Homing in on Epilepsy

Charlie Unsworth works at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh. So do lots of other people, but, unlike Unsworth, not many have a background in radar research. He's the very first recipient of a new type of grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) that aims to encourage postdoctoral mobility, not between countries, but between disciplines.

After his PhD in high-frequency microwave physics at the University of St Andrews, Unsworth headed south to work for the Ministry of Defence, developing radar instrumentation. A yen to return to Scotland led to a postdoc at the University of Edinburgh, "still in the area of radar" but this time working on signal processing. But despite having now built up a useful "complete picture" through working in both software and hardware development, Unsworth felt the time had come to move on. For ethical reasons he "wanted to move away from military research" and into biomedicine.

The project had suggested itself at a conference 3 years earlier. There he met a professor from the States who was working on the analysis of signals from the brain in epilepsy, and discovered that the techniques they were using were very similar. So when he came across the new EPSRC award, which is open to postdocs in the final year of an existing EPSRC contract, he leapt at the chance to apply. The aim of his research is to simplify the complex data that come from a brain scan. Currently only very experienced consultants can interpret the signals. What Unsworth hopes to do is to separate out all the different brainwaves, so that it will be possible to predict when an epileptic seizure is going to happen.

But if you're going to research a disease like epilepsy, you need access to patients. And besides, a condition of the grant is that the award holder has to move to a new department, one specialising in the new field of research. Fate took a hand again when Unsworth's flatmate put him in touch with the Royal Hospital, which treats lots of children with epilepsy. Nonetheless, it wasn't plain sailing. "I got a bit of a grilling" from the physicians, says Unsworth, who explains that they have been approached by lots of people with similar ideas. However, he managed to persuade them and now they are "very enthusiastic" about the collaboration. In fact, despite only having started the project a month ago, "already consultants have told me things they would like done in order to help them."

So it looks as though there will be plenty of work to keep the project going beyond the 1 year of initial funding provided by the mobility grant. Unsworth already has plans to write another grant application. He'd like to develop a real-time monitoring system, a device that could be worn by patients and issue an alarm if they are about to have an attack. This will give control back to patients, who will be able to take drugs or other evasive action. In fact, if Unsworth has a criticism of the new award scheme it is that 1 year is just not enough time to get a new project off the ground. "No sooner have you started something that you're looking for funding," because the turnaround time for most grant applications is 6 months. He'd like to see awards made for a minimum of 2 years.

Although Unsworth is fulfilling his ambition to move into biomedical research, the scheme also provides for physicists, mathematicians, and chemists to apply their basic research training in more applied physical sciences and engineering fields. "It is certainly EPSRC's hope that it will prove significant in enabling young scientists and engineers to broaden their research horizons," says Paul Tomsen, associate programme manager at the EPSRC, "and to facilitate the transfer of skills into new areas where they can be applied to particular effect." Unsworth for one believes that more such "great opportunities" are necessary, "so you don't fall down the middle" between different funding bodies. He also welcomes "the opportunity to be able to write your own proposal and run it yourself," which, he explains, "shows you can come up with ideas and get them funded." An essential attribute for any aspiring academic.

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