#SciComm: Featuring Eleni from @neuroscientist.at.work

Posted by Applied Biological Materials (abm) on Jan 11, 2021

We recognize science can seem difficult to young scientists, and we hope to raise awareness about people who make it fun and accessible to broader audiences through social media, #SciComm!


Introducing Eleni from @neuroscientist.at.work! Eleni is a neuroscientist in the midst of her PhD program! Her channel is full of fascinating timelapses of brain dissections and other fun things in the lab.

This week, we interviewed Eleni to hear more about her journey to neuroscience and some valuable advice on how to balance the many activities in grad school and emerge with a fulfilling grad experience!

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Tell us a little bit about yourself! Did you always want to work in the sciences? How did you end up in the field of neuroscience, specifically?

I wanted to become a scientist for as long as I can remember. 🤓 However, the type of scientist I wanted to become kept changing every year! As a teenager I wanted to become either a chemist, a nuclear physicist or a materials engineer. For a good few years I even wanted to become an astronaut! But I quickly changed my mind when I started having biology lessons in the last few years of high school. From that point on I was sure that a field in biology was the right path for me. I simply enjoyed learning everything there was to know about living things! When it was time to apply to universities, I did a lot of research into the types of biology-related degrees that were out there, and this is how I came across the word “neuroscience”. Before that, I didn’t even know what neuroscience was! I found the idea of studying the brain fascinating, so I applied for a Bachelor’s in neuroscience. And that is how I ended up in this field. 🧠

A lot of students thinking of entering grad school don’t know where to start when it comes to finding the right project and supervisor. How did you find your supervisors and how did you come up with your thesis project ideas?

The project itself is probably the least important aspect of a PhD, in my opinion.

I think the vital thing is to find a good supervisor in a lab that can provide you with all the necessary support. 💪

It is also important for the project you choose to utilise methods and techniques that you want to become an expert on, which will be helpful for your future job aspirations. Personally, I applied to PhD programmes that offered a “rotation year”. These are programmes in which the student works in three different labs with three different supervisors for the first year of the PhD, in order to figure out which one they like best. I personally enjoyed all three of my rotation projects, and all my supervisors were great. But for the rest of my PhD I chose the lab which I think was the best fit for me and my future career objectives. I didn’t come up with my thesis idea entirely by myself, but instead, more experienced researchers in my lab did that. I accepted their ideas because I thought it was a very interesting project that was using the techniques that I like.

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You have an awesome instagram channel, @neuroscientist.at.work, where you share clips of everyday work in the lab and tidbits of knowledge about scientific techniques and neuroscience. Why did you decide to create this channel?

I created this Instagram channel because I wanted to document my journey as a scientist and doctoral student, but at the same time I wanted to make my research a little bit more accessible to the general public. 🤗

As a scientist, I felt that by talking about my research to various people I would be working towards building a community that helps non-scientists understand the complexities, challenges and importance of science.

I also wanted to give young people a glimpse into the everyday life of a scientist and graduate student, in the hopes of inspiring them to pursue a similar career if they wished.

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Tell us what project you’re currently working on! Have you had any challenges and/or successful breakthroughs? How do you stay positive and focused when you face setbacks in your research?

I am currently looking at the role of neuroinflammation and the role of axonal transport proteins in neurodegenerative diseases. I have had many challenges with my project, due to the difficulty with working with microglia (the main cell type my research is focused on), but at the same time this has been a great learning experience. I did not have any major breakthroughs yet, but I am still in an early stage of my research so hopefully I will have some successful results soon. ✨

Staying positive and hopeful for the future when you face setbacks is an important quality of a good scientist because challenges in research are very common and inevitable.

I always try to take a critical approach towards identifying ways to work around any difficulties that arise in my experiments. Taking a small break from work for a few days occasionally, is also something that helps me come back with a more focused and determined mindset. ☕️

How does a typical day at the lab look like for you? What are some challenges with working with brain cells?

My lab days vary a lot, depending on what experiments I am working on in any given week, so there is no “typical” day at the lab for me. Lately I have been doing a lot of cell culture, which means that I need to be in the lab to take care of the cells for a few hours every other day. Working with cells 🔬🧫 is not that complicated, as long as you follow the protocols and have a good technique to avoid contamination or accidentally killing your cells! On some days I need to do some molecular biology experiments which usually involve PCR or similar techniques. These, again, do not take much of my time and are usually easy and straightforward to do. The most experiment-heavy days are those on which I have to do a dissection, because this normally takes an entire day with very few breaks! I would say that most of my time on any weekday is spent in the office where I will either be reading scientific papers, writing protocols and experiment plans, doing data analysis, or researching a new topic or technique. The actual practical work is probably less than 50% of my time.

