Smashing Stereotypes, Dr Ellen Dicks: My work doesn’t require a lab coat, or even a lab.

Posted on the 8th March 2021

As part of the British Science Associations British Science Week we will be presenting blogs from each of our RAD Fellows on the subject of Smashing Stereotypes: celebrating the diverse people and careers in science and engineering.

Dr Ellen Dicks studied Biology with a specialization in Biological Information Processing and earned her PhD at the Alzheimercenter, Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. In April 2020 she joined the Race Against Dementia Team as a postdoctoral fellow to investigate the cause of the communication breakdown in the brain during the Alzheimer’s disease process.

I remember, as a kid, I imagined a scientist with a lab coat (must), notepad (must) and glasses (optional). Photos, pictures, and cartoons even, of stern-looking, old, bearded, white men standing in a lab come to mind. My work doesn’t require a lab coat, or even a lab and I thankfully don’t need glasses yet. I only need a computer and data to analyze. But I do always keep my notebook handy, so that idea wasn’t that far off.

In my work, I am trying to understand how our brains change during ‘normal’ ageing and disease processes, such as Alzheimer’s disease, in order to ultimately prevent brain damage from occurring. To do so, I analyze brain images with computer software or programming scripts written by the scientific community. Often we analyze large datasets with hundreds of brain images at a time, so programming is essential to streamline the analyses and part of my daily work.

Back in high school, however, I couldn’t have imagined that I would need programming skills for my research goals – much less enjoy it. In my mind informatics classes was only for “the boys”. (Thankfully, this mindset has already changed a bit.) It was only at University when I took theoretical and computational neuroscience classes that I got fascinated by the intersection of computational models and neuroscience.

Still, even though I had missed the chance to learn some programming basics in high school I caught up later on. Incidentally, I also didn’t focus on neuroscience or neurodegenerative disease during my studies either, but studied/worked in historic anthropology, molecular oncology, and even neuro-urology. This goes all to say that it doesn’t really matter if one’s path isn’t that straightforward. Indeed, having a background in a wide range of (even unrelated) fields may help just as much.

Scientists need to come together with different backgrounds, different interests, a different set of skills. Bringing in different perspectives to tackle a common problem is essential for science to advance. But scientists also have one thing in common: we are passionate about science. So, if you find yourself wanting to ask a researcher about how to get into their field or ask a question about their work, don’t hesitate to contact them! We really do love to talk about science.

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