UCL News


Spotlight on Dr Rachael Scahill

28 February 2018

This week, the spotlight is on Dr Rachael Scahill, Principal Research Associate, Huntington's Disease Research Centre, Department of Neurodegeneration, UCL Institute of Neurology.

Dr Rachael Scahill

What is your role and what does it involve?

I am a Principal Research Associate at the Huntington's Disease Centre and I develop methods to analyse MRI brain scans with the aim of understanding the disease process and monitoring potential treatment effects on neurodegeneration. Huntington's Disease (HD) is a devastating neurodegenerative condition which results in movement problems, impaired cognition and neuropsychiatric disturbance. As it is inherited and individuals at risk of developing the disease are able to have a predictive genetic test, we can study these individuals many years before the onset of symptoms. We have already identified changes in the brain up to 15 years before gene carriers start to show signs of the disease and we are using this information to map out how the degeneration progresses through the brain so that we can identify when and where to administer treatments.

Professor Sarah Tabrizi leads our multi-disciplinary team, and I really enjoy interacting with clinicians, psychologists and other imagers as well as exchanging ideas with her lab staff to try to get a broad view of all aspects of the disease. She also leads the HD clinic and ensures that our focus is always delivering improvements for the patients. We work very closely with the families who are affected by HD and there is a lot of mutual respect as we work together to help find effective therapies.

I'm really passionate about providing support and guidance to students and other staff members. I supervise PhD students, lecture on MSc courses and am the departmental graduate tutor (DGT). The DGT role involves providing pastoral care to PhD students not directly supervised by me and means I can provide an independent point of view if they are in need of advice. I love meeting a variety of people working on a range of topics who can provide me with different challenges or a new way of looking at things.

The HD Centre is a fantastic place to work and the team is productive, inspirational and fun. We also run regular Bake-Offs to showcase our culinary talents and raise money for HD research!

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

I started working at UCL in 1998 when I joined the Dementia Research Centre at the Institute of Neurology. I was a research assistant using MRI to investigate Alzheimer's disease, particularly the early onset familial form of the disease. I was fortunate enough to gain an Alzheimer's Research UK PhD studentship and continued to develop techniques to identify the earliest brain changes in Alzheimer's disease.

After an MRC-funded postdoctoral position again within the Dementia Research Centre, I left to work at the British Medical Journal. Although it was an interesting insight into the other side of publishing, I missed doing real science and so jumped at the opportunity to rejoin the Institute of Neurology in Professor Tabrizi's group.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

I would have to say that gaining my PhD was my greatest working achievement. Anybody who has been through the process knows what a labour of love it can be and unlike most of the other projects I've been involved in, it is all down to you. It is at least as much about strength of character as it is about intellectual ability.

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of you to-do list?

I am currently funded on a Wellcome Trust Collaborative Award called Treat-HD. This project links to the first gene-silencing trial in HD, using advanced imaging techniques to examine the brain's response to this therapy. Alongside the clinical trial we are running an observational study recruiting young adult gene carriers to find out when the first signs of the disease are apparent in the hope of identifying the best time to intervene with treatments in the future. This is an incredibly exciting time to be in HD research and everyone is hopeful that this will provide a breakthrough not only for our patients but for those with other neurodegenerative conditions.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

My favourite novel is Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. I'm afraid I'm drawn to rather dark novels and this is a typical Hardy tragedy where you can't quite believe the misery heaped on one person. I'm also a big fan of Anne Tyler and Jonathan Franzen - my husband says I'm obsessed by books on dysfunctional middle America.

Aretha Franklin is my favourite singer so I would probably pick her greatest hits album, Aretha's Gold.

It's very hard to pick a single favourite film as it depends on the mood but I love Steel Magnolias and for the best Christmas film I would go for Trading Places.

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?

Tim Vine's one-liners usually make me laugh - conjunctivitis.com - that's a site for sore eyes

Who would be your dream dinner guests?

Alison Steadman, Michele Obama, Rhod Gilbert, Louis Theroux and Mo Farrah.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Be more confident. It took me until about the age of 30 to get to the stage where I wasn't paralysed with fear at the idea of making conversation with strangers and constantly worried about what people thought of me.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

I've survived breast cancer. I was diagnosed two years ago and went through surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy but emerged stronger and with a new sense of perspective. I'm much more ruthless about my time now and I've learnt not to put things off - take that trip you planned, make time to see friends you keep meaning to catch up with, say the things you need to to the people who matter.

What is your favourite place?

I love to travel but my favourite place is at home with my husband, kids and dog either watching a film or playing a board game.