How your brain listens to your gut

16 Nov 2021

Image: Dr Roshaida Abdul Wahab

FameLab Ireland finalist Dr Roshaida Abdul Wahab debunked a weighty topic in her three minutes on the clock.

Dr Roshaida Abdul Wahab is no stranger to quick-fire science communication. In 2018, she competed in the Universitas 21 Three Minute Thesis competition and took home the People’s Choice Award.

This year, she took on the FameLab challenge and once again packed a complex scientific topic into a digestible three-minute talk. Abdul Wahab made it to the national final, where Tammy Strickland won the opportunity to represent Ireland at the international level.

When she’s not communicating science, Abdul Wahab is practising science as a researcher in the Conway Institute at University College Dublin (UCD) and the Wellcome-HRB Clinical Research Facility at St James’s Hospital.

Ahead of the FameLab international final, we spoke to Abdul Wahab about her experience in the competition and what inspired her work.

‘I would like to change people’s perception based on scientific evidence’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I never thought of becoming a scientist. Growing up, I was exposed to the world of medicine as mum was state nursing director and dad managed hospital medical supplies. They’re both retired but I remember following and observing them at work as a child. Sometimes, dad brought home samples like an oxygen mask or syringe and I pretended to be a doctor and ‘treated’ my teddy bears.

Fast forward, I obtained a scholarship to study medicine and a master’s in Trinity College Dublin (TCD). During this period, I realised that one can be a physician and a scientist, a term known as ‘clinician scientist’.

So, after medical school, I did my specialist clinical training (pathology) in Dublin hospitals, obtained a PhD in UCD, then returned to clinical and passed the Fellowship of the Royal College of Pathologists (FRCPath) Part 1 exam. Currently, I’m incredibly fortunate to have landed a postdoctoral clinical fellowship in chemical pathology to continue my research and my specialist clinical training simultaneously.

How was your FameLab experience?

I decided to take part in FameLab as a follow up to my stint in a global science communication competition called Thesis in 3 back when I was doing my PhD. Preparation took weeks as my research is complex, but I wanted to simplify it without losing its content. At the same time, I wanted it to be fun and memorable. It’s one of the best ways to disseminate the importance of your work to the public.

How would you summarise your FameLab presentation?

My presentation is about some of the underlying biological process that regulates our appetite, how your gut is beyond food absorption and excretion and how it can talk to your brain.

Furthermore, there are many factors that influence body weight so you cannot judge a person by its cover.

Why did you choose to focus on gut-brain messaging for your presentation?

For centuries, there is an entrenched view that has been ingrained in our society that body weight is under volitional control. I chose this topic because I would like to change people’s perception based on scientific evidence.

It is also relevant to my current research work which involves a collaboration between a multidisciplinary team including the chemical pathologists and upper GI surgeons of St Vincent’s Hospital (UCD) and St James’s Hospital (TCD) respectively.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve encountered in science communication?

The biggest challenge is how to reduce the complexity of a topic without losing its content and make it interesting and memorable. To overcome it, I experimented with a lot of things along the way to see which work and which don’t.

What common misconceptions about science would you like to correct?

I think that the public awareness about science is better nowadays since we can obtain information at the touch of our fingertips. However, the downside to that is sometimes pseudoscience can masquerade as science.

Although science has got things wrong in the past – for example, how certain diseases were transmitted or the mistaken position of the sun in the solar system – science accepts the inevitability of error and sets out to find and eliminate it. The opposite happens with pseudoscience.

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