I was not always a person with Parkinson’s. For more than two decades, I was a scientist. Better than that, I was a neuroscientist. And better still, a research neuroscientist. And to be a research neuroscientist in the 1980s and 90s was to win first prize in the lottery of life.
I often reflect on my chosen area of research, wondering, in essence, whether I chose it or it chose me. With hindsight I wonder if it chose me in some way to prepare me for the second half of my life, life after research. Why? Because my main chosen area of investigation was Parkinson’s, specifically dopamine function in the basal ganglia. I came to the London Hospital Medical College as it then was, in 1980 to do postgraduate research on the factors controlling dopamine function. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this medical school was where James Parkinson himself had trained to be a physician. Doing my postgraduate research there had a certain symmetry.
For those of you unfamiliar with the process, doctoral (postgraduate) research is conducted under the supervision of a senior academic. And such is the intensity of the investigational process that the relationship between supervisor and student is critical to the success of the research. It is like the relationship between the quarterback and the coach on an American football team. A bad relationship renders the process unworkable. But with a good working relationship, everything else falls into place. I was blessed – my supervisor, Zyg K, was inspirational. He firmly believed that nothing was impossible. Sure, there were things that had never been done before, but that didn’t make them impossible. It made them exciting. His attitude was infectious. It is a measure of the man and his influence upon me that we remain friends to this day. He set me off on a journey I would never forget.
I can honestly say that I have never been happier than when I was involved in research. There was a sense that every single new day might bring some new learning or understanding. Every sunrise was gilded with optimism, every sunset with satisfaction. To be a research neuroscientist in the 80s and 90s was to be given the key to a chamber of secrets. This was a time of huge change in neuroscience with, it seemed, new breakthroughs every other week. We were fortunate to be using techniques that were, albeit briefly, in the vanguard.
I won’t bore you with the details but the gist of it was simple. Neurotransmission, the process by which nerve cells communicate with each other, takes place on a timescale shorter than a second, in milliseconds and tens of milliseconds. We had a method that could look at the changing neurotransmitters, especially dopamine, over that timeframe, in essence listening to nerve cells chattering to each other. For a few short years, everything we looked at turned to gold. Everything seemed to provide new insights into the fundamentals of neurotransmission. We published papers, spoke at conferences, spread the word in every sense.
And when the chance arose, I took over my own lab and had students of my own. We looked ever deeper at the mysteries of dopamine and its roles in the basal ganglia and limbic system. For more than a decade, we continued where my PhD had finished. I tried to instil the lessons Zyg had taught me into my own students. Several have gone on to great things, are professors and – who knows – maybe pass on some of my thoughts to their students. God help them!
I’ve often been asked what it is about research that made me so passionate. It’s not simply knowledge. That is easily acquired with time. I think it’s a number of things. Partly it’s creativity. Anyone who subscribes to the notion that artists are creative and that scientists are not has clearly never been anywhere near a research laboratory. Some of the most creative and imaginative minds I know work not with paints and easels but with technology at the very limit of its capabilities. Good scientists are always asking “what if…”. The best are finding ways of answering the question.
It is the nature of research that it answers questions. And it’s competitive. Other labs are looking for the same answers. That lends a frisson of excitement to everything in research. Few things were more satisfying than reaching the end of a week and knowing that you had found the answer to a critical question. Over that weekend, and before the results were published, you knew that you and you alone were the only person in the world who knew that particular answer. It made you tingle.
But for me, the joy in answering research questions did not lie in finding the answer. It lay in knowing that it was the answer, that there could be no doubt.
If fate hadn’t dictated otherwise, I’m sure I would still be in research. It was where my passion lay. It was where I felt alive. And if nothing else my life with dopamine prepared me for my life without.