Dr Luise Seeker on the importance of studying human glia brain cells

She talks about how glia brain cells are just as important as neurons for normal brain function, that she wants her research to contribute to a better understanding of how human brain cells change with age so that we can prevent or treat loss of function, and that we should overcome the separation between disciplines and work more closely together.

Luise Seeker

Luise Seeker is a postdoctoral research fellow in Anna William's group at the Centre for Regenerative Medicine, researching the pathology of multiple sclerosis. She completed her PhD at the University of Edinburgh and Scotlands Rural College (SRUC) in the group of Georgios Banos and Dan Nussey on the dynamics of telomere length in dairy cattle.

Could you briefly summarise your work? 

Our brain is what makes us who we are. It determines our personality, our character, our ability to solve problems, and much more. We know that the brain is a highly plastic organ that changes throughout life, in response to environmental factors, and also in response to disease. Science initially focused on neurons to better understand neurological health and disease. However, we now know that other cells in the brain, collectively known as glia, are equally important for normal brain function and often play key roles in diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Although glia are found in model animals, they are different from human glia, making it important to study these cells in humans. Clearly, it is difficult to perform functional assays on human brain cells. Therefore, I use single-cell transcriptomics data as a functional snapshot to study how human glia differ by CNS region, age, and sex using post-mortem samples. Only by understanding the normal variation, we will be able to test how those cells change in the presence of disease.

Why is your research important? How is it relevant to people's lives? 

Loss of brain function due to age and disease is not only frightening but also associated with a high economic burden. I would like my research to contribute to a better understanding of how exactly human brain cells change with age, so that we will be able to prevent or treat functional deterioration, with the goal of improving the life expectancy and independence of the world's ageing population.

What are the major challenges in your field?

One of the major challenges is that human glia can only be partially modelled in vitro, making it difficult to study their function and discover mechanisms. Our lab has developed culturing techniques that help overcome this obstacle for some glial cell types.

What inspired you to be a scientist? 

I always liked biology in school and was especially fascinated when I learned about telomeres. How smart are they? One day our teacher took us to a lab, and when I held a Gilson pipette in my hand, I knew that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to pipette things and create new knowledge through it! At that moment, I said goodbye to my desire to become a horse breeder, and shortly thereafter began studying veterinary medicine, which, as many here in Edinburgh know, is a great subject to enter science. Summer courses for veterinary students (they are so valuable!) at Cambridge University and Cornell University inspired me further. Science is so exciting, I discovered, as I worked on my own first research projects. I then found a PhD position studying telomeres (!). The project was a good choice because it taught me programming and statistical modelling, which are very useful, plus I got MSc training in quantitative genetics. I am now bridging the gap between wet lab research and bioinformatics. This means that I definitely know what to do with two big bags of cow shit, but I also know how to use Eddie. 

I know what the biggest inspiration for me is and always has been: the prospect of never being bored because we are allowed to learn all our lives.

What do you like best about your job? What do you like the least? 

I don't like being trapped in routines. I like to learn and generate new knowledge. I like collaboration, inspiration, making things happen. I like the freedom to work flexibly in terms of time and space. I love my research group and the support they give each other. I like to write. Yes, I really do! 

I don't like filling out forms. I don't like those moments when you think you may not make it (whatever "it" may be). I don't like poaching. I don't like that our industry is unfortunately still sometimes sexist and racist.

If you could have tea with another scientist (alive or dead), who would it be? What would you talk about? 

I would love to meet Elizabeth Blackburn, who won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of telomeres and telomerase, and we would talk about it.

What is the most unusual thing you have done as a scientist? 

I think the point of doing science is to do the unusual and new:)

But one particular occasion was when I went to Buckingham Palace. I mean inside! I found out that even in Buckingham Palace there is carpet in some toilets, which as a German who has lived in the UK for 10 years (and I love it here) I still do not understand. It was a fantastic day with food and wine and a handshake from Prince Charles and Princess Anne. The best part was the music system: it was a real classical ensemble with string instruments and experienced musicians sitting on a balcony playing Ed Sheeran and Adele songs for us. 

I felt like a princess myself, but was quickly brought back down to earth when my young daughter peed on my dress. That's life: Ups and downs are so close together.

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be doing? 

I would be a veterinary neurologist.  

Do you have any advice for people who want to go into this field of research or start a career as a scientist? 

Strength is not to keep going when everything is going well, but to pick yourself up after bad days when nothing is going right. Breaks are important, and so is a personal life. Some people are lucky, but not many all the time. Things sometimes take a long time, and that's a good thing. Everyone has a different path and different experiences, times change quickly and therefore advice can become outdated. We should remain curious and open-minded. We should overcome separations between disciplines and work more closely together.

What do you think are the major challenges facing humanity? How can science help? 

My greatest concern is climate change and its consequences. I fear that our economic system, based on endless growth, is simply not compatible with protecting resources for future generations. I am most concerned about climate change because it will exacerbate many other problems. Add to the unrest the food shortages. Add disruption of supply chains to the need to treat patients. Add poverty to racism. Add the disappearance of productive land due to floods or fires to the need for endless growth.  I am sure science can help paint a picture of what kind of lifestyle is acceptable to prevent a major climate crisis. But the changes have to be made globally, and therefore the implementation will be more than difficult. I think the best option we have is to educate the masses to make good choices when buying products. It's not transparent enough yet how exactly consumer behaviour is impacting the world, but at the end of the day, consumers have the power to put pressure on even the biggest companies by making smart choices, if only they are organised. I feel like this is now more of a political post than a scientific one, and I'll back off. Just one more thing: sustainability must not be a luxury that only the rich can afford. It must be the cheapest option.

Related Links

Luise Seeker profile

Williams Group