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Emma Burrows

April 2013

  • Wendy Cavenett

For the love of science

If you happened to frequent Bennetts Lane Jazz Club in the 2000s, it’s possible your bartender was Hobart-born, university student, Emma Burrows. Today, aged 29, she is considered one of Melbourne’s most promising behavioural neuroscientists.

Just two years out from her PhD work on gene-environment interactions – and with several academic awards and colleague endorsements – she is set to travel to Cambridge University in the UK on a Victoria Scholarship. As a Research Officer at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, she also talks with school children and seniors about her work, and is co-chair of the Florey’s Committee for Equality in Science, which attempts to address career barriers faced by women. It’s a busy life, she admits, but one she enjoys immensely.

“I’m very lucky I have this career,” she says. “It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. Science is about people. We collaborate, we share ideas – we learn from each other… We are pushing the frontiers of neuroscience, and we’re making new discoveries at a rate that is exciting. Exciting enough to engage a whole building of people here and buildings of people all around the world.”

In the last 20 years, researchers have discovered neuroplasticity, evidence that the adult brain is not – as previously thought for centuries – a fixed, unchanging or unchangeable mass. To add to these findings is a negative correlation between hours spent on the couch (watching TV) and an increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s Disease. So environment does matter? Yes, according to Dr Burrows, whose work with two mouse models (one for schizophrenia, and one for autism spectrum disorder) show “living in a stimulating environment drives the brain’s plasticity”.

This fascination with gene-environment interaction continues to inform her research and, not surprisingly, the way she lives her own life. “My parents are both teachers,” she says. “They’re very smart people so I have good genes, and they also provided a very stimulating environment when I was growing up. Again, I feel very lucky. I think all the different environments I play in – from when I was at Bennetts Lane and studying full time, to my research and my personal life – all these environments are building my brain to be more efficient.”

It’s just after 10am when Dr Burrows takes a lift to the ground floor of The Kenneth Myer Building, a facility known as the Parkville campus of the Melbourne Brain Centre. Housing the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, its light-filled space and contemporary architectural lines recall those great classic structures that seem built to inspire the higher processes of the brain. And quite rightly too, as it is the brain that is the focus of research here.

The Florey was created in July 2007 when the Brain Research Institute, the Howard Florey Institute (named after Lord Howard Florey, the Australian Nobel laureate) and the National Stroke Research Institute amalgamated to form a dynamic, interdisciplinary institution where leading neuroscientists could collaborate, troubleshoot and share ideas. Today, the Florey’s disease focus includes behavioural neuroscience, epilepsy, stroke, genomic disorders and mental health.

More than 500 staff work here, with labs located at the centre of the building with open-plan offices fanning out toward large windows overlooking Parkville, the inner Melbourne suburb known as a major research, healthcare and education precinct. Indeed, the great IBM Blue Gene Supercomputer, capable of performing 800 trillion calculations per second, is available to the institute.

Dr Burrows, who is a member of Florey’s Neural Plasticity research group, sits on a comfortable black couch in the large reception area, checking emails on her smart phone and contemplating (she later admits) her trip to Cambridge, where she will work with her peers on state-of-the-art equipment, visit the Cambridge Autism Research Centre, and travel to Paris, New York and San Francisco for various conferences and meetings.

“Science is very collaborative,” she says. “I have people I work with in Australia and people working on projects that are important to me overseas. Science is worldwide, and this trip is a great opportunity – it’s like a rite of passage for a young scientist two years out of her PhD.”

We shake hands and Dr Burrows leads the way through a small security area and into a lift that takes us to Level 5. It feels good being inside this building – one senses the importance of the work being carried out here, and it is comforting to feel this close to science and scientific processes that often seem so mysterious and impossible to understand. Looking around it’s hard not to be impressed by the environment in which Dr Burrows and her colleagues work. It is both a social space – designed for human interaction – and a serious space: it is functional, aesthetically pleasing, and high-tech. One could call it an enriched environment.

In a recent talk she gave to students from her old high school in Tasmania, Dr Burrows discussed how exposing mice to a “stimulating or rich environment… changes their brains”.

“An enriched environment not only improves memory in my mice and protects against brain disease,” she said, “but also encourages new brain cells to form, strengthens connections between existing ones, and increases expression of molecules that provide important support to the brain. Living in a stimulating environment drives the brain’s plasticity.”

Born in Hobart in 1983, Dr Burrows seemed destined to become a scientist. From a young age, her parents nurtured her insatiable curiosity for the world. In fact, her first memory is watching the behaviour of ants when given small dabs of sugar water – an experiment her parents helped set up in the family garden when she was a toddler. Her paternal grandfather was also very influential. He cloned orchids in a lab underneath his beach shack on the east coast of Tasmania. Dr Burrows says he introduced her to the protocols of conducting sterile experiments: “He showed me how he used florist’s foam for his autoclave and how, from beginning to end, the new orchids would generate. This was before I was 10 years old.”

In high school, teacher Heather Whittington asked the then 17-year-old Burrows to consider moving to Victoria to attend the University of Melbourne. “For the first six months I missed my family terribly,” she says, “but the more I encountered through Melbourne Uni, the more I loved it here.”

While working nights at Bennetts Lane, Dr Burrows completed her Bachelor of Biomedical Science (Hons – 1st Class) in 2005, majoring in Neuroscience (Dean of Science Honours List, Dux of Honours year). In 2011, she completed her PhD – Doctor of Philosophy (Medicine), and received an Australian Postgraduate Award.

At the Florey, Dr Burrows is part of a strong, interdisciplinary science community. She is currently mentoring two students, while she receives supervision from Associate Professor Anthony Hannan. She also has a mentor, Associate Professor Julie Bernhardt, and a collaborator, Dr Elisa Hill-Yardin.

“I’m turning 30 this year,” she says, checking the time. We have been talking about women in science, and the difficulties they face sustaining a career over their working lives. At the Florey, 70% of all PhD students are women and 30% are men. “But what potentially happens by age 50, at senior level, we’ve gone down to 10-14%, and in some institutes, 0% of senior management and the executive level are women.”

Taking time off to have a family, and being unable to keep up with current literature, often prevent women from returning to their career in science. It’s a very competitive field, Dr Burrows says, and one that moves quickly. Other issues such as lack of confidence, the need to spend time away from family to train overseas, and not seeing appropriate role models, are also cited as reasons for this disparity. And for Dr Burrows, these questions are becoming more and more pressing.

“My partner has a three-year-old child,” she says, “so I’m kind of in a family environment already, but I do think about ways of balancing my family and my career. But these issues aren’t exclusive to science. Maybe we can collaborate with other businesses to help find a solution.”

As Dr Burrows leads the way back to the elevator and then through the reception area once more, I cannot help but admire her zest for life. “I’m really excited about living,” she concludes. “I’m even excited about my ride home, because it’s down a small hill, and I get to see the sunset every night… Enjoying the little bits in your life – I think that’s very important.”




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