This week on the Postdoc Superheroes we are having Dr. Mike Tranter. Mike is a neuroscientist from the UK who now lives and works in the U.S. In his work he tries to understand why medications give the bad side effects, and how to reduce them in future treatments for the brain and he is about to launch a book.
Enjoy the read!
|Quick notes on Mike
|Mike Tranter PhD
|Countries he has academic experiences from
|Mike in keywords
|Laid back, friendly, funny, determined
|Mike as a scientist/researcher/academic
|Curious, ambitious, but also laid back and relaxed
|Currently excited about
|Book: Michio Kaku: The best American Science and Nature Writing.
Podcast: psychology in Seattle. The fame went a little to their heads, but some of the earlier stuff is great
|Mike’s typical day:
|Wake up around 6:30am and study some languages (I am learning Spanish, German, and Russian).
Lab around 9-5 where I will do an experiment – looking at living brain cells, analyse the data, and do some science reading from journals.
6-11pm: book writing/editing, and writing scientific blogs and articles.
|Contact Mike at:
Hi Mike, thanks for agreeing to this interview.
Could you introduce yourself briefly?
Hi. My name is Mike. I’m a neuroscientist from the UK, now working in sunny California, where I look at the brain and how dopamine neurons respond to medications in things like schizophrenia.
I completed my PhD in London, in 2018, where I looked at pain nerves in the gut.
Apart from being a scientist, I love being outside. Climbing mountains, hiking, running, all that sort of stuff. I am quite active on the weekends. I would love to get back into triathlon.
I am getting a dog in April and so I will be outside a lot then too, which makes me happy.
What kind of student/pupil were you as a kid?
At school, I wasn’t the best student. I was pretty bored and basically spent the time talking at the back of the class (sorry teachers, I was that guy!). The content they taught at school never really seemed relevant to real life, and so didn’t hold my interest.
I studied the sciences and enjoyed them, but it wasn’t until university when I discovered just how much I enjoyed learning.
I think I learn best on my own, with a textbook, which is probably why school wasn’t really much help for me. Even now I prefer to read alone, rather than attend a powerpoint presentation.
What was your experience studying in your undergrad program?
I enjoyed studying at university quite a lot.
There was a lot of pharmacology (how drugs work) which was great and I was exposed to a lot of science that I was just now started to feel a real connection to. Ironically, I really didn’t like the laboratory classes, I dreaded them. They always felt rushed and irrelevant, and actually, now that I work in a research laboratory, I find the atmosphere a lot better than I have ever seen in any university lab class.
That said, my first university didn’t work out for me. They kicked me out because I got the dates for an exam wrong and ended up missing it. For some reason, they didn’t want me to retake it.
But…….it worked out for the best. I realised just how much I did, in fact, love science, and that I was actually quite good at it when I put my mind to it.
I transferred to a much better university (Hertfordshire University) where I finished top of the course with a First Class degree, and went on to get a master’s degree and PhD in London. So it was a not a linear road, but it worked out great in the end.
Why and how did you decide to go into a PhD?
After my master’s degree in neuroscience, I worked as a research assistant. I recorded nerve activity from the gut and looked at how they transmit pain signals. Very geeky stuff, but so much fun. I enjoyed it a lot, and it was my first experience in a research laboratory.
However, I quickly found that I wasn’t given much freedom to ask questions, provide input, or otherwise be creative about how we could do the experiments. I found that if my boss was ever going to take my input seriously, I needed to have a PhD.
That way, I could continue with a career in science, and really make a difference. A year later, I was doing a PhD in that lab, recording electrical activity in nerves, and I had a lot of fun.
What was your PhD program experience?
In the UK, you have three years in the lab, and then up to a year to write a thesis (mine was around 70,000 words). Along the way you go to international conferences, present your data in posters, or even better – oral presentations, and provide yearly reports to the university. To eventually pass it, you have an all-day interview with top experts in the field where they challenge your work.
So it was a long process, but the day-to-day is just the same as any other research job in academia. I enjoyed my PhD. The other people in the lab, many of them PhD students too, were great, and we all became good friends.
My supervisor was fairly relaxed, and there was always a good emphasis on a work-life balance, which is why I think I never suffered from burnout, or many other things that are common amongst PhD students.
Could you briefly describe what your research was and/or is about?
I was trained in electrophysiology, which is studying the electrical properties of cells, such as neurons. In my PhD, these neurons were in the gut, and would transmit pain signals.
Now, I still work as an electrophysiologist, but I record the activity on brain cells. I literally poke them with electrodes and add drugs, to see how they ‘talk’ with other neurons. I get an electrical readout of that activity which I can analyse.
My research today, will help us understand medications better, why they give the bad side effects, and how to reduce them in future treatments for the brain.
