-style.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

To learn to say ‘no’ to some of the many requests for my time.

The chain reaction question, posed by the previous spotlight participant, Dr Nichola Lax, is this: How do you see your career progressing and what would be your ideal post?

Hopefully forward!  My current position is pretty good.

You can find out more about Scott and the Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour on the Centre’s website or by following Scott on Twitter. You might also like to read Scott’s papers: Transposition-Driven Genomic Heterogeneity in the Drosophila Brain and Layered reward signaling through octopamine and dopamine in Drosophila.

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