Until recently, Ginny Smith was a researcher at Cambridge University where she gained a degree in psychology. Now Ginny is a science communicator across many fields, working with The Naked Scientists, The Cambridge Science Centre and Things We Don’t Know.
There’s just so much we don’t know about the brain.
On becoming interested in science
I’ve always loved science, ever since I was little. There’s a story my mum loves to tell of when I was about two or three and we walked into a bathroom and I asked her why sounds were louder in the bathroom. And, apparently, another mother was there and sort of said, ‘Oh my goodness, I wouldn’t know how to answer that’, but because my mum was quite scientific – she was a microbiologist – she always answered my questions like that and I think I just always loved science. We did lots of experiments at home, I had great science teachers at primary school and I just never lost that sort of curiosity about the world.
On choosing psychology
I went to university thinking I was going to do chemistry, because I loved experiments and all that sort of thing and I thought chemistry was a great science. Because I hadn’t really done any psychology I didn’t really think of it in the way that you do it at university, but because I was studying natural sciences you get to do four subjects in your first year and I picked evolution and behaviour as my first subject, kind of on a whim just because I needed something to fill out my timetable, and absolutely loved the behaviour side of things, both animal and human, so then in my second year I took a psychology option and just fell in love with the brain. Basically, we know so little about it. It’s incredible. It’s the organ that does everything for us, we couldn’t survive without it, and yet we know less about it than we know about space, which is so far out there, and yes, it’s interesting and yes, it’s important, but it doesn’t affect us on a day-to-day basis in the same way that our brain does and we know so little about it and that just really excited me.
On studying the brain
I think it’s [incredible] how adaptable and changeable and plastic the brain is. So, until fairly recently, we thought that children’s brains were very flexible and could change but the time you were about my age, you know, early twenties, everything was sort of settled and this was why learning languages was harder when you’re older; we thought basically the brain couldn’t really change much once you were grown up. But in the last sort of twenty, thirty years we’ve started realising just how changeable the brain really is. So, it’s not fixed and if you practice something, that area of the brain that’s responsible for that thing will get bigger. So, people who take a musical instrument, the area that controls, say…if your fingers need fine motor control, so violinists, who usually play this way round, their left hand needs more fine motor control because that’s where they play the notes, so the area of the motor cortex that controls the left hand, which is in the right hemisphere, gets bigger than the one that controls the right hand, which only needs to do the bow. And it’s this changing and flexibility…it’s not as static as we thought it was and I think that’s really incredible.
There’s just so much we don’t know about the brain. I mean, it’s such a complicated organ, there’s a hundred billon neurons and a hundred trillion connections and mapping those would be incredible; if we could actually get a map of all those connections. But the thing is, every brain is unique because every person is unique, every person has had different experiences, so even if we managed to map one person’s brain I’m not sure that would be able to translate to another person’s brain. So people are trying to map all the connections in the brain, but we’re a long way off really understanding how each neuron influences each other neuron and how each area of the brain talks to other areas of the brain. There’s so much that we still need to find out because there’s so many illnesses that are based in the brain and compared to the strides we’ve made treating physical illnesses, mental illnesses…although we really shouldn’t make that distinction because they are still physical, they’re just physical in the brain, but because the brain is so complicated and because we don’t really understand the intricacies of how it interacts and how it works, it’s much, much harder to try and treat those kinds of illnesses. And they tend to be treated in a kind of holistic way in that we give them drugs that affect the whole brain even though it might only be an area of the brain that’s dysfunctional and so you get all these horrible side effects and it’d be really great if we can start making some strides in that sort of area, and there are a few things that are being tested. So, deep brain stimulation, where they actually implant electrodes into the brain and they can therefore target much more specific areas without affecting the brain as a whole. So the hope is there’ll be less side effects and things like that but that’s something I’d really like to see real strides in. Treatment for horrible things like depression and OCD and schizophrenia that can be…that can make people’s lives really difficult.
On science communication
So, what I love about [working with] The Naked Scientists is I get to cover such a diverse range of science. I loved my degree course because you started off with such a broad spectrum. So I was doing material science and chemistry and evolution and psychology and all these different areas of science and I loved that. And then they made me narrow down. And, while I loved psychology, I kind of missed the other bits of science. But now I get to talk about a bit of everything. I get to interview fascinating people, um, I went to look around the Gurdon Institute a few weeks ago and they showed me their labs where they’re looking at the fruit flies and I got to look down the microscope and all these things I haven’t done in years, but suddenly I can do that and I can be…one day I’ll be in a school talking to some GCSE level kids about really basic science stuff and the next day I’ll be interviewing an expert in their field about epigenetics or something really quite high level and complicated and it’s just fascinating that I get to see so much of what’s going on in science every day.
Now what I love about working at the Cambridge Science Centre is that you’re really there with the people you’re trying to communicate to and you get that instant feedback. So we’ll get groups of kids coming in where maybe one of them loves science but their brother is just there because the other one loves science and doesn’t really want to be there, but then by the time they’ve been there a little while and you’ve shown them some of the exhibits…and we’ve got some great things that the kids love like a big, vertical wind tunnel so you can make paper seeds and then fly them in the wind tunnel and have competitions for who can make things that’ll float. Just this sort of thing where the kids don’t necessarily feel like it’s science but they’re experimenting and they’re learning about the scientific method rather than just learning facts. And you can see kids that just thought science was boring – perhaps they don’t have the best teachers, perhaps they don’t have families who are able to do experiments at home – but they leave having had a fun time and just going away having a more positive view of science, I think that’s what I really love about that.
On covering new science
I’d say the sort of recent scientific breakthrough that’s made me sort of sit up and go, ‘What? That’s amazing’, is epigenetics. So we used to think that there was nature and there was nurture. There was genetics and there was the environment and that would affect how you turned out, both psychologically and physically, and then suddenly people started saying, ‘Oh, but actually the environment can interact with your genetics with these epigenetic markers and that can then actually be passed onto your offspring’, and suddenly you’re thinking, ‘Well, actually, maybe Lamarck’s idea wasn’t quite so silly after all’. So, Lamarkian evolution was saying that a giraffe’s neck gets longer because it stretches it a bit each generation and then that gets passed onto its children, and with Darwin’s idea we were all going, ‘Oh no, well that’s silly. It’s just that the giraffe with the longer neck gets selected for’. But, actually, epigenetics is sort of saying that maybe, maybe not exactly that example, but something that happens to you can change your genome and that can then be passed not your kids and even to your grandkids, so perhaps Lamarck’s ideas weren’t so crazy after all.