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Brainwaves: Interview with Professor Fran Ebling

Brainwaves: Interview with Professor Fran Ebling

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

Fran Ebling is Professor of Neuroendocrinology at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences in the University of Nottingham. Fran has been a BSN member for many years, serving on the committee (now Board of Trustees) in various roles, including Chairman between 2006-2010, and giving the BSN Mortyn Jones Lecture at the 2012 Annual Meeting. In this interview Fran writes about his research into seasonal rhythmicity, why The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles is his favourite book and his advice to aspiring neuroendocrinologists (Spoiler in Fran's own words: don’t spend too much time “listening to old gits like me!”).

***Hear Fran speak on Biological Rhythms***

Fran will be speaking on Biological Rhythms 1989-2019 at our Neuroendo Celebrate Early Career Symposium on 9 December 2019 in Glasgow, UK, to mark 30 years of the Journal of Neuroendocrinology. Places are limited to 50 delegates. Find out more and register today: bit.ly/NeuroendoCelebrate.

Tell us about your research and why it excites you

Over the years I have been involved in many different aspects of research under the broad umbrella of neuroendocrinology, but my core interest has always been in seasonal rhythmicity – the topic of my Mortyn Jones Lecture at the 2012 BSN Annual Meeting. I originally worked on seasonal reproduction, and more recently focused on seasonal rhythms in appetite, fattening and body weight, but the underlying neuroendocrine mechanisms are common. I have been fortunate in collaborating with Perry Barrett (Aberdeen) over the past 25 years or so. I find it exciting that over that time our understanding of the neuroendocrine control of seasonality has expanded enormously, encompassing the role of melatonin as a neurochemical signal of night length, the role of the pars tuberalis signaling to tanycytes, and the crucial role of local thyroid hormone availability in the hypothalamus.

How do you form new research ideas?

These days ideas mainly come from my students and research fellows. Inspiration often comes from attending conferences, hearing things in the flesh and thinking that I could apply that concept or experimental approach to the systems I am studying.

What has been your most interesting scientific finding?

Proving that fetal lambs receive photoperiodic information in utero that establishes a photoperiodic history. We published this work in 1989, before the concept of maternal-fetal communication became mainstream. Describe a typical day I don’t think that a typical day exists, that is a huge attraction of an academic position! I have been director of the BSc/MSci Neuroscience degrees at the University of Nottingham, so the management and administration of these courses that attract around 70 students a year is now my primary focus. A typical day during term time might involve lectures, small group tutorials, lab classes and workshops, and addressing way too many emails. My research involvement would largely be meeting with researchers and honours students to discuss the progress of studies and analysis of data, but it is still known for me to be assisting with in vivo procedures in the animal house. When Jo Lewis (current BSN Early Career Researcher Representative) was a research fellow here we would ensure these always overlapped with Popmaster on Radio 2 in the morning.

What methods does your lab specialise in?

In vivo skills and monitoring. A lot of time is spent using metabolic or behavioural cages to monitor ingestive behaviour, activity, and metabolic gas exchange in rodents.

Who or what inspired you into neuroendocrinology?

Without question my undergraduate tutor and project supervisor in the Zoology Department, University of Bristol, Brian Follett. His enthusiasm, insight and support were unbelievable. Also worth mentioning his lab group, the postdocs (Arthur Goldsmith, Jane Robinson) and PhD students (Russell Foster, Henryk Urbanski) just a year or two older than me provided a vibrant atmosphere, and a lot of practical help. This initial interest was then really nurtured by my PhD supervisor Gerald Lincoln (Edinburgh) and my postdoctoral mentor Doug Foster (Michigan) - two fantastic neuroendocrinologists and two fantastic people.

How has the BSN impacted your career?

BSN conferences and the Journal of Neuroendocrinology were two of the primary vehicles I used to present my research as I was establishing myself as an independent investigator. Serving the BSN steering committee (now Board of Trustees) in a variety of roles culminating in chairman (2006-10) gave me a lot of insight into research. The BSN has helped me form a wealth of friends and connections that have led to collaborations, funding, and fun.

This year, 2019, is Journal of Neuroendocrinology’s 30th Anniversary. What is your favourite JNE paper from the last 30 years and why?

Gerald Lincoln’s brilliant 1994 paper (citation below) used a great surgical technique in sheep to demonstrate the functional significance of the pituitary stalk (pars tuberalis). As input from the hypothalamus was not possible, the techique showed melatonin receptors regulate seasonal prolactin cycles directly via the pars tuberalis.

Citation: Lincoln, G. A., Clarke, I. J., 1994. Photoperiodically-induced cycles in the secretion of prolactin in hypothalamo-pituitary disconnected rams: evidence for translation of the melatonin signal in the pituitary gland. Journal of Neuroendocrinology 6, 251-260. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2826.1994.tb00580.x

Outside of your area, which other established or up-and-coming areas do you find exciting?

The application of chemo and opto-genetic technologies to the field of neuroendocrinology has been fantastic, in particular the dissection of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) pulsatility driven by kisspeptinergic neurons by Allan Herbison’s group (Otago).

Also, every time I see real time or time lapse imaging of gene expression or function I’m impressed. I’ve always held the neuroanatomists’ view that seeing is believing – the ability to see across time is even more impressive. The work Michael Hastings and Liz Maywood (both Cambridge) have done on clock gene expression in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) is a great example, and recently via Dave Grattan’s Twitter feed I saw a fabulous example of oxytocin action prompts milk ejection

Which book has had the biggest impact in your life?

I think people rather than books have had impact on my life, but if you asked me what my favourite book is then The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. I read the book because I loved the film. It is an unbelievably clever and well-written book intertwining two stories and providing an insightful commentary on Victorian public morality and private immorality. The relevance here is that good writing is worth its weight in gold; I had a wonderful PhD and postdoctoral mentors who improved my writing enormously, so I try to promote high writing standards with my team.

What advice would you give an aspiring neuroendocrinologist?

Be persistent, go with your gut feelings, try spending some time working in another country, don’t spend too much time listening to opinionated old gits like me.

What do you hope your academic legacy will be?

Through the success of my research fellows and PhD students, and also the many neuroscience and medical undergraduate students that I have taught or tutored over the years.