Inspiring EMCRs: Getting to know Helen Macpherson

NHMRC–ARC Dementia Research postdoctoral Fellow
Deakin University

Helen Macpherson standing in a decorated sentry box in front of stone building, Helen on a bridge in Venice, and Helen riding a horse on a beach

I remember in high school one of my teachers saying that I would end up with an unusual career. I had my heart set on being a psychologist. Nothing unusual about that! I never thought I would end up in research. Even when I started my undergraduate degree in psychology and psychophysiology at Swinburne University I dismissed the idea of research.

My second-year research project changed everything. We showed people scenes from the film ‘Titanic’ and then tested their memory. In my 3rd year project we recorded EEG brain activity and measured personality. Data was exciting, not boring! Research was not what I expected, it was so hands on. I was hooked! 

When I finished my honours year I jumped straight into doing a PhD. I remember running to the office to hand in my PhD scholarship application form. I had decided at the very last minute to apply and didn’t even have time to get all the signatures. I started a PhD a few months later under the supervision of Andrew Pipingas at Swinburne University. During this time my grandmother was living with dementia and I realised I wanted my work to relate to dementia prevention. It’s really important that I feel that my research is going to make a difference and help people. My interest in dementia prevention has never gone away and has in fact only strengthened over time.

My PhD was a clinical trial which looked at the effects of multivitamins on cognition and brain function in older women. At the time multivitamins were receiving a lot of interest from the public, so I really enjoyed this work. I used electrophysiological (EEG) measures to look at brain function and I found my entire PhD topic to be incredibly stimulating [Ed. Love the pun]. The volunteers who took part in my study were really lovely and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know them and their brains!

After completing my PhD I was fortunate to stay on in the same research centre where my supervisor organised an industry-funded postdoc position for me. At this stage I only had one publication to my name and I needed this time to build my track record. Working with the industry partner I learnt about balancing commercial and research interests. On the surface this can seem quite conflicting, but I was able to conduct the research as well as maximise projects to answer important questions related to cognitive health. I like to think that this experience taught me to see my research from a more commercial perspective and at the very least appreciate how research outcomes needs to appeal to a variety of stakeholders.

Two years on and it was becoming stressful to have to rely on my supervisors to find funding for my position. I had been working hard to publish (or perish!) and this included harassing everyone I worked with constantly to get that last draft read, so that I could get the latest paper submitted. I really felt the clock ticking on my early career stage, however more established researchers did not share my sense of urgency! I now planned to apply for an external fellowship, but I needed to find a new research supervisor.

At this stage of my career I really went into planning overdrive. I wrote out my three-year plan (five years is a bit overwhelming for a postdoc!). I had identified a researcher I was keen to work with, but they had not replied to my emails. One day my colleague mentioned they were on a research board with this professor and offered to speak to them on my behalf. Thankfully, this got the ball rolling. A meeting with the elusive professor led to an introduction to my now research supervisor, Professor Robin Daly at Deakin University. I submitted two fellowship applications, hoping to move to Deakin where I would have my own niche, more clinically focused work, and a chance to be more independent.

I am naturally an anxious person and I found waiting to hear my fate to be incredibly tough. That month when you are expecting to hear back from a funding body about your WHOLE ENTIRE CAREER is a killer. Needless to say there was some disappointment, especially with a university scheme which I had only just missed out on. I remember traipsing to my research supervisor’s office to tell him that I hadn’t received a fellowship. He told me that I could stay on and run an industry study looking at the cognitive effects of spearmint. I am not ashamed to say there were tears. How was I supposed to prevent dementia using spearmint?? (Honestly I have nothing against spearmint, it just didn’t fit MY plan). The next day I received a phone call to say that even though I missed out on the university fellowship, the faculty was going to fund it anyway!!! I didn’t know this could happen. In 24 hours I had written off my whole research career and now it was back on again!

Starting at a new university held its own challenges. As well as navigating a new research environment I also found the promised independence to have its downside. My project was looking at brain imaging in Type 2 diabetes and I spent A LOT of time feeling like a novice—reading textbooks and watching YouTube tutorials on functional MRI analysis. In my new team I was meant to be the expert, but I still had so much to learn.

I have now been at Deakin for just over a year. In April I started a four-year NHMRC–ARC Dementia Training fellowship. I am in the process of setting up a multi-target exercise and nutritional intervention for cognitive decline as a part of this fellowship. I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to bring my own research ideas to life. There has been a lot of pushing concrete uphill to get to where I am and like most young researchers, I am apprehensive about the longevity of my research career. Regardless of where my research path takes me next, I am optimistic that there will be an interesting future ahead.

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