‘Science is international’

Ian Florance talks to Adrian Owen about the ‘brain drain’ and more

Adrian Owen is moving to Canada, together with the majority of his research team from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge. It seems even his band You Jump First won’t be much affected by the move. So why is he leaving a job where he has developed such a high profile as a pioneer of imaging? ‘Science is international, so scientists do move around,’ he tells me. ‘That must be a good thing.’

How did you get into psychology? ‘My brother is two years older than me and he was studying space physics. He went on to work for NASA and is now at UCL. Hard science subjects looked way too difficult for me though, as it’s turned out, I’m probably doing science now that’s just as complex as he’s doing. My UCAS form reflected a desire for softer science: psychology or oceanography.’

But things didn’t quite work out the way you planned? ‘No, I went to UCL, got fascinated by experimental psychology and the next 20 years of my career was pretty well laid out. I became immersed in neuropsychology and computing. This was in the late 1980s. I wanted to do a PhD and ended up doing it at the Institute of Psychiatry, though my supervisors were in Cambridge and I spent a lot of time there. I really got the bug for brain science. Round about this period, imaging started to take off and, as you can imagine given my interests, I really wanted to get involved in it because it provides an amazing “window on the brain”. I sometimes think I was born to do functional imaging. Once I got involved I thought it was the best thing ever, though I’m less certain now.’

Did you think of going into another area? ‘I flirted with clinical psychology. But from the first year of my degree I was fascinated by the idea that you could lose a bit of your brain and a function would disappear. At that time there were really only three places you could do functional imaging. I went to the Neuropsychology Department at the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) where Michael Petrides was the Director. It was a wonderful experience – Montreal is a great city and there was ample funding designed to get the imaging effort going.’

Adrian tells me that he thought he would never come back to the UK. ‘But in ’96 I got into a bit of a trap. After my postdoc I had to get a proper job and, at that moment, Cambridge beckoned.I received a University Fellowship and came back to the Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre at Addenbrooke’s Hospital to collaborate with Trevor Robbins, who had been my Cambridge supervisor. I knew how to do imaging from my experience in Montreal and that was exactly the skill set they needed to get functional imaging going in Cambridge.‘The imaging facility was put right next door to the neurointensive care unit at Addenbrooke’s. There was no other place in the world where the barrier between our research technology and patients comprised one door. Partly because of that, something extraordinary happened.’

It was here that Adrian met a patient, Kate Bainbridge, who was in a persistent vegetative state. ‘David Menon, who is now head of the University Department of Anaesthesia, was working in the neurointensive care unit. He introduced me to Kate. There had been no real imaging work with such a patient previously so we had to make things up as we went along. David and I showed her pictures of faces and, for the first time, we found that the brain of such a patient could “light up” in the way we’d expect a conscious person’s brain to. Our conclusion was that it made no sense, so we had to make sense of it. Kate recovered, has become a voice for that population of patients and I keep in touch with her.’

Explain what particularly enthused you about what happened, I ask. ‘It was applied. It told us something real about a real person that we couldn’t possibly have known any other way. I’m less interested in brain mapping now but, at the time, it was hugely influential. It made a difference. Allied to that was the fact that we were finding out things that no one could have predicted. Perhaps 90 per cent of scientific papers confirm something you could have predicted. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done more than my fair share of mundane research and it can be important. But maybe 10 per cent of scientific work turns up paradoxes. You ask questions without knowing answers. In a very really sense we were combining pure scientific inquiry with applied science.’

This work captured the public and media attention and helped Adrian in his career. ‘After a year, I moved down the road to be based at what was then called the MRC Applied Psychology Unit (APU), but I have continued to do research at the Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre to this day.’ Were you looking to move? ‘Not at all. The work has gone well. I have a great team. We’re pretty well-funded.’

I sense a ‘but’! ‘It’s a big team now, working on a huge variety of projects and patients. This does add an administrative load to the job. I’m assistant director responsible for the imaging facilities and other scanning at what is now called the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit. I also give many lectures and spend a lot of time travelling. I enjoy all this, but it does make it difficult to find the time to do work on brain injury research. By its nature a centre like this will grow organically. There are advantages in that, but I like a more joined-up approach – which is what my new position offers.’

I ask Adrian how the new post came about. ‘Mel Goodale from the University of Western Ontario called. Canada was trying to reverse its “brain drain” and the Federal Government had decided to address the issue by creating 20 “super chairs”. They’d contribute $10 million per chair to be matched by the same amount from the local university. The University of Western Ontario wanted to make the best of their existing local psychological, clinical and imaging facilities by bringing in someone to pull it together. I was invited there at the second round stage when 40 universities had been shortlisted.

‘The University played a blinder! They understood that neuroscience is expensive and offered a win–win deal. “We’ll enable you to achieve what you want; in return, you’ll take us to the next level”. I was introduced to all the senior officers of the university: I had never met some of their Cambridge equivalents. And they wanted my team. I gave them all a week to decide, but most wanted to move and we’ve left those that couldn’t in secure jobs for the duration of their grant-funding.’

I tell Adrian that I can see what’s attractive about it. ‘Yes, I can build the effort how I want it. Coincidentally, the award was announced the week after the UK general election, so my move was misinterpreted by some. The Guardian rang me. But it’s not about political disagreement. Of course universities are going through a difficult time and, since science is a long-term project, cuts now will affect it for a long while. But I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse.’

Will you find it difficult to make the transition? ‘No, I don’t think so. I loved living in Canada before, my wife is American and her family live in North America. I think what I’d say to people moving internationally is concentrate  on your priorities. If the key issue is standard of life or financial rewards, fine. In my case it was being able to do the work I wanted. And I’m lucky enough to specialise in an area where there’s a lot of interest, and to have the flexibility to be able to react to opportunities.’

There isn’t space here to record Adrian’s experiences playing round the world with his band You Jump First, or the initial exploration of each other’s musical tastes that carried on from our conversation. Perhaps it would fit into a new Psychologist column dealing with a chosen psychologist’s favourite books, music and films. But it confirmed that despite his incredible sense of focus and infectious enthusiasm for his area, Adrian is not a one-dimensional person. 



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