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Lab Notes: Interview with Dave Lyons

Lab Notes: Interview with Dave Lyons

In this 'Lab Notes' blog series the British Society for Neuroendocrinology is interviewing  recently established neuroendocrine researchers about how they started their labs and advice they would give to up-and-coming neuroendocrine researchers as we emerge from the pandemic and the disruption it cause to the careers of Early Career Researchers.

Dr Dave Lyons is a Lecurer at the University of Manchester. Dave recently set up his own lab researching how the mammalian brain co-ordinates physiology and behaviour to give both males and females the best chance of successful reproduction and subsequent rearing of offspring.

In this interview Dave talks about the disruption the pandemic played in his research, the key role supportive mentors had in terms of confidence and community and the importance of overcoming shyness in your scientific career. Oh, and watching Sons of Anarchy.

If you are looking for a mentor to help you with the next step of your career, please take a look at BSN's Mentorship Scheme.

1. Tell us who you are and your research specialism

My name’s Dave and our team here at Manchester is focused upon understanding how the mammalian brain co-ordinates physiology and behaviour to give both males and females the best chance of successful reproduction and subsequent rearing of offspring. As these elements of mammalian physiology inform almost all aspects of our lived experience (the good ones anyway), understanding how they occur is of enormous biological, social, and even political importance. Given that a great many of the necessary adaptations are driven by the hormone prolactin, we focus our attention upon tuberoinfundibular dopaminergic (TIDA) neurons – the highly specialised brain cells that control the release of prolactin from the anterior pituitary. By controlling prolactin release, TIDA neurons help the brain to both marshal and spend the enormous resources required for reproductive and parental success. As part of their role in sculpting reproductive strategy, and in order to ‘balance the physiological books’, TIDA neurons receive information from a vast array of pre-synaptic partners. Accordingly, our principal aim is to understand which networks ‘talk’ to the TIDA system and how these dynamic conversations shape circuit performance, hormone release and ultimately animal behaviour. To help achieve this, we use a range of genetically targeted anatomical, electrical, and optical approaches to map, monitor, and manipulate these reproductive network interactions in both ex vivo and in vivo settings. Which is a lot of fun.

One of the reasons we enjoy working on the TIDA system is that it has some remarkable electrophysiological and computational properties, not least of which being its rhythmic behaviour and phasic discharge. Whilst acquiring real time readouts of neuronal conversations is always a thrill, using these exciting new tools to eavesdrop on the TIDA system is especially fascinating. As an electrophysiologist, it’s hard not get a bit evangelical about TIDA neurons, as being able to dissect the ionic mechanisms they use to generate their rhythmic behaviour and to track how changes in these properties drive state dependent alterations in hormone release is about as much fun as it gets. I absolutely love it.

2. You recently established your own lab. How did you get to where you are now?

Oh Crikey, how did I get here? After training as an electrophysiologist, like Claire Foldi (see previous edition of Lab Notes) I spent the first part of my post-doctoral career in Sweden, enjoying five years in Karolinska Intstitutet. After a brief spell in the University of Uppsala, I returned home in 2013 to take up a staff position at the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen. At the beginning of 2019, I then travelled south to the University of Bristol, after which I joined the University of Manchester’s Division of Diabetes, Endocrinology and Gastroenterology as a lecturer, taking up my current post on the 1st of April 2022 – I try not to read too much into the start date.

3. How did the pandemic impacted your career?

During COVID I was in Bristol’s Department of Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience where I was helping recently appointed Head of Division, Hugh Piggins, set up his laboratory. Unfortunately for us, the pandemic arrived just as we were getting started. And as lockdown restrictions prevented us from establishing many of the techniques we intended to use, large parts of the projects we were working on ground to a halt. Whilst during the first lockdown I was a little apprehensive (I have an autoimmune condition that makes respiratory infections especially fierce), I spent the initial months at home much like everyone else – writing, analysing data … watching Sons of Anarchy from start to finish (cried at the end) … I even tried Pilates (often cried at the end of that, as well). However, once we had our ducks in a row, I was excited to get back to the lab. Working with Hugh during this period was a real education and I learned loads about the need to be flexible (getting our lectures online was a particular challenge), how to stay positive and how to work with what you have to hand. An important part of the research we were able to do on our return was funded by a BSN project support grant I wrote during lockdown. This was especially valuable, as it gave me a much-needed boost (there’s nothing like a “your application has been successful” email to put a smile on your face) and allowed me to go into my interview at Manchester with a track record of funding acquisition and a healthy chunk of pilot data. Moreover, this pilot data formed the backbone of my first major grant application, which was awarded last year. Looking back, the help I received from the BSN was instrumental in starting my journey to independence and I can’t imagine ever receiving a more impactful piece of funding. It’s something I will always be grateful for.