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On @neuroscientist.at.work, you mention so many different techniques that you have to use in the course of your research – from brain dissection and tissue staining, to cell culture and patch-clamp techniques, to various microscopy techniques, and more! Do you have any tips for how to learn a new technique and use it successfully?

When I must use a new technique, I usually first read the principle behind it so that I know what it is and why I need it. For some techniques there are also instructional videos online which are always helpful. Then I normally observe someone else who is competent doing it while I take notes. After that, I practice it many times under supervision until I can do it independently. This process has worked successfully for me so far. 👍

During the course of your undergrad and graduate studies so far, you’ve had so many achievements including being accepted into the neuroscience honors courses during your masters, being elected to represent neuroscience postgrads at U of Sussex and more! 👏 Do you have any tips on how to have a successful and fulfilling grad experience?

Institutions will often offer many great opportunities for extracurricular activities to help students make the most of their university experience.

My strategy is this: try out at least one of these each year, but only if I am truly interested in it and excited to be doing it.

I just don’t try to do everything at once because doing well in my studies is what I am primarily here for. Personally, the activities I pursued outside of my studies provided me with valuable skills that I would have otherwise never had the opportunity to develop.

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Aside from lab work and thesis writing, you teach and mentor other students, lead the Organ Donation Society at your university, volunteer as a STEM ambassador, manage your #SciComm channels on social media – how do you stay organized and engaged with your day to day? Have you ever experienced grad school burnout? If so, how do you get yourself back in the game?

I think the key is to be consistent and persistent. I have a clear schedule📅 with weekly tasks and monthly goals, and I try to stick to it as much as possible. Most things outside of my work and studies do not actually take a lot of my time. Since most of these are voluntary, they can be done whenever, and I can devote as much or as little time to them as I can afford. I never take on more responsibilities than I can handle. So far, I have never experienced grad school burnout, and I think it is precisely because I try to remain organised.

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Any last words of advice for budding neuroscientists out there?

If you are still in school, it is always a good idea to apply for some paid or voluntary summer placements in a lab or a hospital, in order to gain some practical experience in science. This will come in handy when it’s time to apply to universities and it will also provide you with some useful references for the future.

In addition to that, there are plenty of free online courses and seminars in this field, and I would encourage anyone interested in neuroscience to look at these. If you want to become a neuroscientist, ask others in this field to give you some advice or guidance as to what you can be doing to get one step closer to your goal. 😊


On @neuroscientist.at.work, you show us some cool timelapses of you dissecting a brain - how long does it typically take? How long did you have to train before you could start doing it on your own?

I usually dissect multiple brains 🧠🧠🧠 on the same day, and this can take up to six hours non-stop, including all the necessary preparations before and after processing the tissue. However, I do not need to do it very often, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to get anything else done! Dissecting a brain is not as hard as people may think, but it is lengthy and slow. It is simply a series of steps that require concentration and dexterity. I had to shadow someone else doing this procedure a couple of times and I was also given an instructional step-by-step video on how it is done. Then I had to practise it for myself several times until I was confident I could do it on my own. As easy as that! 😉

On @neuroscientist.at.work, you also mentioned that you sometimes need to 3D print materials for your experiments – what kind of things do you 3D print?

I once 3D printed a flat piece of plastic with holes of specific diameter and in specific locations, in order to use it during microscopy so that I would always be looking at the same cells when trying to track their growth. I haven’t had to print anything else since then, but other scientists in my lab usually print pieces that can be used to replace missing parts of lab equipment to make their experiments a little bit easier without having to spend a fortune! 😀

What’s your favorite brain cell type?

The microglia ❤️, because this is what my research is currently focused on and so I have grown to love them! Even though neurons get all the attention most of the time, they would not work properly without the support from glial cells, such as astrocytes and microglia!

Describe your worst and best day in the lab!

My worst day would have to be when my cell culture got contaminated and this delayed my experiments for a couple of months 😣. My best day is generally any day which involves a dissection because everything always works perfectly on those days!

What’s your favorite and least favourite lab assay?

My favourite is PCR because it is straight-forward, quick and easy. My least favourite is cell counting.

You know you’re a neuroscientist when…

…you always point out scientific inaccuracies in TV shows and movies (this is probably true for any type of scientist, really). 🤓

Thanks, Eleni for being a part of our #SciComm series! It's really inspiring to read stories like yours and hear the passion you have for the science you're doing.

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If you are also a science communicator and would like to share your story, let us know - we'd love to hear from you!

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