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Professor Aideen Sullivan, Department of Anatomy & Neuroscience
Aideen Sullivan, Professor of Neuroscience
College: Medcine & Health
Research Interests: Parkinson's Disease: Novel therapies, Neuropathology, Laboratory models, Non-motor symptoms
IRIS profile: http://publish.ucc.ie/profiles/C003/asullivan
What first attracted you to your academic discipline?
I have had a love of science from a very young age. Growing up in a fishing village, I always had an interest in and appreciation of nature and wildlife. In secondary school, I loved all of the science subjects - biology, chemistry, physics and maths - and could not decide which of them I wanted to study most at university, so I chose to do a general science degree in UCD, which included all of these subjects. As I progressed through university, I was drawn to pharmacology, which I viewed as a combination of biology and chemistry. From there, I became interested in the complexity of the human brain, and how diseases of the brain appeared to be the 'final frontier' in medicine. By that I mean, since we do not fully understand how the brain works, it is extremely difficult to fix it when things go wrong.
How were you drawn to your current research interests?
During my PhD in Neuropharmacology at Univeristy of Cambridge, I delved deeper into neuroscience and became fascinated by neurodegenerative diseases. The most common of these are Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, and neither is curable. For my postdoctoral work, I chose to focus on Parkinson's as there was very exciting research happening at that time, in which proteins called neurotrophic factors were beginning to be used in attempts to halt the degeneration of neurons. I have been working in this research area for over twenty years now, and although progress is slow, we are moving forward towards better treatments.
What professional achievements do you consider particularly rewarding?
I consider each of my scientific publications and every successful grant application to be very rewarding - especially as competition is so intense and because it is always a struggle to find time to focus on these tasks. I find that teaching and administrative duties almost always have to be prioritised over research work, as they have more imminent deadlines that can't be postponed.
I have found the work I have done to engage with people with Parkinson's, and with the public, particularly rewarding. I have organised several events but the one that stands out is the BRAINTALK project (www.ucc.ie/en/braintalk): In 2015, along with my colleagues Shane Hegarty and Gerard O'Keeffe, I ran a series of art workshops, an art exhibition and a hugely successful conference in the Glucksman Gallery. The aim was to bring together people with Parkinson's and their families, with neuroscientists, neurologists and therapists, to create a community for exchange and dissemination of knowledge about Parkinson's disease. The spirit in that meeting was extremely positive and uplifting. I will never forget the emotional rendition of 'Something Inside So Strong' sung by two choirs of people with Parkinson's, which brought the entire audience to its feet.
What aspects of your work do you find most rewarding?
I am very proud of my role in establishing the first Neuroscience degree in Ireland; it was the opportunity to be involved in this that attracted me to the lectureship position in UCC in 1998. I get immense satisfaction from mentoring students and following their progress from undergraduates to postgraduates, and throughout their careers. One of the most rewarding parts of my job is when my former students return to deliver a seminar, or contact me to tell me about a new position they have taken up, or their recent research activities. The feeling that I have played some part in fostering a love of neuroscience and research in these students, and helping them to progress along their individual career paths, is very rewarding.
Any details you wish to share about how being female has impacted upon your career (positively or negatively)?
The most obvious impact is that I postponed having children until I was in my late thirties, after spending several years establishing my research group. Although there was maternity cover for my lectures, it was clear that any time spent away from research would have a detrimental effect on my career.
I definitely don't travel for work as much as I would do if I didn't have children. I have declined several invitations to speak at conferences abroad, as I do not like to be away from my children, especially while they are young. I am sure that this has had a negative impact on my research profile and my impact internationally. Of course this decision to prioritise my family is not unique to females.
I always have a lot of students coming to me for pastoral care. Although there are obviously exceptions, and I am lucky to work with some male colleagues who are very student-focused, I do think that some students, particularly females, are generally more comfortable talking to female academics. Although this does take up a lot of my time, I gain huge rewards from these interactions with students, and I really enjoy my role as a mentor and advocate for students who find themselves in difficulty.
Academic careers present specific challenges in achieving balance, whether between research, teaching and administration, or in work/life balance. What advice might you give a student/younger colleague/your 18-year old self?
My advice would be to set aside time each week for keeping up to date with research and for writing, whether it be publications or grant applications. It may be different in other disciplines, but I find that teaching and administrative duties take up almost all of the working week, so I typically read and write papers in the evenings, when my children are in bed. This is not the most efficient way to work! I would advise my younger self or colleague to set aside at least a day per week to focus only on research, if at all possible. On the positive side, one huge advantage of academia is the flexibility that we have, which greatly helps in achieving some level of work/life balance. For example, I almost always manage to attend my children's school concerts and parent-teacher meetings etc., by rearranging my working day or week to fit these in.