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Professor Sue Brain: the value of my sabbatical and advice for those who want to follow the same path

Susan Brain is a Professor of Pharmacology in the School of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Medicine & Sciences. She recently returned from a two-month sabbatical in New Zealand. Here, she shares her experiences and gives advice for those wishing to take a sabbatical.

university of otago 3

How did you go about applying for your sabbatical?

It was a short sabbatical – just two months - and was actually part of a Fellowship that I was awarded. I learned that the University of Otago in Dunedin had a scheme called the Chaffer Fellowship, which is awarded to international scientists who want to spend time at the university.

Professor Debbie Hay, who is based at the University of Otago and has similar research interests to me, suggested that I should apply. I knew it was highly competitive, but I thought I would give it a go. The application deadline was in September, and by December, I had found out that I was successful.

I then had to get sign off from my School line manager, Professor Mike Marber, and my education line manager, Dr Andy Grant. They were both incredibly supportive, and in their mind, there was no way I could turn down this opportunity.

How did the experience benefit your research?

There aren’t many academics studying my area of research, so it was fantastic to spend time with Professor Hay and her research group and share ideas. We’re both investigating Calcitonin Gene-Related Peptide (CGRP), which is a peptide that’s mainly found in sensory nerves that conduct pain. We now know after nearly 40 years of research that if you block CGRP it helps prevent migraines. This has led to the development of a new and effective class of anti-migraine drugs called CGRP blockers.

CGRP illustration
CGRP (yellow) bound to its receptor

However, due to its cardiovascular properties, CGRP appears to be protective if administered in pre-clinical models of heart failure. The problem is that peptides beak down in the body quickly and become ineffective. We have developed stable analogues of CGRP that continue to be active in the body and (perhaps surprisingly), do not appear to initiate migraines. We are hoping they can be tested in clinical trials for heart failure soon.

While at Dunedin, I also gave a series of lectures, including to the Pharmacology department, to a group of cardiovascular researchers and clinicians called HeartOtago, and also at a public lecture. Separately to my research, the DDI Committee which I chair, has created a series of award-winning animations highlighting microaggressions, and I was able to discuss these and present them in New Zealand.

Research aside, what other experiences did you have?

For a start, it was great to be in a new university and see how people approach the same problems in different ways. It was interesting to learn about some of the issues unique to the University of Otago, such as the extra considerations to make sure the university buildings are earthquake safe. In the University of Otago’s case, this has been extraordinary expensive and it was sad to see the worry associated with the financial hardship that the university is under.

sheep dunedin
Dunedin is well known for having plenty of farms and sheep

The sabbatical also gave me the rare opportunity to explore a new landscape. The university is almost as far on the south peninsula as you can go, and there’s an abundance of wildlife, such as blue penguins, sea lions, seals and albatross. The first western settlers were Scottish, and they noted that the frequent rain, occasional sun, and fertile farmland was similar to back home. In fact, the name ‘Dunedin’ comes from the Scottish Gaelic word for Edinburgh!

What advice would you give to researchers looking to take a sabbatical?

The way that technology has changed since Covid means that most of our work can carry on as normal – even when abroad. I was able to do most of my marking and have regular Teams meetings colleagues at King’s. I was surprised how effective you can be on the other side of the world.

If people get the chance to take up similar opportunities, they should definitely give it a go. You learn a lot from being in a new environment and speaking to new people about academic life. In addition with today’s technology, you do not miss out much on what is happening back home.

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Susan  Brain

Susan Brain

Professor of Pharmacology

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