This interview was carried out by Corrie Macleod, a Student Fellow.
Dr. Emma Robinson first came to Bristol as an undergraduate student in 1992 and has stayed at the university ever since! She is a professor of Pharmacology at Bristol specialising in psychopharmacology and neural behavioural studies. I caught up with Emma to talk about her recent BoB lecture and her passion for research and teaching…
Tell me more about what your Best of Bristol lecture covered.
I was nominated by students to do this lecture to integrate material that I teach about drugs and their impact to the human brain, and my own research in the area of mood disorders, in this case, depression. Recently, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) licensed treatment for the drug of abuse, ketamine to be used to treat depression. There has been a lot of media hype about it. But, a lot of people are also concerned about these exciting developments. I believe it is a transformative drug. Ketamine is definitely a great new treatment for depression. It works very well, but comes with challenges.
We can’t forget that it is a drug of abuse. Concerns about addiction and potential toxicity that comes with it are important and it is very timely to talk about that. I believe this drug is doing something unique and novel to the human brain. What that is, we just don’t know yet!
Were you always interested in this area of research?
Absolutely not! I initially thought about doing veterinary medicine. I was going to do a vet’ postgraduate degree.
But, I changed my mind when I did a research project with Hilary Little about alcohol withdrawal symptoms in mice. During the experiment, we gave mice alcohol then withdrew the substance from them. This made them develop anxiety and the same symptoms that human alcoholics have. I found it so fascinating to be able to look at animals to study and understand human behaviour. That’s what got me into my research.
Did you enjoy doing your PhD?
I enjoyed all aspects of it. Especially the teaching! I of course love doing research and being able to answer my own questions and carrying out investigations, but being able to maintain that teaching job and interact with students is great! I’m very lucky because there wasn’t a time I didn’t do a lot of teaching.
What is the most rewarding thing you’ve learned as an academic?
I absolutely love data. Designing an investigation and experimentation to test and learning how to unblind and decode things is so rewarding. Nothing beats that. If it works, it is so satisfying and great. I love trying to unravel data and understand research.
What’s the weirdest thing you can make a rat do?
Rats are extremely intelligent animals. I can’t think of just one thing, but what we notice in the labs is what we call a ‘eureka moment.’ In an experiment, we tried to make them learn how to get a food reward from touching a lever. We obviously can’t tell them what they have to do. We have to wait.
The rats explore their environment, they accidently touch the lever, then they get a reward. Over the course of a couple of days, they understand that something is going on. They realise that they are the ones who control it. You can tell that they are rationalising: ‘Press the lever, get the reward’ You can just see them understand it.
I actually believe that sometimes the rats can unconsciously train the students. Students don’t even know that they are being trained by them!
What inspired your research?
I really love to answer tough questions that I have. That is the nature of great research. Academics are always determined and focused on their own questions. I am always interested in knowing why modern society can sometimes be detrimental to mental health. I really want to know how treatments and developing treatments can help treat that.
I’m very fortunate to have had my training experience in psychology and biology to learn more about this area of research. I really want to show how the brain is a complex product of your experience in this world.
What do you think about current conversations around mental health? Do you think there still is a stigma around it?
Conversations about mental health have changed. There certainly still is a stigma in areas of our society, but now everyone is talking about it. We have to be clear about the difference between mental health, and mental illness, which is a disease. Depression is a continuum from people who are having a period of difficulty, through to people who are so ill that they won’t be able to function. These are people who are clinically unwell. It is a massive spectrum. Being able to differentiate these different populations is important because the treatments for them are all unique and different.
We are seeing a big shift in people being more willing to talk about mental health and illness. But we have to be careful to keep that in perspective. Feeling sad is normal, emotional responses are normal. It’s only when you get to a certain point that it becomes a bit more complicated, which is why understanding the difference between mental health and mental illness is important.
The more we understand the causes, the more we can find ways to protect people from these illnesses.People have to take responsibility for their mental health just as much as their physical health. We are a long way off from understanding what makes for good mental health. We understand what’s good for us physically, but we need to learn what is good for us mentally and emotionally.
What should students know about mental health?
Students should understand and be aware that being emotional is normal!
Since our society is relatively calm and stable, we aren’t used to emotional responses from stress or trauma. We have not routinely experienced emotional challenges and ups and downs. But, you will go through emotional challenge to learn from difficult experiences. We cannot over protect ourselves from difficulties. This is when we have to consider our resources: counselling, socialising…etc. in order to help people understand how to take care of themselves.
We know social support is important and social stress is bad. We should be allowed to worry, but we need to remember to keep things in perspective!
What do you do if you want to relax?
I have 2 dogs and get to walk them twice a day. They are the vet school teaching dogs, Lichen and Hadron! So I get to see them at work every day!
I also bought a farmhouse in Devon about 5 years ago and go back there pretty regularly. On Fridays, I get to leave the city and academic world behind and go to a country existence on the weekends. It’s completely different, it’s a great change of space.
What’s your favourite thing about Bristol?
Ashton Court! It’s beautiful. We’re very lucky as a city to have that kind of green space near us. We can go from the city to the countryside in 20 minutes. I sometimes walk to work from home and get to see the wildlife as I walk through Ashton, up the Clifton Suspension Bridge and into university. I can’t think of anything better to start off the day, really!
Watch Emma’s Talk below…