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Inspirational women: Dr Sarah Garfinkel

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Inspirational women: Dr Sarah Garfinkel

Dr Sarah Garfinkel, Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry and Consciousness Science at BSMS.

Before I joined BSMS in 2011, I spent five years at the University of Michigan where I specialised in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I worked with lots of people with PTSD in Detroit, looking at the mechanisms in the brain that gives rise to persistent fear memories.

My PhD was in psychology but in America I gained a real interest in fear and psychiatry and started to explore what mechanisms can underline fear. I came to work at BSMS because it was a fantastic opportunity to collaborate with Professor Hugo Critchley, one of the world leaders in body/brain interactions, and this gave me the chance to look at the role of the heart and how it can shape fear responses. 

I am delighted that I’ve recently been made Senior Lecturer. I’m still not used to saying it yet. 

I didn't really have a plan in terms of my career. I studied my PhD at the University of Sussex, which I did on the effects of alcohol and memory. I recruited student volunteers to consume alcohol and tested their memories, which was an interesting study but it instilled an existential crisis within me as I felt a sense of wanting to do more than simply monitor drunk students! As a result of doing my PhD, I met researchers who were interested in my memory paradigms, so they invited me to the United States to help them design memory experiments for different psychiatric populations while they trained me in neuroimaging. That's when I went to Michigan.   

I am currently working on a number of strands of research, including a study into heart/brain interactions and how these mechanisms are heightened with anxiety. We are just wrapping this up following a €1.9 million grant. I am also working on a number of other leads with Prof Critchley including my first ever clinical trial, which I am really excited about because it aims to help people with autism deal with anxiety. We are in the process of recruiting 120 people with autism for this study, so it is a really large project. In collaboration with Dr Mark Haywood and Sarah Fielding-Smith, we have also been given a small grant to investigate the neural mechanisms in people with borderline personality disorder who hear voices. Typically, voice hearing has been associated with schizophrenia and psychosis, but we are trying to understand more about the brain mechanisms and how somebody who doesn't suffer from psychosis can hear voices. 

I have enjoyed being involved with shows on TV and radio this year. I was recently involved in a new series for BBC Radio 4 about unusual senses most of us haven't heard about. I was the lead on one episode about interoception, which is the capacity to accurately detect bodily sensations such as your heartbeat. I did another show called The Shock, which looked at how trauma can shape memory, and I also did a TV show with a guy who claimed he could no longer fear things ever since he had his adrenal gland was removed, so I monitored his response when he was thrown off a tower, which was pretty intense! 

As scientists, we shouldn't just be in the lab studying things. It is important that we find ways of communicating these things to the world, and I enjoy the process of working with people from different environments so that we can understand things together. 

I was interested in art and history when I was growing up, and my parents thought I would be creative and paint things. But my curiosity in psychology just grew and grew, and I have been really fortunate to work with some incredible people who have shared this curiosity, so I’ve never wanted to do anything else.

BSMS fosters an open, intellectual and supportive environment, so it is a truly fantastic place to work. This gives us scientists the perfect platform to do the best science we can do. One of my biggest challenges is supervising other people, because you want to motivate, encourage and inspire their ideas but also give them the space they need to develop independently so it’s finding that balance between encouraging and not being too hands on. 

My advice to my younger self would be to not worry about what the future holds, just do the best science you can do in the moment.