Dr Caroline Copeland, Lecturer in Neuropharmacology in the Institute of Medical and Biomedical Education, talks about her ambitions and research in Early Career Researchers - a series of interviews that lift the lid on the Early Career Researcher community at St George’s, University of London.

Caroline Copeland

calendar-icon 23 May 2018

How did you start out on a career in research?

“My specialism is neuropharmacology, which is the study of the effects of drugs on the central nervous system. I began by studying for undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in pharmacology at University College London, before taking up a post doc in two-photon imaging at Imperial.

“I knew I wanted a career in science and I also knew I didn’t want to be a clinician as I am quite squeamish. While I was studying for my undergraduate degree, I became interested in neuroscience and how little we know about how brains work.”

Why St George’s?

“My intention when I came to St George’s was to look at mechanisms of sensory perceptions. For example, how information that enters as light through your eyes is then processed and understood by the brain. You can investigate how the brain interprets the world using electrophysiology, which is the study of electrical currents through biological tissues, and two-photon microscopy, which enables you to image live brain cells in deep tissue.

“I’ve actually moved away from this area of research due to a recent discovery by one of the students I have been supervising.”

What are you currently working on?

“My work is going in a different direction to what I had intended to research but for good reason. I set one of my students the task of looking at Tramadol-related deaths, an opioid pain medication, to see whether there had been a decrease in the number of deaths since the prescriptive powers were toughened in the UK in 2014.

“From looking at coroner records between 2012 and 2015 on the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths database, the student made the surprising discovery that a significant proportion of tramadol-related deaths also involved an antidepressant medication.

“There is a known contraindication of taking these drugs together as both drugs increase the level of serotonin in your brain. This can become dangerous at high levels and can cause a heart attack, or for you to overheat to extreme levels, resulting in death.

“I’ve applied for grant funding to investigate this further. I would like to understand how many of these deaths were preventable and how many deaths could be prevented in future, especially given that The British National Formulary – a reference book providing information of the selection and clinical use of medicines – specifically states that these two drugs should not be prescribed together.

“Also, as data submission to the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths database is voluntary, there may be more people out there who have suffered the same fate. I’d like to find out whether there is a proven correlation or not.”

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

“I wouldn’t call what I do work – it’s more an interest that I happen to get paid to do. The potential repercussions from research can have a direct, positive effect on society and that’s what motivates me.”

Aside from your research, what other contribution do you make to life at St George’s?

“I work in IMBE where I spend a lot of time teaching and overseeing third year undergraduate research projects. I really enjoy teaching, as it is consistently rewarding. Grant applications can fail and lead to disappointment but teaching always leaves you feeling like you have made a positive impact.

“I am also in the process of setting up a neurophysiology lab.”

What do you do to relax outside of work?

"I play the trumpet in a brass band and we do regular concerts and charity events. It’s led to playing in some interesting circumstances – we’ve played the Game of Thrones theme tune as the actors went on stage for a Q&A at Comic-Con, a multi-genre entertainment and comic convention, and we also recently provided soundbites for a new Yorkshire Tea advert!"