For more information on Parkinson’s research, visit Parkinson’s Europe website.
A day in the life of a Parkinson’s disease researcher
Author: Sarah McGrathPublished: 7 October 2021
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Dr Andy Howden, senior research associate at the University of Dundee, UK, shares what a typical day looks like at the lab – and what motivates him at work “when things are challenging”
A bit about me
I’m 41 years old and I’m a senior research associate in the Division of Cell Signalling and Immunology in the School of Life Sciences, University of Dundee, UK. I was born and brought up in Dundee, moved away for university and then returned when I was 31.
I always wanted to be a scientist. I have a curiosity for the unknown and enjoy the challenge of trying to answer complex biological questions. I first trained to be a plant scientist but jumped subjects in 2015.
My dad developed Parkinson’s in his 40s, when I was a young boy, so the condition was always part of family life. When he died in 2014, I needed a new challenge and I decided to shift my research focus to human disease, with an emphasis on the links between the immune system and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. My dad constantly motivates me in my everyday work, especially when things are challenging.
My morning routine
I wake around 7am – when the kids wake me. Mornings are always a rush getting everyone ready for school. I help to get the kids dressed, check on my chickens (we have three), make sure everyone is fed and race out the door to do school drop-off. Then it’s a 30-minute bike ride to work along the beautiful River Tay, which is a great time to plan the day ahead.
I work in the lab at the University of Dundee. Earlier on in the Covid pandemic I did a little home working, but I enjoy being around people, sharing ideas and problem-solving, so I’m really happy to be back in the lab and office.
The first thing I do when I get to work is open my computer, check emails, plan my day, and get started with any experiments. It’s good to get the experiments started early as I find that things take me longer than I had planned – I’m an optimist.
An average day as a research scientist
I’m interested in the role that our immune system plays in disease. Our immune system is critical in protecting us from infection, but it can also cause damage to our own cells and tissues if it is not controlled properly. I want to understand whether neurodegenerative diseases could be the result of our immune system not working properly.
My job is very varied, which is one of the reasons I love it. I do lab work, data analysis, write papers, give presentations and do some undergraduate teaching.
The days go very quickly. If it’s a day doing experiments, then I’m at the bench and busy running around getting things done. If it’s an office day, then I will be looking over the latest data from some of my experiments, reading, having meetings and maybe grabbing a tea with friends from the lab.
I interact closely with the Dundee Research Interest Group for Parkinson’s, and together we organise events for people impacted by the disease. Working closely with people impacted by Parkinson’s helps to keep my research in perspective and it’s great to show people what we are trying to achieve here at the University.
My research into Parkinson’s disease
My main lab project is exploring whether we can identify a biomarker for Parkinson’s disease in blood. Parkinson’s is diagnosed largely by a physical examination and a review of symptoms. This diagnosis almost always comes when the disease has already progressed and someone may have been living with Parkinson’s for many years without knowing. This is where a biomarker or disease signature would be a major breakthrough. A biomarker would help diagnose the disease earlier and may even allow us to predict who might develop Parkinson’s.
To tackle this challenge, I’m analysing the immune cells in the blood from people with Parkinson’s and those without. I’m looking for differences in how these immune cells behave and in the proteins that these cells contain. These differences would be a biomarker for the disease. If we can identify differences between people with and without Parkinson’s then this may also help for the development of new treatments.
The best part of my working week
Lab meetings before Covid were always nice as we could get together, eat some cakes and have a chat about our work. Now we have to do these online so it’s not as enjoyable. I actually really like Monday mornings as I feel like I have a whole week ahead of me to get things done. I also enjoy having lunch with friends from the lab.
Life as a researcher
I love the thrill of a new result in the lab. Getting fresh results is always a real treat as I enjoy the feeling of being the first to discover something. It’s also great when you publish your results, and the scientific community can see it.
The highlight is working with such a friendly and supportive group of people. The major challenge is that as an early career scientist I have to work hard to bring in money to fund my research. This funding is very challenging to get. You have to be very persistent and not give in.
Working at the University of Dundee
The University of Dundee is a very open and collaborative environment, with some of the world’s experts in studying how cells work and understanding the triggers for human disease. It also has world-leading facilities and equipment for carrying out our experiments. For me, it really is the best place to do my research.
Once work ends…
Outside of work, I spend lots of time with my family – I have three little children: Alba, Ollie and Pippa. I love to bike and run, and especially enjoy doing these things with the kids and my wife.
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