NPP Research Environment
PhD students participate in the NPP seminar programme in addition to having regular opportunities to attend national and international meetings of scientific societies such as the Physiological Society, British Pharmacological Society and British Neuroscience Association. UCL has an outstanding reputation for research in Neuroscience, Physiology and Pharmacology with four Nobel prizes winners in these areas of research.
The UCL Neuroscience Research Domain brings together UCL neuroscientists from across several departments and faculties and reflects the importance of neuroscience research at UCL.
Across UCL, PhD student provision is supported and monitored by the UCL Doctoral School which provides the main avenue for training support for PhD students at UCL.
Within NPP, the progress of all PhD students is monitored by the NPP Graduate Tutors, Professor Alasdair Gibb, Dr Joanne Marks and Professor Alex Gourine. In addition to a primary supervisor, each PhD student has a secondary supervisor who chairs Thesis Committee meetings and the MPhil-PhD upgrade process at the end of the 1st year of PhD study.
The PhD Heritage of NPP
Graduate students joining NPP will join a long a distinguished heritage of PhD study. The Research Department of Neuroscience, Physiology and Pharmacology has origins in the UCL medical school departments of Physiology, Pharmacology and Anatomy which made many contributions to the early development of these academic disciplines.
During the second half of the 20th Century, many important contributions to our fields of study were made by PhD students who began their careers at UCL. Among PhD students from the departments of Physiology and Pharmacology was Donald Jenkinson (Head of Pharmacology, 1983 to 1987) who was a PhD student in the 1950s with Sir Bernard Katz and made the first precise quantitative measurements of the affinity of tubocurarine for acetylcholine receptors of the neuromuscular junction (Jenkinson, 1960; doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.1960.sp006489).
Later, with Dennis Haylett and Neil Castle he made precise measurements of the highly specific block of one class of potassium channels by the honey bee venom peptide, apamin (Castle, Haylett and Jenkinson, 1989, doi:10.1016/0166-2236(89)90137-9). He was a generous and kind Head of Department, (known as ‘the old walrus’ by some of the medical students on account of his bushy mustache).
Paul Fatt was a remarkable PhD student in the Physiology department who studied neuromuscular transmission in the frog with Sir Bernard Katz during his PhD. Paul had studied Biochemistry at University of California Berkeley on the G.I. Bill after serving with the US Army during World War II. In a Physiological Society memoir (Ashmore, 2014, An interview with Paul Fatt) he describes vividly arriving at UCL in the summer of 1948, having travelled by transatlantic liner from the United States, to find very few people in the department!
He was advised to go to Plymouth, where Katz and Hodgkin and Huxley were working together studying squid axon action potentials. There he met Katz and this led to the idea for his PhD, to use the new technique of recording membrane potential using glass microelectrodes to investigate synaptic transmission by studying the endplate potential in frog muscle. Observing the membrane potential recording, Fatt & Katz noticed that there were small blips in the membrane potential (about 1 mV in size) they described as ‘biological noise’.
Others might have overlooked the noise as perhaps due to vibration or originating from their home-made amplifier, but crucially, Fatt & Katz noted that the ‘noise’ was only observed when the microelectrode was inserted in the muscle fibre close to the point of contact between the nerve and the muscle. They had observed, for the first time, a nerve talking to a muscle! These spontaneous, sub-threshold events were due to the release of ‘quanta’ of neurotransmitter acetylcholine from the terminals of the motor nerve.
Paul Fatt’s PhD resulted one of the most significant discoveries to be made in Physiology. Fatt & Katz published a brief report of their work in Nature in 1950 (doi: 10.1038/166597a0.), and a full paper in the Journal of Physiology in 1952 (DOI: 10.1113/jphysiol.2006.122143). The illustration shows original membrane potential recordings from endplate of frog extensor digitorum longus muscle. Panel A, with electrode inserted at the endplate; Panel B, inserted 2 mm away. Panel C, Paul Fatt photographed in 1989; Panel D, Paul’s PhD supervisor, Sir Bernard Katz. In a long and distinguished career in the Biophysics Department at UCL, Paul Fatt went on to make fundamental discoveries on excitatory and inhibitory synaptic transmission, on muscle properties and identified voltage-gated calcium currents.
The ‘Physiology Entrance’ to NPP, the Research Department of Neuroscience, Physiology & Pharmacology, Medical Sciences Building, UCL. A display case in the entrance foyer illustrates some of the original recording equipment used by Fatt & Katz.