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MRI scans of a brain

Meet the neurologist who won’t stop until she has the answers

Caitlin Astbury

For International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we’re meeting some of the brilliant women from the BartsMS research group at Queen Mary University London. Dr Sharmilee Gnanapavan is a neurologist who specialises in finding new ways of identifying MS progression.

Hi Sharmilee. So what made you want to become a neurologist?

“Before I decided on medicine, I thought about going into something ‘sexier’, like marine biology. But I come from a family full of doctors, so in the end the decision to go into medicine was quite straightforward.

My journey into neurology has been a bit more roundabout. I had my first real taste of research when I studied what’s called neuroendocrinology. The research was focused on a hunger hormone – Ghrelin - that stimulates our appetite by activating a small gland at the bottom of the brain called the pituitary.

I learnt a lot about the balance between hormones and the brain, and this really solidified my interest in the brain. From there I decided to do my neurology training and a PhD in regenerative neuroscience.”

Is it difficult combining the roles of researcher and neurologist? 

“I really enjoy the balance of being both a researcher and a neurologist, because I get to apply my knowledge to both sides. Research allows me to ask questions and explore new ideas, and neurology means I’m able to share the answers with people with MS in the clinic.

I’m also very sociable, and I enjoy being able to connect with my patients. Working with Petri dishes alone wouldn’t do it for me!

There can be some competition between the two roles – particularly when it comes to time. The pandemic has made me even more aware of that, and it can be hard to establish a balance. But ultimately, I love being able to apply my clinical knowledge to my research and vice versa, and I feel fulfilled doing both roles.”

Apart from the petri dishes, what’s the best thing about your role?

“There are very few things that I don’t enjoy, but one of my favourite things is when I have a new idea. I get really excited and full of adrenaline – I’m like a hog following a truffle. I’ll only stop when I have an answer!

Most people think that everything in science has been done before, but that’s not true. There are a lot of unanswered questions out there, and helping to answer them is really exciting.

One of the most important things about research is being able to bring ideas together from all over, so I really enjoy being able to work with scientists and clinicians to get things done together. I also really enjoy training people. Seeing junior researchers learn new things and grow and evolve is very rewarding.”