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Women in Science 2019: Professor Stephanie Cragg

Written by Eleanor Sanger, posted on Saturday, February 9, 2019

Professor  Stephanie Cragg

February 11th is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, declared by the UN with the aim of promoting full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls, and further achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

To mark the day, we’re taking the opportunity to celebrate some of our own brilliant women in science, by finding out more about the amazing things they do and how they got to where they are today.

Professor Stephanie Cragg is Tutor for Medicine at Christ Church, and University Lecturer in Neuroscience. She carries out undergraduate teaching in pre-clinical medicine, and her research interests include the neuroscience underlying Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders, drug addiction and other psychiatric illness.​

Summarise your research area

My research is in the field of neuroscience. We focus on understanding the process of chemical neurotransmission by the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is absolutely critical to how we make decisions about our everyday actions and then learn about whether the outcome was rewarding, so that we become adapted to our environments. Dopamine signalling is hijacked by drugs of addiction and probably all addiction disorders, and is irreversibly lost in Parkinson’s disease. We aim to understand at a cellular level the brain processes that control how dopamine transmission works. Our work helps us to better understand how the normal healthy brain works, and as well as the pathological mechanisms that contribute to disease, and we hope that it might impact on new kinds of treatments.

What were your favourite subjects at school, and why? 

Definitely maths and sciences, because I felt like they helped me to make sense of the mechanics of the world around me!

When and why did you decide to study science at university? 

Around early A-level stage I think, and because of point 2!

What aspect of your work do you most enjoy? 

I find it a huge privilege to be able to make fundamental new insights into the way our brains our work. It is thrilling! It is a bit like being an explorer, and is also a very creative occupation. It involves trying to devise ways to make experiments work, then the exciting moment when we get the results, followed by trying to think of an explanation and where to go next! It is a lot of fun, involving collaborative discussion, the unveiling of new results and questions, and then publishing and travelling the world to share new discoveries with international colleagues. It is diverse and very stimulating.

What is the most fascinating thing you've learnt as part of your study of science? 

Fascination is in the eye of the beholder! What’s been most fascinating for me recently, are our discoveries about how dopamine neurons are not controlled in quite the way that it had been presumed they were. To simplify, it had been presumed for a long time that the output ends of the neurons were like a large branching set of cables which conducted the electrical activity they were given to release dopamine. But our work has helped to show that by contrast, these complex output branches, which really do look like trees (!), have very many, powerful, mechanisms that gate whether dopamine is released or not. They change the signal. These branches are not just passive cables, but have properties that are very active and important.

What is the best piece of advice you've ever been given? 

A collection of pieces of advice that largely relate to the theme of needing to be resilient! There is a lot of what seems like failure to deal with along the way. You need to try, try, and try again. And where one door closes, another one will open (if you keep trying!).

Who is your most inspirational female scientist? 

That’s a tough call! I’ll flag here two sets of female biomedical scientists! One, is the women scientists of the past who became almost household names, as women who forged landmark careers in times when it wasn’t common or easy to succeed or be fully recognised for achievements as a woman scientist. Amazing scientists like Rosalind Franklin and Dorothy Hodgkin. Growing up knowing those names definitely had an impact on me, to know that women could achieve like them. The other very influential set, are the two fantastic women that supervised me as a PhD student and early postdoctoral scientist, Susan Greenfield (Oxford) and Margaret Rice (New York University). As well as being brilliant and passionate mentors, and illuminating so many of the ways for me which was very influential and inspiring to me, they also helped to normalise for me the idea of being a women in science. I questioned it less. And we really shouldn’t question it.

If you could give one piece of advice to girls considering studying science, what would it be? 

If you love it, then do it! Do it and be yourself!