World-class Research at The University of Nottingham
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Inspiring peopleDenis Schluppeck

How the brain maps our world
Researcher, Translational Biomedical Imaging
Denis Schluppeck
How would you explain your research?

The aim is to understand how we use our senses of vision and touch to gather information about the world and how we use that information to make decisions. In the visual domain I study how humans perceive the colour, form, and motion of visual objects. In the somatosensory system I am interested in how sensations from the skin on the body surface are mapped onto the surface of the brain.

We are trying to build up a better understanding of how sensory information is processed in the healthy brain, which in turn will help us understand what goes wrong in brain trauma following stroke or neurological diseases.

We are trying to build up a better understanding of how sensory information is processed in the healthy brain
What inspired you to pursue this area?

As an undergraduate I came across physiology and neuroscience nearly by accident. My plan had been to study Physics but the lectures and labs in Physiology were super-interesting. I still have my lab notes – beautifully hand-illustrated by one of the lecturers. Also, I read quite a few of the Oliver Sacks books (The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat).

How will your research affect the average person?

Biomedical imaging methods in general and magnetic resonance imaging in particular are hugely relevant for medical diagnosis and follow-up. My research interests, however, address really mostly basic science questions. Having said that I am collaborating on some projects that have direct clinical relevance. In one, for example, we have been looking at brain anatomy and function in a group of adolescent brain tumour patients who have undergone surgery. Some of these patients have great difficulty with speaking and language production after surgery, whereas others are less affected. My colleagues in Psychology, at the Children’s Brain Tumour Research Centre and in Academic Radiology are trying to understand why that is the case.

What’s been the greatest moment of your career so far?

My first PhD students successfully defending their thesis and getting post-doctoral jobs.

What advice would you give to someone starting out?

Bon courage. Being an academic can be very rewarding, but there can also be frustrating moments: getting funding is tough; reviewers will give you harsh feedback (sometimes justly, sometimes unjustly); balancing a teaching load with grant writing; admin jobs; travel; and one’s personal life. When the frustrating moments appear to dominate it’s worth taking a step back and remembering what got you into doing science in the first place and maybe rewarding yourself by solving a little work-related puzzle.

What’s the biggest challenge in your field?

For functional magnetic resonance imaging it’s undoubtedly a good understanding of the exact mechanisms of neurovascular coupling. This is the exact link between the electrical activity of neurons (which is what underlies our perceptions, thoughts, actions) and changes in regional blood flow and metabolism (which is what we measure with the MRI scanner).

More generally for neuroscience trying to understand the multitude of computations that happen in our nervous system at every instant and how they give rise to perceptions, thoughts.

My plan had been to study Physics but the lectures and labs in Physiology were super-interesting
Who would you most like to meet in your field?

For an interdisciplinary area like ours there many people who have had a great impact.   I think it would have been fascinating to meet a polymath like Hermann von Helmholtz who made many contributions to physics, neuroscience, philosophy, or Thomas Young, another 19th-century polymath, who studied, light, vision and physiology, among other things.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Learn another language, preferably something that’s not Indo-European. Maybe Chinese or Arabic. 

If you weren’t doing this what would you be doing?

In another life I might have been a medical doctor or an architect – but if I am completely honest I think I’d be a scientist in a related discipline, physics or chemistry or an engineer. There is something deeply satisfying about figuring things out and tinkering with apparently “smaller” problems that help elucidate the bigger picture. 

What research other than your own really excites you right now?

I am totally fascinated by the recent advances made in machine-learning. Some of the theoretical work in this area by applied mathematicians and computer scientists goes back a couple of decades, but with improvements in computing many applications of these tools have become very powerful. The idea that my digital camera can identify faces and my computer can sort by content an album of 10,000 photos in a few seconds is pretty mind-blowing.

You’re thrown 100 years into the future – what’s the first thing you’d look up?

Is there a universal cure for cancer?

What should I have asked you that I didn’t?

“Are there enough women in your field?”

I think it’s really important that there is a more even gender balance in our field, both for research and teaching. I think there is a need to just get more people, but particularly women, interested in STEM subjects. In psychology, some biological subjects, and medicine, there are actually more female than male undergraduate students, but somehow this ratio changes dramatically by later career stages. I am sure the reasons for this are complicated, but I think if there were better support (by everyone in our field) for people taking career breaks, we’d all win in the long-term. My wife trained as a scientist but changed track and is now an anaesthetist – to me it seems that many (but not all) specialties in medicine have managed to take these things into account. Mind you, they have a whole lot of other problems at the moment.

 

 

World-class research at The University of Nottingham

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