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Researcher Spotlight: Dr Caswell Barry

25 May, 2015


CaswellDr Caswell Barry is a Sir Henry Dale Fellow based in the Cell and Developmental Biology Department at UCL. His research focuses on understanding the brain and how we create memories. Here he tells us about his fascination with what’s inside our heads…

What are you working on?

Well there are lots of answers to that question depending on how deep you want to go. Ultimately we’re trying to understand how the brain works – how it creates that experience of being human – but that’s a pretty big challenge. A more tractable question which is a step in the right direction is ‘how does the brain create, store, and update memories for places and events?’ and it’s this I’ve been working on. The way we’re trying to answer this is by studying areas of the brain linked to memory, the hippocampus and associated sections of cortex – by recording the activity of neurons in these areas we can visualise and hopefully understand the processes the trigger memory formation and retrieval.

What does your average day involve?

IMG_6876Way less time collecting data than it used to! I seem to spend a lot of time rushing around, sending emails, meeting people and then desperately trying to cycle home in time to pick my children up from school. I don’t really get in the lab myself as much as I used to as a postdoc but that has been replaced by something equally fulfilling – speaking to my PhD students and postdoc about their experiments and data. It’s a great feeling when you see some new data for the first time or even better when your idea looks like it might actually be true.

Why is your work important?

If I’m honest I feel that it boils down to this – understanding the brain is one of the great goals of humanity. Everything that ‘we’ are is created by the lump of fat and protein that sits inside our skulls – I think that’s amazing and want to know how it works. That’s not the answer I’d give to a grant-funding panel though!

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

Neuroscience is still a young subject and we’re just getting started. While we know a lot more than we did 50 years ago there’s still a lot to find out, especially about how different brain regions communicate and synchronise – we’re also still missing those big organising principles that will make sense of the details. I would hope that I can contribute to our knowledge of those general principles, at least as far as memory goes. I would also like to try and cross-fertilise ideas from other research fields – for example there’s a lot of exciting developments happening in machine learning at the moment and it seems that they are trying to tackle some of the same questions that neuroscientists are.

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

Photo 15-05-2015 11 20 00I first became interested in neuroscience as an undergraduate – I was studying biology. Immediately after undergrad I moved to UCL to do a neuroscience masters and met Neil Burgess, it was through him really that I became interested in space and memory. Obviously not interested enough though because I left to go and work for a dot com company in Shoreditch. Thankfully the dot com crash in 2001 put an end to that and I realised that I might be better at science than I was at new media.

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

It’s made a huge difference, the whole line of research that my lab is working on at the moment wouldn’t have been possible without Wellcome funding. But the really big difference is that with the Wellcome’s backing I went from being a postdoc to fully independent, and that totally changes how you work and think. I’m still discovering new opportunities and collaborations that this has opened up for me.

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

I’ve been asked many questions but one particularly thought provoking one was ‘how will you know when you’ve understood how memory works?’ I think the answer is when we’re able to artificially create and manipulate real memories. Surprisingly several labs have recently come close to achieving this.

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

A question that I get asked a lot is ‘Tell me, is it true that we only use 10% of our brains?’ The short answer is ‘no’. The longer answer is ‘well it depends what you mean by use and if you mean absolutely at the same time ….’

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

B0007283 CerebellumIt took me quite a long time to figure out what I wanted to do and what I was good at. At university I used to come across these people who seemed so certain about what they were doing and were so excited about it. At the time I was just doing biology because I was good at it and by comparison felt a bit of a fraud. I don’t think I was even totally ‘sold’ on neuroscience until after I’d started my PhD. In fact I can distinctly remember at some point during my first year the growing sense that what we were doing was actually quite amazing and that it might be something I was quite good at.

What keeps you awake at night?

I used to worry that there would be some terrible mistake that I hadn’t noticed in my publications. Now that I have children I’m generally so tired that nothing can keep me awake, well other than the children.

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

Sometimes there is no best option – you just need to make an arbitrary decision and go for it.

The chain-reaction question, posted by previous spotlightee Dr Rebeccah Slater is this: What skills do you need to be a successful scientist?

Imagination, tenacity, and passion. Of course you also need to work hard, concentrate on the important questions, and be able to communicate your work to others but without those first three things I don’t think you’ll be truly successful.

To find out more about Caswell and his research you can follow him on Twitter or visit the UCL website

Image credits: Provided by author; Cerebellum by Spike Walker, Wellcome Images

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