Part of Women in STEM
Introduce yourself - who are you and what is your job?
Hi everyone! My name is Veronica, and I am a Neuroscience PhD student at the University of Dundee. I try to understand how the brain develops when we are young (neurodevelopment) and why sometimes it doesn’t grow up properly! I look at how sugar works in our brain and how it could help people who had incorrect brain development.
What do you research, why? How does this help people?
I have always been extremely fascinated by the brain. How does it work? Why do certain people’s brains not work properly? Scientists have been trying for years to unravel our brain and understand how to “adjust” it when it breaks. It’s like working with a very complex computer, and scientists are still understanding how it is wired!
This is where I am, trying to understand how the brain works. I work with a sugar called ‘O-GlcNAc’ (pronounced oh-GLUCK-nack), which can be found in thousands of proteins (the building blocks that do all the hard work in our body) in our cells.
Sugar can be attached to proteins to change their so called ‘chemical properties’. It’s almost like in a videogame where you can find upgrades for your weapon, and instead of shooting fire, you can shoot ice! Cool, isn’t it?! And because of that, it is pretty important that this sugar is properly attached to proteins.
I work on a disease called ‘Intellectual Disability’, which stops the brain from working properly. People with this disease cannot properly attach these sugar molecules to their brain’s proteins. Their brain struggles to grow, and this makes their life extremely tough! I try to understand how poor attachment of O-GlcNAc to proteins can cause this disease, and how we can cure them!
How do I do that? I use embryonic stem cells. These are very special cells that can become many things, such as neurons (brain cells). I use these to find out how changes in the attachment of sugar can affect their growth into neurons. To do that I use lots of tricks in the lab, such as making the neurons fluorescent (so they give off a bright, coloured light!) to study their development and understand what is going on. At the same time, when I identify that something is not working properly, I try to look for a cure! Right now, I am exploring the use of sugar supplements.
Tell us about your career journey so far
I grew up in Italy, in sunny Sicily, where I spent most of my time swimming in the sea. After my University undergraduate degree in Biotechnology I moved to Germany. There I did an internship where I spent most of my time in the lab researching how the brain works. Since I really enjoyed my time there, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Dundee in a similar topic!
What subjects/qualifications are useful in your role?
Biology, Maths, and Chemistry were probably the most useful subjects in school (but try to do your best in all of them!) As for qualifications, I needed to go to University and get a degree in Biology or Neurobiology. I then continued my training by doing a Ph.D. (Philosophy Doctorate, which is a period of about 4 years in which you deepen your knowledge in a specific topic in a laboratory).
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