What advice would you give your younger self starting a PhD program?
I would tell myself to focus a little more on developing my writing skills.
I am very good at the hands-on science, like experiments, and analysing the data, but writing took a little longer to get better at. A big part of being a scientist is publishing your data in peer reviewed journals and, although not very important to me personally, I know it is part of the deal of being a career scientist.
This year, I am writing three papers, and I publish my book in March, explaining how the brain works. These have all developed me as a scientific writer, but I think it would have been good to devote more time to this as a younger scientist too.
What have you decided to do after your PhD and why?
After my PhD I stayed in academic research but have moved to California.
I wanted to experience a different laboratory culture and work environment, and the neuroscience research is really good here. California has a lot of opportunities in my field, and so I get to work on some really exciting projects. There is also a big biotech industry here, which is where I want to focus on in the future.
What PhD has given you and how you use it now?
I would say the biggest thing that it gave me was confidence.
I have spent years in a research lab and within the scientific community, and going through the years of study to eventually get the PhD, helps me to feel that I belong here. That extra confidence is key, because it gives you the ability to trust yourself, and your ideas, and feel like you have a right to have them.
It also gives me the confidence to know that I have the ability to learn whatever I find interesting, so even if I don’t understand something now, I am fairly sure that if I put my mind to it, eventually I will start to understand.
Little by little. This is a far stretch from a time where I thought that I could never learn a lot of things, because they seemed complicated and scary.
What are your other superpowers?
I have recently started trying to be a science communicator. I want to try and take some of the mystery, and perhaps intimidation, out of science and especially neuroscience.
I created a website (www.aNeuroRevolution.com) and a social media account (Instagram: @TheEnglishScientist) to help me interact with people who also have a passion for challenging themselves and learning about things that they find interesting.
I mainly talk about the brain, and have just finished writing a book about it. In it (A Million Things To Ask A Neuroscientist) I answer questions that the public submitted to me, about the brain. I answer them with simplicity, humour (at least I find it funny anyway), and lot of pictures, to really get the ideas across, that our brain is truly amazing, but also kind of weird.
What is the hardest in doing what you are doing and how do you deal with that?
I think, right now, it would be writing the book. I have never done it before and so I have had to learn how to be a writer. How to publish a book, get a cover design, find an editor, you name it.
In addition to that, because I moved to the US only a few months before Covid happened, it has been really difficult to adjust to a new life here. Things are very different in the US compared with the UK, and not being able to socialise much, or otherwise lead a normal life, hasn’t been the easiest.
I deal with these things by throwing myself in at the deep end so I am busy, and keep myself distracted from some of the negative sides. By working hard on the book, for example, it makes social distancing easier – because I am sat at a desk on a laptop anyway.
If you could teach people one thing, what would it be?
I think I would try to teach people to be confident in who they are, and how awesome they really are.
It sounds a little cheesy, but I feel that throughout my studies and degrees, people have told me that I am smart, and doing really well. They generally encouraged me and it helped me to build up my confidence.
However, I don’t necessarily think that everyone receives that encouragement, and a lot of people may not know just how great they are, and how great they can be.
By having confidence in yourself, and your own goals, you can push yourself forward regardless of what other people say. Maybe there is a sprinkle of stubbornness in there too, but overall, its not easy to find that confidence if you have never had it to begin with. That is what I wish I could teach people.
Who are the people you follow on social media and enjoy they content?
I follow a wide range of people on social media because I want to reach those who enjoy science, but don’t necessarily do it as a career. That said, some of the science communicators that I do follow, are really impressive, and I have learned a lot from them.
@Nicoleneuroscience, @Emilia.science, @Thedailyneuro. These are great profiles that I always enjoy content from. There are others too, far too many to name.
Are there any tools, resources or software you are obsessed with at the moment?
I didn’t use it until I started the editing process for my book but I absolutely love it. A writing/editing tool called Grammarly is great.
I was put off years ago by their relentless ad campaign and so never gave them a chance, but I really like it now, and it has definitely improved the quality of my writing. It is not perfect, but it does really help.
Unfortunately, you need to pay, but there are always discounts, and many universities have an account that you can have access too.
What are your future plans, upcoming projects, what is next?
On March 15th, I will launch my book for pre-orders on Amazon. A Million Things To Ask A Neuroscientist, is where I answer questions about the brain, talk about some of the mysteries that we still can’t solve, and where I guide the reader through the most exciting cutting-edge brain research today, and where it will take us in the future (robotic brain anyone?).
I also have a chapter explaining careers in science, and a chapter written by women, explaining their journey as a woman in STEM, and how their qualities have helped them be successful in science.
Then, in April… I get a puppy! It’s ok to have some time away from science.
Where people can find you?
If you want to read more about studying or working abroad: