Eleanor Dunn, a PhD student in the area of biomedical engineering, talks to Conor de Paor about her research into neurological disorders and her love of the hippocampus.

What is your research about?

My research involves developing computational models of certain parts of the brain that are of interest in neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease. Not only can these models be used to better understand the changes and dynamics in the diseased brain, they serve as a tool to improve treatment options, such as deep brain stimulation, for the treatment of neurological disorder.

How did you become interested in your area of research?

I’ve always been interested in the biomedical area, but knowing people first hand who are afflicted by neurological disorders increased my curiosity about the how the brain works and the underlying causes of its diseases.

Why are you doing a PhD?

Even after completing an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering and working in industry for a couple years, I still wasn’t satisfied with the current level of understanding of neural physiology. Completing a PhD lends the possibility of increasing this understanding and making a positive impact, even if very small, in the greater scientific community.

What’s the hardest thing about undertaking a PhD?

PhDs are inherently research based and although research can be very rewarding, it’s not without its own frustrations. Realising and accepting that no conclusive results or negative results are still results and are a very possible outcome of research.

How do you undertake your research?

Initially I spent a lot of time reading journal papers and trying to get an understanding of everything that is happening within the area. Although I still keep up with new papers coming out each week, most of my time is now spent coding, running simulations, interpreting results, or writing papers of my own.

What do you use for your research in terms of materials and equipment?

Since the majority of my research is computational, most of it is done on the computer. In order to validate this data, however, clinical or experimental data is needed which requires the use of electromyography (EMG) and electroencephalography (EEG).

Do you find funding difficult to acquire?

Being such an interdisciplinary field, biomedical engineering draws the attention of many different interested parties in scientific, engineering, and healthcare areas. As a result of this, there is a great deal of potential for research funding across the board, however, it can be very competitive to acquire as biomedical research becomes more popular.

What applications do you see for your research?

Despite the widespread success of deep brain stimulation for treating symptoms of neurological diseases, it is still associated with significant side effects and a loss of benefit. The overall objective of my research is to improve the treatment efficacy of deep brain stimulation in Parkinson’s. Not only does this have the potential to save time and money for the patient and clinician, it can improve the clinical outcome and patient’s quality of life.

Do you enjoy teaching undergraduates?

Teaching undergraduate students in the lab is a great way to improve on some of the other aspects that are important to completing a PhD. Completing research isn’t very useful if you’re not able to effectively communicate results, but explaining concepts to undergraduates can be a good way to practice communication skills.

What are your plans for when you are finished?

Catch up on sleep and some TV shows I’ve missed. What is this Breaking Bad everyone was on about?

Would you undertake any more academic research after your PhD?

Whether or not the research is in academia I can’t say for sure, but I would definitely like to continue on with some sort of research after I complete my PhD.

What is your favourite part of the brain and why?  

The hippocampus, but I can’t remember why!