Keith Brain

Meeting with the Wellcome Trust this morning so will miss some chats :(

Favourite Thing: Experiments (and their analysis)!



James Ruse Agricultural High School


University of Sydney, 1991-9 (ouch), studying Medicine, Science, and Physiology

Work History:

I’ve worked in hospitals as a medical doctor (Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney) and Oxford (John Radcliffe Hospital) and as a researcher in the Department of Pharmacology, University of Oxford. I’ve also taught at two of the Oxford Colleges: Exeter and Keble.


University of Birmingham, in the College of Medical and Dental Sciences

Current Job:

Senior Lecturer (Neuropharmacology)

Me and my work

I research and teach, with a particular interest in how nerves control our bodies, and how drugs affect the function of these nerves.

I’ve only recent been appointed to my first “proper” job as a lecturer in the University of Birmingham, having spent the previous 9 years researching and teaching in Oxford on short-term contracts. I trained in Australia in Medicine, where I worked in a hospital for a while, but I also studied some basic sciences including Mathematics and Physics. So, I’m quite interested in applying basic science to important (and/or interesting!) problems in physiology (how the body works) and pharmacology (how drugs and medicines interact with the body). I really ought to have hyperlinked that sentence!

My research field involves the study of autonomic nerves, which travel around the body and control all our internal organs. For example, the autonomic nerves can speed or slow the heart, control how much blood goes where (by controlling the blood vessels),  regulate activity in the gut, help control urination and are also important in sexual responses. Basically, any internal function that we don’t have direct voluntary control over.

I also teach, particular in courses in the first two years of Medicine (so, training hospital doctors and General Practitioners), biomedical scientists and even dentists (who also give drugs, so need to know how they work). At times, I donate my body to science, which has nice fringe benefits like getting fancy pictures of your brain (yes, this one is mine – looks a bit wonky to me)myimage4.

PS: 07hubberl has prompted me to put up a video showing showing a movie of an interesting experiment, in this case investigated how drugs that act like nicotine affect sympathetic nerves. The entire field shown in the image is only about 0.05mm wide, so these structures are really small! The video is youtube hosted, so firewalls might be a problem for some schools.




My Typical Day

A typical day involves a mix of teaching, research and administration (not necessarily in that order!).

After dropping the children myimage1 at school, I come to work on a train, when I might read a research paper and make some notes. At the University, I might spend an hour talking with a small group (15) of medical students about how to treat high blood pressure, followed by a one-to-one meeting with one of the research students in my lab, discussing their work, what they’ve done, what they intend to do, and why myimage2! In the early afternoon, I might work at writing a research paper, usually sitting at a computer; these research papers are one very important way that we communicate our experiments and ideas to other scientists myimage3. I’ll have to cross-reference a lot of the work of others, and I can’t remember it all, so I’ll have to refer to sets of notes I’ve made and go back to the original descriptions of work. Later, I might work on a grant application; these grant are needed to fund our experimental work. This involves some thinking about science, but a lot of work like contacting suppliers for quotes, seeking approval from the University to use some special equipment, seeking ethical review and approval, and hence plenty of paperwork. At the end of the day, I get to go home for bed time … reading stories to or with our 2 children! Other days I might dedicate entirely to doing experiments, or setting and marking exam papers; so, every day is different.

What I'd do with the money

To build a schools’ component of our new web site that explains autonomic regulation through music!

In collaboration with a group of composers, we’re working on a new project that aims to engage with autonomic responses through music – the plan is to compose some original pieces of music (which might include multimedia and dance) and fuse these with scientific presentation at a performance venue. We have two venues lined up (pending the support of a sponsor …!), one in Birmingham and one in London. However, we’re also building a web site associated with this project, which will be officially launched in late 2011. We have secured a web domain name (don’t tell anyone – it’s not launched yet), with some bare bones. As you can see, this site is rather dull at present. We’ve already budgeted for an  adult-directed site, but I’d really like to extend this project to enagage with schools too – with the help of your votes!

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Analytic, collegial, inquisitive.

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Kirsten Shlomowitz (a violinist – I hope that counts!)

What is the most fun thing you've done?

A eureka moment during an experiment, late at night with the humb of a microscope

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

time, wisdom, compassion.

What did you want to be after you left school?

A doctor

Were you ever in trouble at school?

Of course!

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Discovered a new way that nicotine activates sympathetic nerves.

Tell us a joke.

3 people travelling in a bus through the Australian countryside see a black sheep; the first says, “ah, so all sheep in Australia are black”; the second says, “No, all we can say is that that particular sheep is black”; the third says, “No, all I can say is that that particular object I call a sheep is black on one side, but of course I don’t expect you to believe me”. So, which is the scientist?