My fascination with the workings of the human brain

NEUROSCIENTIST Dr Trevor Bushell advises students to follow the subject they love after setting off on a very different path before discovering his own true passion – understanding how the brain works and how things change in brain disorders.

It has led to him heading up many fascinating neuropharmacological research projects, including into Alzheimer’s disease and major depressive disorder at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.

But when he was a student at Ripon Grammar School, during which he was a member of the Ripon Air Training Corps, he initially set his sights on becoming a pilot in the RAF before his hopes were dashed.

“I passed the recruitment tests and was accepted as an officer but due to having high blood pressure, a family affliction on the male side, the RAF could not offer me the commission. It seemed like a disaster at the time. However, sliding doors open up other completely different opportunities, including attending university and I’ve enjoyed the journey so far.”

He wishes back then he’d realised that what he did at school would not define him for the rest of his life: “There is so much pressure in the latter stages of school but what I am doing now is not what friends or teachers at school would have predicted for me.”

He played every sport going whilst at school and was 1st XV and 1st XI captain in 1988-89. He also played rugby, football and cricket outside RGS: “We also did lots of socialising outside school, but I probably shouldn’t go into that too much,” he jokes.

He first set off to study physiology and sports science at the University of Glasgow, following A-levels in in maths, physics, chemistry and general studies in 1989.

But he soon switched to a degree in pharmacology, which he found much more interesting: "That was when he first became fascinated by how the brain works, how it goes wrong in brain disorders and whether treatments can be developed to help with these disorders.

“I realised I really enjoyed understanding the pharmacology of drugs that affect the brain and how these may help with brain disorders and so decided to pursue a PhD in neuroscience.”

He had found his niche.

Following his PhD at the University of Bristol, Dr Bushell was awarded a Wellcome Trust international travel fellowship to undertake postdoctoral research at the University of Chicago before returning to the UK to undertake more postdoctoral research at Imperial College London.

The one piece of advice he’d give current students is: “Find what subject you love and follow that path. It’s a simple as that in my opinion, you’ll get more out of life doing something you enjoy.”

Today, working as a lecturer and deputy head of the Institute of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, where he is a reader in neuropharmacology, his work is varied. His current research aim is to better understand the role inflammation plays in brain disorders especially Alzheimer’s disease and major depressive disorder and determine whether this can be targeted for novel therapeutic interventions. Indeed, one of his recent publications highlights a potential target for developing novel antidepressants.

“There is no such thing as a typical day,” he explains. “Today, for example, I chaired the institute leadership team meeting where all aspects of institute business (taking in research, teaching, equality, diversity & inclusion, finances and estates) are reported, discussed and decisions made on how we move forward.

“Following this, I met with members of my lab to discuss progress with their projects, focusing on examining whether modulating the immune system can impair Alzheimer’s disease initiation and progression and identifying novel targets for the treatment of major depressive disorder.

“I’ve also finalised my lecture slides, workshop and lab notes and updated the virtual learning environment for the upcoming master’s degree in pharmacy module that I co-ordinate: management of central nervous system disorders. Finally, I started reading a PhD thesis I am examining soon.

“Other days include activities that involve universities from around the world with whom we collaborate, business issues for the British Neuroscience Association, for whom I am the treasurer, as well as everyday issues involving IT, staff and equipment.”

The best bit about the job, he says, is the freedom it gives him to pursue his own research interests as well the flexibility he has with his time, which helped when bringing up a family: “Also, the ability to travel and meet people from all over world, some of whom have become close friends,” he adds.

The downside is dealing withrejections for grant proposals and manuscripts after spending a significant time on them: “You do become resilient to this over time but when first starting out, it hits you hard,” he says.

“Obtaining research funding for your ideas is a constant struggle but when you get the email to say your project is funded, it’s an amazing feeling similar to how those who do extreme sports must feel.”

The most important thing he learnt at RGS was the value of friendship: “I still have many close friends from my time at RGS who I see regularly. Having close friends you can rely on and who truly know you is very important to help you through the tough times that everyone encounters during the course of their life,” he says.

“My greatest success in life has been maintaining friendships over the years, despite people being spread across the UK and the world. Friendship and support is vital, so work hard to maintain it!”

He has fond memories of his time at RGS, where Mike Garvey was his favourite teacher: “When he joined as head of PE, he transformed how we approached rugby and I loved it! Not influenced at all by the fact he also introduced rugby tours and we were lucky enough to go to Wales, Cornwall and the Netherlands.”

What he misses most about Yorkshire is not being able to see friends and family as often as he would like: “But also the Ripon fish and chips – they’re not the same elsewhere!”

He remains inspired by his late father, a self-employed greengrocer: “He worked all hours in all weathers to keep the family going. He had a strong work ethic but was always ready to have a laugh and to help people. These are characteristics I try to maintain in my home and work life!”