Published on: 3 May 2016
Isabel Castanho originally graduated in Biomedical Laboratory Sciences in the Polytechnic Institute of Porto, spending part of her final year in the Metropolia University of Applied Sciences in Helsinki.
Isabel took a second degree in Applied Biology in the University of Minho where she also completed a Master’s degree in Health Sciences, having developed her thesis in the Neuroscience Research Domain of the Life and Health Sciences Research Institute, with a particular interest on the role of lipid signalling pathways in hippocampus functioning.
She moved from Portugal to the United Kingdom in September 2015 to join the University of Exeter Medical School as a PhD student under the supervision of Professor Jonathan Mill and Dr Katie Lunnon in the Complex Disease Epigenetics Group.
What is your current research about?
My current research is focused in understanding the association between epigenetics (in very simple terms: the mechanisms that control how, when and where our genes are turned ‘on’ and ‘off’) and Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia (currently affecting 26 million people worldwide) for which the available treatments are mainly focused in the symptoms of disease - a consequence of little still being known about the specific mechanisms behind it. My research aims to understand changes at the gene regulation level associated with the onset and progression of AD, having the ultimate goal to provide useful evidence for the design of better and earlier treatments, therefore contributing for the delay and reduction of the devastating consequences of AD for patients and their families.
Who or what has inspired you to do this research?
Honestly, an association of ’whos' and ’whats'.
The ‘Epigenetics’ part was a result of being fascinated by ‘Genetics’ from day one (a ‘what’) and the inspiration transmitted by a spectrum of scientists, from high school teachers to my current supervisors (the ‘who’s). The Alzheimer’s disease side took an exponential growth in me in my last year of the Master’s degree (where I focused my studies in Neuroscience) in two complementary sides: the scientific enthusiasm driven by my supervisor at the time (another ’who’), and an increasing personal care developed in me as a result of coming across patient’s experiences and stories, as well as their families’ fears and concerns.
What attracted you about University of Exeter, how do you think it can support your research?
The University of Exeter attracted me right from the moment I started exploring it on the internet. The immediate idea I got was of a young but ambitious university, showing an exponential (but smart) growth in such a short lifetime. And in fact my visit in person just maturated that pre-conceived idea: an academic environment rich in young bright minds, willing to work together to promote an institution of excellence.
After joining the university I was even further amazed by its concern and involvement with its students and researchers, and their effort to promote them both professionally as personally. For all those reasons I feel supported by the university in many ways, feeling I made the right decision joining the University of Exeter.
Soapbox Science event is an outreach platform for promoting women scientists; who were your inspiring female role models?
Luckily enough I have come across so many fearless and strong women through my life that this is really hard to answer. At a personal level I was inspired to be a hard worker from my grandmother, to be a ‘first’ from my great aunts, to fight for my goals by my step mother.
At a professional level I get to be inspired every day: from my extraordinary senior co-workers to the amazing speakers I am sharing the soapbox stage with.
The University of Exeter is an academic environment rich in young bright minds, willing to work together to promote an institution of excellence.
Isabel Castanho, University of Exeter Medical School PhD student
Can you tell us a little bit about what you will be talking about at the upcoming Soapbox event?
I will be sharing my excitement about the brain - the incredible organ that runs the show in our body.
Throughout my talk I will cover subjects such as how the brain can be divided and which different parts are responsible for what; how brain cells communicate and work together with one another and with other cells; our research interest in the epigenetic point of view; what happens to our brain cells during disease (particularly Alzheimer’s disease) and finally how and why we should promote a good brain health.
What are your plans for the future?
In the near future: to finish my PhD. Afterwards I would like to keep doing research in epigenetics, and in dementia in particular; however the possibility of being involved in projects related to anxiety/depression at some point in my career is something that I would be very happy about.
On top of that, although I am fond of the idea of becoming a Professor one day, I am not afraid of following other paths. There are so many opportunities out there yet to be fully explored that I believe that as long as we take full advantage of what comes attached with them and of what we can do with them, we can happily build a career of success, as long as we insist on being passionate and fierce. Independently of where the future takes me, I will never let Science leave my side for sure.