International Day of Women and Girls in Science aims to celebrate the field of science and encourage young girls and women to explore and pursue careers and interests. Today we focus on MSWA funded researcher Jenny Rodger and her experiences throughout her career.
At MSWA we work with a variety of researchers to understand the causes, find better treatments and, one day, find cures for neurological conditions. We caught up with MSWA funded researcher Associate Professor Jenny Rodger to talk about her journey to become Head of Brain Plasticity Research at the Perron Institute.
When Jenny was growing up, she always had an interest in science but had no idea that her interest in the brain could become a career. For many young people, especially women and girls, this lack of information isn’t uncommon.
“Having genuine support and guidance is absolutely crucial for anyone to pursue a career in science,” Jenny said. “I remember doing a vocational test at school because, like many others, I wasn’t sure what career path I wanted to take. I found out my scores were in the top 5 percentile for science, but strangely, my report suggested that ‘before marriage I might enjoy working as a laboratory technician’!”
While this recommendation wasn’t meant unkindly, the opinion that women and girls cannot commit to a scientific career was not uncommon at the time and unfortunately still persists today.
Luckily, this feedback did not put Jenny off her studies “My scores and the unreserved support from my parents reaffirmed my decision to go to university and study biochemistry, which was my first step towards a career in science.”
Due to experiences like this, as well as wanting to share her love for science and neuro research, Jenny speaks and teaches in high schools for STEM programs along with lecturing at universities. Her aim? Making science accessible to everyone.
“The wonderful thing about science is that there are so many career options - you can work in a laboratory, in a hospital, you can be a manager, a technician, a teacher, a writer, a communicator… the list is endless. There is truly something for everyone, it’s not all about white coats and test tubes.”
Jenny now heads the Brain Plasticity Research group based at the Perron Institute and The University of Western Australia and is currently in her fifth year of MSWA funding towards her work in neuroplasticity research.
Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to reorganise itself by forming new connections. This process allows the nerve cells in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or changes in their environment.
The fundamental research component of Jenny’s work is currently centred on discovering how plasticity affects the way different parts of the brain communicate with each other.
Jenny said the Brain Plasticity group’s applied fundamental research aims are part of an ambitious translational pipeline that includes clinical trials to bring better treatments to patients with neurological conditions.
“Our research uses a range of experimental models of human disease to understand the origins of disorders, as well as to test novel treatments,” Jenny said.
“In my research this year I am really looking forward to testing out some novel techniques we are establishing at the Perron Institute.”
“We have some amazing new equipment and facilities at the Institute that allow us to ‘listen in’ to the electrical activity of brain cells and image the whole brain to progress our knowledge.”
“The equipment is incredibly powerful and will help us to understand how the brain works, what happens when things go wrong, and how treatments can deliver benefits to patients. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the state.”
Jenny said she was excited that that her research has provided new hypotheses about how brain plasticity works. This means that the fundamental research component of the work being undertaken by the Brain Plasticity group at the Perron Institute is driving new studies of treatments that can increase brain plasticity and treat a wide range of neurological conditions.
One of these treatments is a non-invasive procedure, known as repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). It is applied externally through the skull and uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain. It is one of the most promising techniques available to harness and promote brain plasticity.
Possible applications being explored include novel approaches to treatment of tinnitus (in a long-standing collaboration with Associate Professor Helmy Mulders from The University of Western Australia) for depression, stroke, and multiple sclerosis.
“We now have insights into how we can improve treatments for people with depression and a clinical trial will be concluding in the second half of the year,” Jenny said.
“We have also published important research showing magnetic stimulation improves the survival of oligodendrocytes (the myelinating cells of the brain that die in multiple sclerosis) in experimental models and I am working with colleagues in Tasmania to bring these findings to clinical trials in the next two years.”
A pilot study is also looking at the potential use of transcranial magnetic stimulation in combination with robotics and neurophysiology to improve brain plasticity and functional outcomes after spinal cord injury.
Jenny’s focus for the next two years is to continue to translate her laboratory work into advancing treatments and achieving improved outcomes for patients.
“We are excited by the new knowledge created by our research so far and with MSWA’s continued support we look forward to translating these promising results to help people living with a neurological condition.”
New research projects to further understanding of brain function, dysfunction and plasticity have attracted over $1million in research funding in support of the work being led by Associate Professor Jenny Rodger at the Perron Institute.
For more information on Jenny’s work or to see other research projects currently being funded by MSWA, head to our Commitment to Research page.