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Inspirational women: Dr Natasha Sigala

BSMS > About BSMS > Working here > Inclusivity > Inspirational women: Dr Natasha Sigala

Inspirational women: Dr Natasha Sigala

Meet Dr Natasha Sigala, Senior Lecturer in Neuroscience at BSMS.

I started my undergraduate degree in biology when I lived in Greece. I then did my Masters in physiology before moving to Germany for my PhD. The topic was in cognitive neuroscience, and for this I did electrophysiology experiments, exploring learning, memory and how the brain responds to new experiences.

I spent four years in Oxford when I came to the UK. I was then awarded a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship, which allowed me to move to Cambridge and use functional magnetic resonance imaging, studying executive functions, e.g. attention and cognitive control. After eight years of postdoctoral research and two young children, I decided I needed a more permanent position and applied to a number of places, including BSMS. 

It was a family decision to move to Brighton. The medical school is very special and it allows me to combine teaching and research in a healthy way. I feel that at a lot of other places you end up doing mostly either research or teaching, so I really like the balance I have here. 

As well as being a Senior Lecturer in Neuroscience, I am also the Module leader for 202: Neuroscience and Behaviour, Teaching Lead for the Department of Neuroscience and the Inclusivity Team Co-Lead. The Inclusivity Team is very important because it highlights what a wonderful place to work BSMS is and helps us to better understand the attitudes and experiences of all staff and how we can improve things for everyone. 

In the lab we have just finished a project on short-term learning, which looked at how brain activity changes when we engage in a sensorimotor learning task. These studies routinely use young educated people (undergraduate students), but we know that people's memory declines after the age of 30, hence why we chose to study middle-aged people. Our long-term aim is to see if training can enhance brain resilience and help make people more resistant to cognitive decline in later life. People are living for longer, so we want to find a way for people's memory to function well for longer too. This has been a hot topic in the news in recent years, with lots of studies done on people playing games or using consoles to train their brains. But again, this has often focused on a younger audience, so we are the first to be looking at brain memory in middle age. If we can boost and train general properties of executive functions for middle-aged people this can contribute to longer-term brain health. 

Neuroscience is a new and very dynamic field, which is constantly evolving and progressing along with new technologies. Imaging has evolved dramatically in the last 15 years, and I'm incredibly excited to see how this will continue to develop. I think that any future advances in the field of neuroscience will not come from collecting more data but from looking at ways of analysing the data we can already collect in more integrated ways, from molecules to behaviour. If we can apply clever approaches to this data then I think we will see major advances in neuroscience. 

From the age of 16 I knew I wanted to be a biologist. I didn't know about neuroscience at that time and I'm not sure if it even existed as a subject to study. Gradually, I gravitated towards cognitive functions, the brain and representations of the world in the nervous system. I always wanted to work in an academic environment, despite being the first to go to university in my family, as I knew I wanted to continue learning and be able to challenge myself constantly. So on that basis, this is my dream job and I wouldn't change anything about it! 

One of the scientists I really admire is Dorothy Hodgkin, because she was a thorough scientist at the forefront of her field (crystallography) and a well-rounded person. My office in Oxford was in the same corridor that her office used to be in, which I felt was a wonderful coincidence when I was awarded the fellowship named after her. She won a Nobel Prize for her work on the structure of fundamental biomolecules, like insulin and vitamin B12, but she also balanced that with having a family and advocating against nuclear war and armed conflict. 

The most difficult thing about being a researcher is having enough time! You are torn in all different directions, so it's important to be strict with your time and do the best you can in all areas. 

I used to be more 'prickly' than I am now and I used to feel that any tips given to improve my work were a personal thing, so I wish I had that insight earlier. The advice I'd give my younger self would be to welcome constructive feedback and ignore the non-constructive comments. 

The highlight of my career so far, or certainly the best part, is when you're looking at fresh data for the first time and you discover something completely unexpected and new. Having high-profile papers published is a great feeling too, but the moment you make a scientific discovery is thrilling and doesn't compare with anything else.