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Dr Abigail Diack on neurodegenerative diseases

Understanding how misfolded proteins can cause deadly diseases and why working at Roslin pushes you to go beyond your science.

Dr Abigail Diack is a Career Track Fellow at the Roslin Institute, where she researches prion diseases – rare progressive neurodegenerative disorders that affect both humans and animals, such as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle and its variant form in people, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). In this interview she talks with MSc Science Communication student Beth Bryan about her work and its real-world applications.

Why did you decide to become a scientist?

Public Engagement
Dr Abi Diack with pupils at the Easter Bush Science Outreach Centre

I have always been really curious about how things work. As a little girl, I wanted to be a vet but as I grew older I realised I was more interested in understanding how animals function. Over time I realised I wanted to work in a field that would help vets, rather than be a vet myself. I wanted to get into the biology.

What drew you to your current field?

I studied animal science and trained in reproductive biology. Then for my PhD I changed course and looked at pig health and breeding.

When I was looking for jobs, all I knew was that I wanted to be a biologist, and I saw an advert for a job in prion biology at what used to be the Neuropathogenesis Unit of the Institute for Animal Health in Edinburgh. I had studied prions in my undergraduate degree in the context of the BSE crisis, so the advert got my interest. I didn’t get offered the job, but one of the interviewers told me there was another role she thought I would be suited to. That was in a human prion disease, so that’s how I fell into working on the human strain. 

Why did you choose to work at Roslin?

Abi Trapeze
Dr Abi Diack on the trapeze

I had been aware of the Roslin institute since I was a teenager, I remember seeing all of the headlines about Dolly the sheep, so it was somewhere everyone had heard about. When I did my undergraduate degree, we learned about a lot of the work that was being done at Roslin, and during my master’s degree we visited the Institute to see the labs and meet all the lambs and cloned sheep. Then for my PhD I had some small collaborations with Roslin scientists. When I applied for the job at the Neuropathogenesis Unit, I didn’t know at the time that they would merge with the University of Edinburgh and become part of the Roslin institute.

What do you like most about working at Roslin?

I like the people I work with, and it’s a really good environment. It’s one of those places that really encourages you to go beyond your science. I like that I have the opportunity and am encouraged to do my science, but the extra things too such as being able to work with students. For example, at the moment I am tutoring secondary school students in my spare time.

I’ve also been able to meet so many people in my area and outside of it. At Roslin we don’t just work in science, we look at the civil and engagement side of it. We are encouraged to go beyond just sitting in our office or lab, and that’s really good because I think we should share our science.

Do you have a favourite project from your time at Roslin?

Cat sitting on Abi’s hand and paperwork
Challenges of working from home

I work on characterising different strains of prion diseases. Some of the work I do seems basic but there are not many people who still do it. In one of my major projects, we get samples of cases of vCJD, a human prion disease, and I’ve spent the past seven years looking at cases of variant CJD. I use animal studies to look at how the genetics and characteristics of the disease have changed over time. From our mouse work, we can then see if our results relate back to the pathological and biochemical aspects that the clinicians and diagnostic service use. I enjoy this work because we can see where to go. If we see a change we can ask questions about how that impacts on the diagnostics.

What is a real-world application of your work?

Aside from potential benefits to people living with these diseases, our work also looks at whether Chronic Wasting disease (CWD) cases in deer in Norway are a different disease strain from cases in North America, so we can try to understand where the disease first came from and why it’s infecting different deer species. This could have a massive impact because there have been huge efforts to reduce the spread of this disease. In Norway, whole herds of reindeer have been culled, and other methods have been used in North America. Hopefully our work can flow into that and have an impact.

What challenges do you face as a scientist?

The main challenges are writing papers and getting funded, but I think the extent of these depends on which field you work in.

There will always be the fashionable fields, which bring in a lot of money and interest. Prion research had its time years ago during the BSE and variant CJD crisis. The work I do now is not particularly fashionable, but serves a basic function. One of the main challenges is therefore showing that my work is applicable to other diseases, such as other protein misfolding diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Looking at how transferrable our skills in prion diseases are to these diseases is a challenge, but a lot of the techniques we use in our work can be used in that field. For instance, our prion models can be used to understand the mechanisms for disease, because we have finer control of them than some of the animal models used for other diseases. Working in such a niche area, it is difficult to make sure we keep interest and funding, especially at the moment when Covid-19 research has understandably drawn a lot of funding.

Do you ever communicate with non-scientists about your work? If so, how?

I do, I often speak about my work to schoolchildren and students. As I work with human disease cases there is always a chance that I may need to speak to patient groups and talk about the human aspects of disease. Talking to patients or patients’ families requires a lot of sensitivity because my work starts with someone who has died and aims to understand how this prion disease led to their death. I try to be very careful with how I word my explanations, and have a lot of respect because I am so acutely aware of the fact that my science starts with what was someone’s life.

I try to practice with my friends, so that I can better understand how to talk to the public about my work. It is challenging because I want to avoid scaremongering and panicking people, but I want to be clear.

It is also important to be careful of the sensitivities around animal experimentation, because I work with mice. I’m very conscious of being clear about the ethical and animal welfare aspects. 

Do you think the importance of science communication has been increasing?

It definitely has. You only have to look at all of the media broadcasts about Covid-19 at the moment to see how important it can be. One of our Roslin scientists, Dr Christine Tait-Burkard, spoke with the BBC for a few minutes the other day and I found that helpful. She was clear and explained it really well. I have seen other broadcasts that are overcomplicated and should have been simplified, because you just get lost in all the information. Science communication is very important normally, but especially when you’re dealing with a public health issue as we are now.

Do you have any advice for students just starting out in science?

In general, I would say ‘be curious, ask questions’. Try to get work experience, and placements if you can, go to the extra seminars, read outside your area of interest. It is important to try to keep your enthusiasm and optimism, because in science things can go wrong and you might not end up doing what you want to do. If you can keep an open mind and stay enthusiastic and curious, that will take you a long way. A sense of humour always helps too.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a scientist?

In my spare time I train in circus arts such as trapeze, fabrics and aerial hoop, and I really like it. If I wasn’t a scientist, I would love to go and do professional training in that because it’s something I enjoy. Thinking in more practical terms, I would have a cat sanctuary, with a big aerial barn as well, so I could rent out the space and maybe even train people in the circus arts. 

Related links

Dr Fiona Houston on transmission of prion diseases

Gut infection can speed development of brain diseases