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Brainwaves: Interview with Dr Michelle Bellingham

Brainwaves: Interview with Dr Michelle Bellingham

Interviewing eminent neuroendocinologists about their work, passions and tips for budding scientists.
Interview by Agnes Becker, BSN Communications Officer.

Michelle Bellingham is a Senior Lecturer in Comparative Physiology at the School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Glasgow. Her main research focuses on assessing the effects of exposure to environmental chemical mixtures and endocrine disruptors on reproductive neuroendocrinology and physiology. In this interview Michelle shares her excitement about unexpected results and new research ideas, the importance of learning new things and why kindness goes a long way.

1. Tell us about your research and why it excites you

I think it is the challenge of trying to work out the associations and interactions between a physiological effect and exposure to a specific environment which I find exciting. And there are always plenty of unexpected results along the way to keep things interesting- the research questions are endless!

2. How do you form new research ideas?

There is never a shortage of research ideas (just time and funding to explore them!). Sometimes new ideas form organically for example due to an unexpected finding that leads to a new avenue of research. Other times I am inspired by a conference presentation or a seminar speaker and I will reach out to discuss possible collaborations. Collaboration is what I think makes great research- linking up different expertise to tackle a research question, everyone bringing something to the team to address a common goal.

3. What has been your most important or surprising scientific finding?

One of my most striking findings was discovering that the microscopic structure of the testis was highly abnormal in adult males that had been exposed to environmental chemicals in-utero. So, impacts early in life can have long term physiological consequences. These abnormal males had otherwise “normal” testis size and endocrine values but it wasn’t until we looked at the cellular level that such striking changes were seen. Ultimately you can “never judge a book by its cover” in science too.

4. Describe a typical (pre-COVID19) day

Before covid I would usually get up (coffee!), do the school run then head straight into the office/lab. Usually, I would spend the first hour or so replying to emails and prioritising work for the week which could include teaching, supervising students in the lab, meetings, admin, planning the next funding application. No day is ever the same in science, but pre-COVID19 I always tried to leave in time to be back home to have dinner with the family. I would only usually work in the evenings if I had a looming deadline.

5. How has COVID-19 affected your work?

Covid has had both good and not so good impacts on my work. The good: working from home has given me flexibility to work whenever suits me and not having to commute and rush about to get home has made my work more time efficient. Most days I can also get away with wearing comfortable joggers and a baggy jumper (something I would never go to work wearing!). The less good impacts have been juggling having to homeschool and work. It has been tough at times and I have had guilt over not doing a very good job of either!

6. What methods does your lab specialise in?

We mainly specialise in qRT-PCR, immunohistochemistry, hormone assays but we are also beginning to use some ‘omics approaches using the NanoporeTM technology.

7. Who or what inspired you into neuroendocrinology?

When I started out in the field of neuroendocrinology in 2007 as a post-doc it was relatively new to me although I had always loved reproductive physiology. I have been fortunate to work with inspiring neuroendocrinologists over the past 14 years including Dr Jane Robinson who has had an inspirational career but is the most humble person I know. She inspired me every day before she retired!

8. How has the BSN impacted your career?

My first BSN meeting was in 2007 (Nottingham) and I was struck by the friendliness of the Society- it was like a family where everyone seemed to know everyone else. I got involved more formally with the BSN when I was appointed as the ECR Representative and a member of the board of Trustees in 2014. I stayed on the board as the Grants panel subcommittee chair until 2020 and now I am the treasurer. I have benefited immensely from the BSN in the form of project support grants, support for summer students as well as generous travel grants and conference registration which has allowed me to present our work nationally and internationally. My involvement with the BSN has created new friends and collaborations which have had a significant positive impact on my career.

9. What do you most value about BSN’s official journal Journal of Neuroendocrinology?

The BSN is rather unique in that it has its own specific journal, the JNE. I really value the close relationship that exists between JNE and BSN as it feels like the journal really values the scientific output of the neuroendocrine community and supports the publication of excellent research in the field. I also value the special issues that the JNE publishes which are excellent! 10. Outside of your area, which other established or up-and-coming areas do you find exciting? I am personally really interested in the regulation of appetite and control of eating. I am fascinated by trying to understand how bodyweight is regulated.

11. Which book has had the biggest impact in your life?

Ooh this is a tricky one as I am not much of a bookworm at all, so it would probably have to be a biology textbook or something!

12. What advice would you give an aspiring neuroendocrinologist?

I’d probably say keep learning new things. It’s easy to keep doing things the way we have always done them, but things evolve, and we need to also evolve to keep up with the science.

13. What do you hope your academic legacy will be?

Jeez, I guess that no matter how busy life and work is I always make time for others and I am a team player. I think kindness goes a long way!