How does a woman in science start her own lab?
Writer: Alexandra Gilbert
Editor: Karolay Lorenty
Prof Frances Edwards sheds light on her journey in Neuroscience research. Her passion for science began at a very early age, inspired by her childhood encounters with kitchen-table dissections of possum lungs with her father, who was a research physiologist.
After completing her BSc with Honours in Australia, Edwards decided to set sail from Tahiti to Honolulu, a journey taking several months, in pursuit of a job as a biochemist in a pharmaceutical company that awaited her in Montreal, Canada. Edwards emphasised the value of her time working for a large drug company: her experience in pharmaceuticals reinforced her decision to pursue original, honest research in academia.
She was met with further disillusionment during her PhD in behavioural pharmacology; although she felt that the subject was important, she found asking herself: “What am I doing here?”. She plucked up the courage to speak to her supervisor, who wholly supported her wishes to join a lab involved in electrophysiology, more specifically, single-cell voltage-clamp techniques. She left Sydney with an MSc and a new PhD opportunity in Canberra.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Bert Sakmann had just won the Nobel Prize for Physiology for inventing the patch-clamp technique. Upon hearing the news, Edwards decided to throw caution to the wind and sent Sakmann a letter, asking to learn the patch-clamp technique. Unexpectedly, her request was accepted, and she completed her PhD at the Max-Planck Institute in Sakmann’s lab. Edwards attributed this opportunity largely to luck:
Indeed, Edwards was present to take on this learning opportunity. New confocal technology allowed for the visualisation of brain cells that could be clamped. By using her expertise in brain slice preparation, Edwards pioneered the first electrophysiological recordings of the hippocampus and many other brain regions. The ensuing Nature paper opened up many doors for Edwards’ career; and now, she wanted to start her own lab.
And so, she followed up on an offer to work in the Colquhoun lab at UCL, to study what the group thought was a nicotinic synapse in the medial habenular region of the brain. Incredibly, through rigorous pharmacological studies, Edwards discovered that the synapse they had been studying was actually an ATP synapse. This was the first time that an ATP synapse had been described in the brain.
It was a bittersweet moment for Edwards. Although she had achieved another Nature paper, she felt that her future research would be dominated by purinergic or ATP synapses. Inexorably, she secured her own lab in ATP transmission.
She then took a massive leap of faith, and changed her career in favour of fast synaptic transmission. To date, she has never regretted her decision: “It was better for my soul than it was for my career”. The Edwards lab at UCL has since shifted towards Alzheimer’s disease research, and how synaptic transmission goes wrong.
The ease with which Edwards conveyed the complexity of Alzheimer’s pathology was a clear indication of her incredible mastery of the subject.
The progression of Alzheimer’s is initially characterised by the aggregation of amyloid-beta (Aβ) peptides in the brain. As the disease approaches later stages, additional tau proteins aggregate, and form neurofibrillary tangles over and above the accumulating Aβ peptides. This disrupts synaptic transmission and is related to many inflammatory responses within the brain. It’s a complicated conundrum, one that Edwards strives to detangle, at least from the angle of early detection: the critical period between the emergence of Aβ accumulation and the eventual presence of tau neurofibrillary tangles.
Their current hypothesis supports the view that Aβ plaques recruit the brain’s primary immune cell, the microglial cell. The resulting microglial inflammation damages synapse around the plaque, which spreads to neighbouring synapses and neurons.
Edwards’ continued dedication to her work inspires aspiring female neuroscientists. She demonstrates that purposefully following one’s passion is rewarded when fused with hard work and patient resilience.