4. Can you tell us about any mentors who helped you get to where you are now? How did they help you?

As for mentors, I mention Christian Broberger, Klas Kullander, Lora Heisler and Hugh Piggins in Q5. But help from senior colleagues comes in all shapes and sizes and often from people you don’t necessarily work with. I’ve been fortunate to work next to lots of people like this (Simon Luckman at Manchester springs to mind), but one that really stands out is Tomas Hökfelt at Karolinska. I’m still a little amazed at how much time and effort Tomas dedicated to junior staff. Despite being one of the heaviest of neuroscience heavyweights, Tomas had coffee (fika) with junior staff every single day, always ensured we attended symposia and were introduced to visiting scientists (this is fantastic if you’re nervous or shy) and was continually available for help and advice. Some days you would get to work early (you could never get in before Tomas – I know, I tried) and would find a hand annotated paper on your desk headed with the words “saw this, thought you’d be interested”. That Tomas knew what I was doing, was interested, and took the time to help, gave me a lot of confidence and made me feel good about science as a community endeavour – something we do together. When you add the example he set to all the reference letters and words of encouragement he wrote, he has not only helped me get where I’ve got, but shown me how to behave now I’m here.

5. What would be your 3 top tips to up and coming neuroendocrinologists who want to establish their own labs?

What are my top 3 tips? I actually found this really tough. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realised that all of the things I would do differently, or better, revolve around one thing. Namely, don’t be shy! I know this can be hard, and everyone suffers from this to a greater or lesser extent. I certainly do. When I’m not thinking about whether it might be unhealthy to watch Sons of Anarchy again, or why I can’t do Pilates, my mind is often chock a block with “Oh God” thoughts… Oh God, I can’t do this… Oh God, nobody’s going to be interested… Oh God, this is a terrible idea. But once you put yourself out there (it helps to have someone to give you a push) you’ll quickly find that 95% of people, 95% of the time are absolutely lovely and will both understand and be more than happy to help out.

1. Don’t be shy - join a gang (I’m talking about the BSN).

Chances are if you’re reading this you are already a BSN member, but if you’re not, just do it. You won’t regret it. After all, if you are going to make progress within a research community it helps to be part of it – and you will need help – so make sure you join in. By joining a research society (obviously, this doesn’t just apply to the BSN – though it is my favourite) you’ll be able to exchange scientific and professional ideas with a whole host of people in the same boat. In addition to meeting lots of people like yourself, you’ll get to pick the brain of more senior and established researchers. I think this is a particular strength of the BSN, as our senior members really do care about neuroendocrinology, both as a discipline and a community. In fact, sitting on the board of trustees, I found that pretty much all anyone wanted to discuss was how to support and encourage the next generation of neuroendocrinologists. So join in. The BSN is full of people and opportunities that will help you grow as a scientist.

2. Don’t be shy - be strategic.

Now this is something I certainly didn’t do. Growing up where I did, I didn’t have any ‘cultural capital’ or familial experience of academia. I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing, and was constantly amazed by people who did. As it turns out, I was just very lucky. I got to work with, and learn from, some amazing people – all without a plan. I had a great time in Sweden with Christian Broberger (now at Stockholm University) and Klas Kullander at Uppsala. Working with Lora Heisler and the rest of her team in Aberdeen team was fantastic. And Hugh was smashing and incredibly supportive of me going for a lectureship. However, as great as it is to be lucky, it’s a terrible thing to rely on. So instead, I would give some serious thought as to what you want work on and who you want to work with. And then – and this is the important bit – get in touch. By showing an interest the worst that can happen is you’ll make an academic’s day. But you might find, just by picking up the phone (turn of phrase – nobody does that anymore), you suddenly have all kinds of new opportunities, ideas and advice to work with. Finding a pathway to independence is a lot easier if you draw yourself a map.

3. Don’t be shy – buy a lottery ticket.

Apply for grants! If you don’t ante up, you don’t get dealt a hand. So ignore any negative voices (most of them will be yours) and throw your chips in the middle. Attracting funding is an unavoidably important part of establishing your own research – so you have to give it a go. I find the hardest part to be starting. However, as horrible as it is to get going, once you begin putting your ideas on paper, it can actually be fun … not as fun as Sons of Anarchy, obviously, but still. Remember to get some advice. Speak to the funder, speak to your institute and speak to colleagues who’ve had success – people will help. And don’t get disheartened. Writing – of any kind – is a skill and needs practice. So even if you’re not successful at first, nothing is ever wasted and every attempt has value.

4. Don’t be shy – talk.

I know I’m only supposed to give three tips but I’m on a roll and I think this last one is super-important. Often when labs get a bit grumpy and dysfunctional, it’s because people have stopped talking to one another. It’s very easy to assume others can see what you see, or know what you’re thinking. Accordingly, as bad as it is to rely on luck, it’s a truly terrible idea to rely on telepathy. Outside your Mum knowing when you haven’t done your homework, it really doesn’t exist. So if you have a problem, or something is upsetting you, don’t be shy. Tell people what’s happening and give them the chance to help. Nine times out of ten, they will.