What circadian rhythms can teach us about epilepsy

6 Oct 2021

Tammy Strickland. Image: FameLab

We give FameLab Ireland winner Tammy Strickland a little more than three minutes to tell us about her epilepsy research and the inspiration behind her career in science.

Tammy Strickland has joined the ranks of some of Ireland’s greatest science communicators as the latest national winner of FameLab. Strickland will also be the last ever Irish finalist at the FameLab international competition in November, as this will be the swansong of the science communication event that has seen more than 1,000 participants from across Ireland over the past nine years.

FameLab challenges researchers to explain complex scientific topics in less than three minutes, and Strickland took this brief opportunity to educate the audience on epilepsy.

She works as a research assistant in the Reschke Chrono-Epilepsy Lab at FutureNeuro, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for chronic and rare neurological diseases based in Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI). Under the supervision of Dr Cristina Reschke, Strickland is investigating the link between disrupted circadian rhythms and various neurological conditions, including acquired epilepsy.

Presenting this research in just 180 seconds for FameLab, she explained the causes of epilepsy and how our understanding of why people experience epileptic seizures at the same time of day could lead to the development of better treatments.

Strickland dedicated her performance at FameLab to her late mother, who she said was something of an unofficial scientist, along with her grandfather, both of whom sparked her scientific curiosity.

“I am the first official scientist in my family,” she said. “My mam, who was a hairdresser by trade in her early years and later a homemaker and artist, was fascinated with the natural world. She loved geology and botany and she shared her love and encyclopaedic knowledge of plant biology with me … My grandad was a train driver but also a nature enthusiast, gardener and inventor. He was extremely creative and loved building things.”

‘I took it for granted for a long time that the average person doesn’t really know a whole lot about epilepsy’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

Spending time with my mam and grandad inspired me to be curious and to ask loads of questions about the world. They also both encouraged me to experiment, to debate, to use my imagination and to write down all my thoughts and ideas. As a result, from a young age, I knew I wanted to be a scientist of some description. I just didn’t know what I wanted to focus on yet – the world was an awfully complex place.

I knew I wanted to be a neuroscientist specifically when I completed a small research project during my BSc degree on the life of the Nobel laureate Eric Kandel. Prof Kandel discovered the molecular basis of memory by studying the behaviour of sea snails. At the time of his discovery, he had a lot of mixed interests academically, including art history, medicine and basic neuroscience. Somehow, he managed to blend pieces of each interest together to produce some of the most beautiful and revealing neuroscience papers ever published. He, like many other brilliant scientists, works with a determination and commitment to the pursuit of truth that I find very beautiful.

How has your FameLab experience been so far?

When I saw the opportunity advertised this year, particularly as I saw it was the final year that FameLab was running, I knew I had to go for it. I found it hard to prepare for the regional heat, however, as I had just lost my mam to a long illness. In the end, I told myself that I was going to do it for her as she would have encouraged me to enter. In fact, in all honesty, she would have been my sounding board and producer.

My writing process involved walking around my house talking out loud about circadian rhythms until I felt I had a coherent narrative put together. It took longer than expected. Fitting lots of information into three minutes is quite the challenge. Luckily my housemate was away at the time so he didn’t have to hear my ramblings!

My experience in FameLab has been phenomenal. To sit in a room (even if only a virtual one) with so many like-minded individuals from all walks of life is a very special thing. The training we received with our mentors was invaluable. I now have pages and pages of notes and ideas about how to best communicate science to the public. I can’t wait to use all this new knowledge!

How would you summarise your FameLab presentation?

For the regional heat I talked about half of my major research interest – circadian rhythms. For the national final, I wanted to cover the second half of my work – namely, epilepsy.

It might sound ridiculous, but I took it for granted for a long time that the average person outside of my small research community doesn’t really know a whole lot about epilepsy as a phenomenon, even though it’s one of the most common neurological conditions in the world.

Why did you choose to focus on epilepsy for your presentation?

I wanted to take this opportunity to explain what epilepsy is, who it affects and how there is a major need for new treatments to be developed. I also wanted to quickly outline how circadian rhythm research is a promising avenue in the search for novel therapies.

I currently study the overlap between disrupted circadian rhythms and the development of epilepsy. I find the link between circadian biology and epilepsy absolutely fascinating. The temporal component of many medical conditions (neurological and otherwise) is often taken for granted in science, despite time and our experience of time being fundamental to the maintenance of health and homeostasis.

The unusual circadian (or 24-hour) rhythms observed in some people with epilepsy have been observed for hundreds of years. Even though scientists are now beginning to understand what underlies our bodily clocks at the molecular level, we still cannot explain what is going on in this level of detail in the context of epilepsy. Much remains a mystery, although many investigators (including my supervisor, Dr Cristina Reschke, with the support of Cure Epilepsy funding) are gradually teasing out this relationship using cutting-edge technology. I couldn’t not mention all of this in my talk!

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

I think a major challenge in science communication is to keep an audience listening and interested. Humans aren’t built to hang on every word of a presentation of any kind. Even during a three-minute talk, it can be challenging to maintain an audience’s attention until the very end.

I decided to use an unusual storytelling approach to tackle this. I employed a sort of Agatha Christie-esque murder-mystery narrative device to try to keep the audience captivated. I peppered my talk with core facts and figures about epilepsy, but I tried to create a tense, whodunnit atmosphere in the process. It was a strange approach but hopefully people will learn something and enjoy the three-minute dramatic saga!

Are there any common misconceptions the public have about epilepsy that you would like to correct?

In general, I find that epilepsy is either represented in a very stereotyped, often negative way in the public domain, or it is not spoken of at all. For thousands of years it was associated with demonic possession or madness, leading to shame and ostracisation in affected individuals.

Nowadays, even though we have much clearer picture of what epilepsy is in the scientific community, public awareness of it is often provided solely through inaccurate TV dramatisation or fiction. This needs to change.

Given that epilepsy affects 50m people worldwide and over 40,000 people in Ireland, I believe that epilepsy should be spoken about more openly and frequently. Core facts and experiences of people with epilepsy should be readily available (as is the way for many other common medical conditions). This means that stigma can be avoided.

Don’t miss out on the knowledge you need to succeed. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of need-to-know sci-tech news.