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Brainwaves: Interview with Professor Neil Evans

Brainwaves: Interview with Professor Neil Evans

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

Neil Evans is a professor of Integrative Physiology at the University of Glasgow, within the Institute of Biodiversity Animal Health and Comparative Medicine in the College of Medical Veterinary and Life Sciences. Neil did a Genetics degree at the University of Nottingham, a PhD at the Institute of Animal Physiology and Genetics Research/University of Edinburgh and post docs at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor USA and The Babraham Institute, Cambridge, UK. Neil was elected President of the British Society for Neuroendocrinology in November 2020. In this interview he talks about how he hopes his research will impact human and animal health, where he gets his research inspration and taking opportunities as they present themselves.

Tell us about your research and why it excites you

Initially my research was focused on the reproductive axis but over time it has expanded and now encompasses the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis and is even starting to look at the regulation of energy balance. These systems are so intertwined, however, that maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s also fascinating to try and understand how these systems all talk to each other to integrate function. While the research I am involved in would be classified as ‘basic research’ it’s exciting to think about and see how the results and findings can be used and how they might impact human (and animal) health and welfare. For example, some of our research on the developmental effects of environmental chemicals on neuroendocrine systems could ultimately feed into regulatory decisions re chemical use, while investigation into the effects of manipulating GnRH secretion at puberty could inform us about long-term extra reproductive effects of manipulation of HPG axis activity.

How do you form new research ideas?

Listening and talking with others, that can be at conferences or a seminar or with post docs and students. Sometimes, it is the talk that you go to, which is almost peripheral to your main interests, that can give you a lead or spark an idea and set a train of thought in motion.

What has been your most important or surprising scientific finding?

That’s a difficult question, it’s like asking which is your favourite child! The work which I did looking at the steroidogenic regulation of GnRH secretion was really important, as we learned not only about the regulatory systems but also GnRH patterning. The work on the effect of endocrine disrupting compounds on neuroendocrine systems has also been important as we have been championing the need to consider the effects of chemical mixtures as opposed to single chemicals and there does now appear to be a growing recognition that it isn’t possible to predict the overall effects of a mixture by taking the sum of its parts.

Describe a typical (pre-COVID19) day

I suspect that a typical pre-covid day wouldn’t be that different from many other people working in a university system, lectures, lab classes, meetings with research undergraduate students and of course some administrative duties that come along with being a senior academic. Sometimes administration can be a real drain on time and energy but sometimes you get to learn about areas of the university that you have little knowledge of and sometimes you can be involved in projects that you know will benefits countless undergraduate and postgraduate students.

How has COVID-19 affected your work?

We were lucky/unlucky that we started a large animal-based experiment which involves breeding sheep over a 5 year period, in Nov 2019, so our F1 generation were born in lockdown. Covid has affected staffing levels so we have had to be creative and hands on in all aspects of the animal work. The lab was closed but is now up and running again at reduced capacity. Everything is taking longer research wise and has to be balanced against the additional work associated with conversion to on-line teaching.

What methods do you/your lab specialise in?

Whole animal integrative physiology

Who or what inspired you into neuroendocrinology?

I didn’t have a plan! I was going down a genetics route until I went to do a genetics-based PhD which then morphed into a physiology-based PhD, at the University of Edinburgh. While there I met and was inspired by people such as David Baird, Roger Land, Gerald Lincoln, Alan and Judy McNeilly and they introduced me to many fantastic scientists in the reproductive field. I then completed a post doc at The University of Michigan where I had the privilege of working with the likes of Fred Karsch, Doug Foster, Rees Midgley and Vasantha Padmanabhan and due to the reputation of the programme there we had a stream of inspiring scientists come through the labs.

 How has the BSN impacted your career?

While you can learn a lot from some of the ‘big’ conferences, smaller meetings such as the BSN annual meetings have always been a fantastic environment in which to meet up with and talk with colleagues and friends and so form collaborations and gain insights that can lead onto that next grant application.

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

The journal always has something interesting in it, even when the papers are outside your area, there can be elements that are relevant.

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

Having had a longstanding interest in developmental programming, the progress that is being made in our understanding of epigenetics is fascinating, even brief transient events can in theory have effects that ripple on across generations.

Which book has had the biggest impact in your life?

While not having a direct impact, per see, Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks was a novel that sticks out for the way it makes you think about the horrors of WW1. Luckily we have not had to face that side of humanity, in that way and we can only hope that we never do.

What advice would you give an aspiring neuroendocrinologist?

Take the opportunities that present to you, that you think are interesting, and never wonder what would have been if you had done something differently.

What do you hope your academic legacy will be?

The people who I have helped along the way, be that colleagues or students or those that ultimately benefit from any insights that come from our research