Amelia Edmondson-Stait on the connection between inflammation and psychiatric symptoms

She talks about how she uses large population data sets of thousands of people to identify patterns between genetics, mental health, lifestyle factors, and inflammation, how she can use genome-wide measured data to predict inflammation levels in the blood, and how job insecurity in academia is her least favourite thing about science.

Amelia Edmondson-Stait is currently completeing a PhD in Translational Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh, with supervisors Dr Heather Whalley and Professor Stephen Lawrie. She is interested in altered immune function across major psychiatric disorders, using large population cohort studies. She enjoys helping her peers with learning to code and set up a coding club within the department for people to discuss their coding problems in a friendly environment.


Could you briefly summarise your work?

I'm interested in the diagnosis and treatment of severe psychiatric disorders based on their underlying biology rather than on the symptoms they present - which is how disorders are currently diagnosed. One such potential contributing factor to psychiatric symptoms is increased inflammation. I use large population datasets of thousands of people to identify patterns between genetics, mental health, lifestyle factors, and inflammation.

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

Currently, not every treatment is appropriate for every person, and many individuals try several different treatments before finding the one that works for them. When we know more about the links between inflammation and mental health, including which individuals are most likely to have inflammation that contributes to their illness, then we can begin to treat these individuals on a more individualised basis.

What are the major challenges in your field?

I work with existing data from large population cohorts that allow researchers to examine how myriad factors influence health and disease. However, this breadth of measurement can come at the expense of depth, and sometimes the specific data you need to answer your research question aren't available. For example, in most datasets, only one or two measures of inflammation are available, when in reality the immune system is very complex and many factors can be measured. This is where resourcefulness and creativity are needed to find out if there are other ways to answer your question. For example, in my case I’m able to utilise genome-wide measured data to predict levels of inflammation in the blood.

What inspired you to be a scientist?

Science (and art) were my favourite subjects in school, and I had very encouraging and inspiring teachers. I also have fond memories of playing around with chemistry and electronic devices as a kid! I remember we had a book with different simple experiments you could do with things you had at home. I always enjoyed thinking about things analytically, so it was a natural next step to pursue a career in science.

The University of Edinburgh Good Research Practice Awards ceremony. Left to right: Dr Heather Whalley, Niamh MacSweeney (Edinburgh ReproducibiliTea) and Amelia Edmondson-Stait.

Photo credit: Dr Mark Adams.

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

I enjoy the flexibility and ability to explore research questions that you find interesting.

The lack of job security in academia is my least favourable aspect of the job.

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

Mary Anning, a palaeontologist. It’d be lovely to talk to her about her time collecting fossils on the Jurassic Coast.

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

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Cambridge as part of a Drosophila Connectomics project. This involved a large team of us mapping individual neurons and the connections between them in brain images of a single fruit fly. The insights gained helped researchers in the "wet lab" to genetically target specific sets of neurons to understand their function in the context of learning and memory.

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

Perhaps something to do with nature and plants, or a job that is outdoors.

Amelia enjoys art and textiles in her spare time. This is a felted and embroidered microglia, an immune cell found in the brain.

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

If it’s something you enjoy and are interested in then have a go!

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

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing humanity. Science and communicating that science will help with educating people about these issues.

Related Links

Amelia Edmondson-Stait profile

Dr Heather Whalley profile

Professor Stephen Lawrie profile

PhD in Translational Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh

Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences