Suzi Gage is a final year PhD student at the University of Bristol. She works in translational epidemiology studying the associations between substance abuse and mental health. She also blogs for the Guardian on matters of epidemiology and science as well as playing in a band, Glis Glis.
I wrote to Jim’ll Fix It wanting to know how neon lights worked.
On becoming interested in science
I don’t know, I was never particularly interested in science per se as a child but I was definitely really inquisitive and I liked to understand things. I wrote to Jim’ll Fix It wanting to know how neon lights worked, that kind of thing, I just really liked trying to understand things, which at the time I guess I didn’t really realise was science but totally sort of sums up an inquiring mind and wanting to understand how things worked, get inside things and work out what’s going on.
So, as an undergraduate and as a Masters student I studied psychology and neuropsychology so I didn’t really particularly know what epidemiology was, but I was interested in drug use and in mental health and so… epidemiology is the study of population health, which was a good avenue to go down to try and sort of tease apart these questions of…in people with depression and people with psychosis, there’s far higher rates of smoking and higher drug use than the general population and why might this be. There are so many sort of possible reasons why these associations might be seen that aren’t just “drug use causes metal health problems”, it might be that people are self medicating, so if they find that they are taking medication, so for some antipsychotics it’s been suggested that perhaps actually smoking cigarettes can alleviate some of the side effects of these medications; so maybe the association we’re seeing is actually the other way round to what we expect it to be. But also, it could be that the people who use drugs and who have mental health problems are just different from other people in lots of other ways as well and maybe if we’re not taking these differences into account, we might be missing, sort of, the real association and seeing just this spurious one.
On current research
So at the moment I’m in my final year of my PhD and what I’m doing at the moment is a systematic review of all of the evidence, or all of the individual studies that have looked at cannabis and cigarette use and psychosis and depression. And what I’m doing is systematically – as you might expect from the name – going through the literature on this association and all of the studies that I find that have looked at this association I will then combine together to give a sort of overarching view of what we know so far. Individual studies can provide us with a certain amount of information but when we look at all the studies that have been done together it can really help strengthen our belief or add to our uncertainty as to what the real association actually is.
On opposition to the research
So I have had a bit of opposition generally, not really with the research I do but certainly with some of the articles I’ve written. So I wrote an article about standardised packaging of cigarettes and that drew a lot of ire from organisations like Forest, which are tobacco industry funded groups who want to fight against standardised packaging and I think in an ideal world they probably want to repeal the smoking bans in pubs and that kind of thing. So I’ve definitely had a little bit of online – abuse is too strong a word but, um, strongly worded blogs about me, about what I do, but it’s nothing too bad, I’ve also had a lot of people agreeing with me and offering support so it works both ways, I think.
On research following her PhD
So in September when I submit my PhD I’m going to then start working in a new MRC funded unit which has just started at the University of Bristol which is an integrative epidemiology unit. So I’m going to be continuing some of the research that I’m doing, in particular looking at recreational drug use and mental health and other sort of lifestyle behaviours with a bit of a genetics angle, yeah, working in a really, really great group of people and hopefully going and working in some other labs around the world as well, if I can wangle that.
On science blogging
I started writing a blog when I first started my PhD, mainly because I knew I was going to have to write a PhD thesis at the end of this four year period , so I wanted to practice writing as much as possible. And I had a couple of colleagues in my department who were also interested in sort of science communication and science writing so we started the blog together, but they were a couple of years ahead of me in their PhDs so they came to the point where they needed to write their thesis and so dropped out of writing the blog and so it sort of became mine almost by default. So that’s how I really got into it and then last Christmas it won a science blog writing prize and then it got moved to the Guardian website which is where it is now.
On the Happy Place app
I wasn’t involved in the actual research for the Happy Place app but it was some people in the department where I work and I was involved in a similar project looking at aggression rather than mood. So, then, the Happy Place app is something for your mobile phone or iPad to try and help people counter low mood and it’s just something you can carry round in your pocket. The theory behind it is that when you’re feeling low you have a bit of a cognitive bias about the way you interpret people’s faces around you, so if you see someone with a sort of ambiguous facial expression, on a good day you might think nothing of it but on a bad day you might think, oh, they’re annoyed with me, I’ve done something, and you might respond to them in a negative way and then they might actually respond to you in a negative way because it’s a sort of…this kind of negative reinforcement can kind of form a bit of a vicious circle and that’s the theory behind this app. There’s research going on into that at the moment, there’s a randomised controlled trial going on in the department, so this app is a sort of public outreach side of that trial at the moment to see whether people would a) use it and b) if they would find it useful.
So as well as the PhD and all the science writing, I also play in a band, in fact until quite recently I was playing in three bands so it’s quite nice to be in just one now because it takes up quite a lot of time but I’ve played music all my life and I’ve been in bands since I was about 17 and I think, certainly the science influences the band because my band mates are a guitarist who is a GP and a drummer who is a post doctoral neuroscientist so we’re kind of a pretty academic band, in fact I’m kind of the, the sort of poor relation at the moment but I’m catching them up. And we do, I mean you, I think, well certainly, we write songs about what we know so they do tend to be quite science, although they tend to be a bit more science fiction so we’ve got a song about werewolves and a song about ghosts and so maybe it’s our way of being anti-science because we have to be very scientific in our day jobs.