Brain Sciences


Sarah Ashley

Sarah Ashley is a first year PhD student in the Department of Psychiatry at UCL. Before coming to London, Sarah completed her BSc and MSc in North Wales at Bangor University.

Sarah Ashley

To mark International Day of Women and Girls in Science and International Women's Day, we caught up with Sarah to ask her about her research, her role models and her goals for the future. 

Can you tell us about what inspired you to study mental disorders in young people particularly those with autism disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a highly prevalent condition and yet the etiology in over 80% of cases is unknown. I remember sitting in one of my MSc modules and being fascinated by all the different theories: from altered connectivity between brain regions, to imbalances in neurotransmitters, to environmental factors and cognitive difficulties with mentalizing. ASD is highly complex and heterogenous condition and the picture is further complicated by the high rates of psychiatric comorbidities. I am driven by my curiosity for answers and the potential to improve health outcomes across the life-span.  

Can you tell us about what research you are working on at the moment?

I am in the early stages of conducting a systematic review and/or meta-analysis investigating neuroimaging findings in ASD. Not only will I gain a huge insight into the field by doing this but it will also help guide me in knowing what additional things will be valuable to research throughout my PhD. Other work that is currently in the pipeline includes an investigation into the overlap between subclinical autistic traits and psychotic experiences, in terms of both behavioural and neuroimaging outcomes. We know from previous research that autism and psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia share some behavioural and neurological similarities - I plan to explore whether such similarities exist at a subclinical level with the use of structural, diffusion, and spectroscopy neuroimaging techniques.

You were awarded the IoMH and Mount Sinai Studentship in “The longitudinal study of autism spectrum and other mental disorders in young people: a biopsychosocial approach using the ALSPAC cohort”, can you tell us about it?

My studentship is part of a wonderful collaboration between UCL and the Seaver Autism Center at Mount Sinai, New York. Here, I have been given an opportunity to explore the developmental trajectories of mental health issues and relate this to data on DNA, cognitive functioning, environmental exposures, and neuroimaging scans. As the ALSPAC cohort (managed by the University of Bristol) were followed from birth until early adulthood, I am in the unique position of being able to longitudinally examine the risk and protective factors that contribute to psychiatric disorders and autistic traits within the general population. I am surrounded by a team of epidemiologists, neuroimagers, and neuropsychiatrists and I am really excited for where this research will take us.  

Where do you hope studying psychology takes you, and what is your dream job? 

I took psychology as a subject during my A levels on bit of a whim as I had a free space in my timetable, now I can’t imagine my life without it. I aspire to collaborate with labs from across the world and make meaningful scientific discoveries, particularly in the fields of autism and neurodevelopmental disorders. My dream job would be to combine research with clinical practice, just like my current supervisor Professor Anthony David.  

Who is your female role model and why?

My Mum is a great inspiration to me. From her positive and supportive attitude to always encouraging me to live my life to the fullest by taking opportunities when they arise, she helps me to see the good in situations regardless of the outcome.

Who do you admire in research and why?

Before I went on my academic year abroad, I sat in on a talk by a Professor Emily Cross. Hearing her story about how she had studied and worked in so many different countries left a great impression on me and made me realise it is possible to create the career path that I desire if I set my mind to it. My previous supervisors and tutor also instilled within me a sense of excitement about conducting research which I still carry today. I am grateful to the more experienced lab members who have helped me along the way and I hope to repay the favour when I am in a similar position.

What academic superpower would you pick and why?

Multilingualism. Hands down. To be able to communicate with other researchers and participants in their own language would allow for more inclusivity, better interactions, and open more doors.

Do you have any skills or talents that most people don’t know about?

Painting – although thankfully art is a very subjective skill.  

What is your favourite thing to do in your spare time?

I enjoy winding down with a good film or series and taking part in adventure sports, you cannot worry about any issues from daily life when you are trying to stay afloat in a kayak!

What’s a goal you have for yourself that you want to accomplish in the next year?

The thought of having a research paper out there with my name on as an author fills me with immense excitement. By this time next year, I hope to have a paper ready to be published and another one in the pipeline.