Dr Mark Dallas is Lecturer in Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience at the University of Reading
What is your research about?
I am interested in how toxic gases (e.g. carbon monoxide) can be potentially used to treat complex brain diseases. Not many people know that the human body actually produces carbon monoxide at low levels and is an important signalling molecule. If we can improve our understanding of how this gas works in our bodies, we will be better placed to utilise it as a therapy. My focus is on how these gases interfere with ion channels, membrane proteins that regulate a vast array of cellular functions.
How did you come to be working in this field and was this something you always wanted to do?
From a young age, I was curious to know more about the human body, and through my education, I developed a keen interest in neuroscience. While studying for my undergraduate degree I enjoyed the time spent in the lab and wanted to continue this. I got offered a PhD in a well-respected neuroscience lab which I accepted. This was a steep learning curve, as there is a lot they do not tell you at undergraduate level! There is still so much we do not understand about the brain, which led me to carry out the research that I do.
Following my PhD, I was lucky enough to join a very successful lab and benefitted from having a supportive PI. During my postdoctoral research posts I became interest in the so called ‘support cells’ of the brain and their importance in not only physiology but also pathology. It is these glial cells that I am continuing to work on, here at the University of Reading.
Why is your work important?
With an ageing population, the number of people affected by degenerative diseases associated with ageing will ultimately increase. Currently 820,000 people in the UK suffer from Alzheimer’s disease so there is a need to understand the mechanisms underlying the disease in order to provide treatments to better manage the disease and ultimately prevent the disease. The only way to address this is to carry out basic scientific research into the biological pathways that are involved in the disease and develop new drugs that target these pathways.
Do you think your work can make a difference?
I strongly believe that it will make a difference; it is a matter of putting all the pieces of the jigsaw together to understand the brain and diseases that affect it. If my work is one piece of the jigsaw then I have made a difference.
Do you think there will ever be a cure for Alzheimer’s?
The nature of the disease itself is proving a challenge for all researchers in the field; however I think that it is not unreasonable to think that within the next 5-10 years we could have some treatments that slow down the progression of the disease. Going forward with further investment in dementia research we can work towards providing treatments that could actually delay the onset of the disease or even prevent people getting the disease.
What does a typical day involve?
At the minute, we have final year pharmacist students carrying out research projects in the lab. I try to get in before they start to clear my email inbox. We meet first thing to discuss the day’s experiments and any results they have generated so far. Then I head to my office to catch up on writing grants or papers. My current focus is to write up some experiments and submit the paper for publication in an appropriate journal. Then I normally have a meeting in the diary to discuss future work or teaching commitments; it varies, but most days there will be at least one meeting to attend.
In the afternoon I could head back to the lab (not as often as I like) or I may be involved in teaching pharmacology to the pharmacists. This is interspersed with keeping on top of emails and other roles that I am engaged with (e.g. STEM ambassador). The afternoon quickly turns to evening and its home to feed the cat and myself.
What do you enjoy most in your job?
The chance to make a difference to people’s lives; on a research front having met with sufferers and carers I know the devastating effect of the disease. By carrying out the research I do hopefully we can look to combat this disease in the near future. I also get satisfaction from teaching the next generation of scientists, watching their journey and seeing the ‘lightbulb’ moment when suddenly they understand is very rewarding.
What do enjoy the least?
Tell us something about you that might surprise us…
When in primary school I was a TV star, appearing in a documentary called ‘Night Owl’. Unfortunately the TV work dried up after this…….
What advice would you give to students/early career researchers?
Take every available opportunity.