STEM for Britain: researchers visit the Parliament

NC3Rs-funded PhD student Neal Rimmer, who works with Dr Jonathan McDearmid at the University of Leicester, shares his experience of participating in STEM for Britain, a competition that encourages early career researchers to promote their work by presenting it in the House of Commons.

My PhD project focuses on dopamine signalling, which is involved in motor control, memory and learning, which can be perturbed in disorders such as schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease. Physiological analysis of dopaminergic systems is key to understanding their function in health and disease. Our current understanding of dopamine signalling is largely derived from studies of mammalian dopaminergic neurons. However, these models have limitations: they involve the use of invasive techniques that can cause suffering and harm to animals protected by the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (ASPA). Mammalian dopamine neurons are difficult to access, which means that it is currently not possible to conduct detailed analysis of their physiology. My research is tackling this issue by using zebrafish embryos as an alternative model for physiological analysis of dopamine signalling. The embryos under five days post fertilisation are not protected under ASPA as there is limited evidence that they are capable of feeling pain, suffering or distress.

On March 13 I presented my research on this topic in the Bioscience division of the STEM for BRITAIN 2017 event held in the House of Commons. The annual event allows early career scientist, engineers, technologists and mathematicians to present their research in a poster exhibition to parliamentarians and scientific committees. Founded by the late Dr Eric Wharton, the event aims to encourage and promote engagement between early career scientists and parliamentarians. The event also gives presenters the opportunity to compete for prestigious prizes in each research field.

Short-listed from hundreds of applications, I presented alongside 59 other scientists from institutes across the UK, several of whom were from my own university. Arriving at Westminster, I entered through airport-style security of the magnificent Portcullis House. Along with other attendees, we were led through the atrium encompassed by a glass and bronze roof and filled with trees to the Attlee suite.

Once in the Attlee suite, I had an opportunity to interact with other presenters and learn about each other’s research before the event started. Individual judges approached me throughout the afternoon, several of them experts with similar research interests. I found the event pleasant and useful, giving me the opportunity to present my research in a one-on-one format to a special audience.

The final hour of the event provided an opportunity to speak with other participants, MPs and representatives of scientific committees over refreshments, whilst the judges deliberated. This networking event allowed me to learn more about research from other fields, and speak to my local MP as well as the President of the Physiological Society, Professor David Eisner. At the end of the events, the sponsors and the host of the bioscience events presented the bronze, silver and gold awards.

I am very appreciative for the opportunity to present at such a unique event. I believe STEM for BRITAIN is a useful experience for a researcher at any stage of their career. The event provides a platform to communicate your research to other scientists, experts and non-scientists. It encourages scientists to communicate their research to everyone and provides a great opportunity to interact with parliamentarians. I would recommend the event to any early career scientist who wants to present their research and to expand their skills in science communication.

The next stage of my research is to continue working on my PhD project, looking into sensory integration and output of forebrain dopamine neurons in zebrafish to understand “how” and “when” these neurons work. I then aim to look into the behavioural and functional aspect of these systems in larval zebrafish. This work is important for developing an alternative model for physiological studies of dopaminergic signalling that could reduce the number of protected animals used in this research field.

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