In Conversation with Gary Donohoe….

We had the pleasure of having a pre-festival chat with Professor Gary Donohoe recently and wanted to share some of his views below. The good news is Gary will also be returning this November to the Midlands Science Festival and he will bring some of his most cutting-edge research stories from the School of Psychology at NUI, Galway. Gary is clinically active in mental health service delivery.

What is your current role at NUI Galway?
In July 2013 I was appointed as Professor and chair of Psychology at NUI Galway.

What is the best part of your job?
I’d have to say it is working within a research team of very talented people. I particularly like the multi-disciplinary nature of the team, consisting of geneticists, psychologists, psychiatrists, statisticians, and pharmacologists. As a psychologist, I’ve learned loads from peoplefrom other disciplines and I’m passionate about helping people learn more about psychology and neuroscience.

What advice would you give young students considering a career in science?
My advice would be to try to locate yourself at the intersection between two main areas of science. For me that’s where all the really innovative work goes on. Neuroscience is a great example of this, as it spans biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology. In many instances, great science happens when people apply discoveries from one area of science to another.

How do you think we could make science more attractive to young people?
Science is most attractive when its applied value for solving real world problems is highlighted. In medical science, for example, there are tons of great examples of this from new cancer treatments, understanding the genetics of psychiatric disorders and development of new technologies to help with physical disability.

What do you think about most during your day and is there anything you would really love to investigate further if you had no limitations?
I spend most of my day thinking about my next coffee! If I had no limitations I would love to see a break through in how the ‘basic’ science work I do on the genetics of brain structure and function translates into new treatments for mental health disorders. Right now, we’re still uncovering how genetic variants, both individually and working together in pathways, are responsible for the brain architecture. Using these insights to develop new treatments – both pharmacological and social, is something I really hope to see in my career.

What has been the most exciting scientific development for you over the course of your career to date?
The staggering pace of technology development means that there is much to chose from, whether in the areas of neuroimaging, climate change, or – as my son Ben would choose, the work of the NASA Mars rover ‘curiosity’. For me personally, though, I have been most excited by the move towards ‘big data’ consortia – large networks of scientists combining enormous quantities of data in order to answer questions that could not otherwise be answered. Two examples of this are the Enigma consortium and the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium, each of which are designed to help discover the genes involved in brain structure and neuropsychiatric disorders. The Nature paper last month, identifying 108 new genetic variants associated with schizophrenia was a landmark discovery for these fields; it feels great to be part of projects that can really answer these questions.

Why is it important to host and support events such as the Midlands Science Festival do you think?
There is great science being carried out in Ireland at the moment. While we get the headlines of this in the media, events such as the Midlands Science Festival allow people to engage with these developments at a deeper level. It’s an opportunity for people to see and hear about the fascinating things we know now that we didn’t know 10 or even 5 years ago.