Selina bags pioneering researcher award

Dr Selina Wray, an Alzheimer’s Research UK scientist at University College London, was this week named Red Magazine’s Pioneer of the Year at their Annual Awards ceremony in London. She was also awarded £900k for an innovative new study to use stem cells to help screen new drugs. We caught up with Selina in this exciting week to find out more.

Name and job title

Selina Wray, Senior Research Associate, UCL Institute of Neurology

What was your early career path to being a researcher?

I was always interested in science as a child and just continued with it through A-levels and University.  It was at university where I first got my taste of working in a “real-life” laboratory and got the bug for doing experimental science!

I then went onto start work on my PhD and it quickly became apparent how important this area of work is and how it was underfunded and underresourced it was.  That’s when I became committed to staying in dementia research.

What does your research focus on?

My research uses cells from patients to develop ways of better understanding dementia.  This means creating a ‘model’ of dementia in the lab using cells, which recreates some aspects of the condition.  We can then use these models to understand what causes brain cells to die in dementia, and find ways to slow or prevent this damage.

Why is this area of research important?

At the moment, there are no treatments for dementia.  Any potential new treatment has to be tested in the laboratory before it can go forward into clinical trials so it’s important we develop the best ways to test these. Our work aims to make this process faster and more accurate, to give new treatments the best chance of success.

How many people are in your research team?

At the moment there are five people in addition to myself working on dementia projects in the stem cell lab: a mix of PhD students, technicians and post-docs.  We are continuing to grow!

How are you involved with the work of Alzheimer’s Research UK?

Alzheimer’s Research UK has funded several projects in my lab and is the major funder of my current work.  I have also been lucky enough to be involved in their work in a number of ways outside of the lab: hosting lab tours for supporters and politicians, speaking at public events, appearing in the media, lobbying in parliament and attending the recent G8 legacy meeting.

Selina explains her work to the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt when he visited the UCL labs in 2013.

Selina explains her work to the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt when he visited the UCL labs in 2013.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

The two highlights were definitely being awarded an ARUK Research Fellowship and being awarded the £900k CRACK-IT grant, which was announced today.  Both provided a substantial amount of funding for our work and are also my proudest achievements: these grants are key to me being an independent researcher and having your scientific ideas reviewed and approved for funding by research peers is a great feeling!

How does it feel to win the Red Magazine Woman of the Year Pioneer Award 2014?

Amazing – and a total surprise!  It was a lovely gesture from Alzheimer’s Research UK to nominate me and I’m delighted to have won.  Having the importance of dementia research recognised by a panel of women I really admire, such as Kirsty Wark and Rachel Reeves, is such a privilege.  And getting to go on a photoshoot for a glossy magazine and a fancy awards ceremony was a nice change from wearing a labcoat!

Read Selina’s interview in Red Magazine.

What advice would you give new scientists embarking on a career in dementia research?

Research is hard work and can be frustrating at times: it’s important to not take the minor setbacks to heart and keep the bigger picture in mind.  Also, ask for help!  My ability to do the work I am doing has relied on collaboration and technical help from other labs – it’s always better to admit your weaknesses than to fail in private!

If you had to convince someone about the importance of dementia research in one line, what would you say?

Dementia is a heart-breaking condition that will affect us all at some point in our lives: whether it’s directly or through a relative or friend.  It’s so, so, crucial that we find new treatments to help people who are living with dementia.

'Keen runner' Selina (front left) after completing the Edinburgh marathon.

‘Keen runner’ Selina (front left) after completing the Edinburgh marathon.

What do you do in your spare time/ outside the lab?

I’m a keen runner: we have a work running club run by a friend from the lab who puts us through our paces every week (he can be quite mean!) and a group of us from the lab recently completed the Edinburgh Marathon.

What’s the one thing you can’t live without?

Probably my iPod – music is essential to keep me going through the commute to work, long periods in cell culture and long training runs!

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About the author

Dr Laura Phipps