Amanda Wood with one of her students, Manisha Kali

Amanda Wood with one of her students, Manisha Kali

Ambitious for the best

Amanda Wood is a professor of developmental neuropsychology and director of Aston Brain Centre (ABC). She met Ian Halstead to outline her vision for the organisation’s future.

Most people will never encounter developmental neuropsychology… but should you need to understand the concept of this fast-evolving science, and its vast potential to save and improve young lives, there’s surely no more passionate or compelling advocate than Amanda Wood.

Naturally, her husband, daughter and dog – although not necessarily always in that order – define her private life, and given Wood’s Twitter handle of @academickayak no-one need guess her favourite hobby.

However, young brains, the myriad conditions that affect them, and devising innovative treatments to help youngsters live better and live longer, are her professional universe. She’s from Australia – leaving her addicted to fruity sweets and the fearsome delights of Australian Rugby League – but is clearly talking the same language as the Aston University hierarchy, given the warmth with which her business case for its new strategic direction has been received.

ABC is a research organisation; looking to study the workings of the brain in sickness and in health, and then to translate its findings into new forms of diagnosis, therapy and treatment.

“My background training was as a clinician, although as a youngster I wanted to be an engineer, but now I’ve moved forward, so much of what I do is about advanced computational analysis of big data,” says Wood. “My original remit in coming here was to deliver a research project, using MRI scans to better predict long-term outcomes for children who suffer brain injuries early in life.

“However, last year, there was a review of the centre’s strategy – in line with Aston’s next five-year plan – and pleasingly, there has been excellent support for my proposals to expand research and teaching delivery.

“We now aim to establish ourselves as a world-leading centre of excellence for paediatric brain research, and also have a fantastic opportunity to train professionals who work in related areas.

“Whether children’s brains are in health or in disease, questions about their development are really very simple. We now see an awful lot of technological advances, in different disciplines, coming together in a collaborative structure to provide answers in the best way possible.”

Wood is eager to build on ABC’s existing body of work by bringing together colleagues from the new Aston Medical School, and other departments, including engineering, optometry and psychology.  She’s also visibly enthused by the presence of the city’s healthcare and life sciences cluster and Birmingham Children’s Hospital (BCH).

“They’re only 200 metres away, we have fantastic links with them, and are beginning discussions about building our critical mass of research ability, which has huge potential to create an evidence base leading to even-better care for children and their families.

“We have the very latest equipment allowing the study of the brain, from single cells right through to co-ordinated brain functions, with our MRI scanner and our MagnetoEncephaloGraphy (MEG) scanner, which was the first in Europe and remains the UK’s only dedicated scanner.”

Traditional scans identify the geography of a brain and blood-flow, but MEG technology tracks the magnetic signals thrown off by neurons as they communicate, essentially allowing observers to see in real-time how a brain’s networks ‘talk’ to each other.

“We have a niche regional strength across different imaging centres, so we can go out to seek grants and capital investment to support imaging-based research,” she says. “There’s also a concerted approach in Birmingham to bring academics and healthcare professionals together to solve big problems. Much of that work tends to focus on adults, and I think we can really focus on the child.

“Nowhere in the UK has this resource, and we are also well-positioned to start training professionals, the radiographers, oncologists, engineers, physicists, mathematicians and psychologists.

“We’re fortunate to have several existing faculty grants which will support our work, and also have a clinical service – so the BCH and hospitals in London have clinical studies done here, which generates income.

“The greater focus is building our critical mass, so I’m looking to make key appointments, both academic and research, and looking to our industrial partners, to help change the way we think and operate.

“We’ll look to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to judge their interest in developing tools and technologies with us. Traditionally, that’s something most academics don’t think of, but its certainly well done here, and the next step is to identify potential partners.”

Wood is equally happy to discuss her centre’s challenges as the five-year strategy moves from the planning phase to delivery. “I don’t think we’ve capitalised on the links between BCH, which has the patients, the companies which have the products, and the academics who can deliver the research.

“In terms of future joint ventures, we need to be better academically aligned. For example, we have junior members of the faculty interested in issues around child nutrition, and also keen to establish relationships with industry.

“The other area we can enhance is on the engineering side. Much research we do depends on smart people with science and engineering skills, and I think we can use them – and other colleagues across the university – to discover current research and development (R&D) projects in industry with which we can help.

“Can we, for example, have our post-doctoral fellows or young research assistants work collaboratively to create a fantastic nexus, rather than being isolated in the so-called ivory towers?

“Its already an area Aston does very well, and there’s certainly scope for ABC to embrace that approach. We can also learn a lot from seeing how other universities and institutions work.

“Aston’s success is built on its tremendous success at engaging with industry, and as someone who hasn’t previously worked in that space, I was delighted to learn at my interview, that I would be encouraged to translate my research into something commercial.

“Equally, it would be remiss not to look outside. We don’t want to adopt someone else’s approach, but can gain insights by looking at other and innovative ways in which a research-based neuro-imaging centre might work.”

Wood is also refreshingly upfront when asked about her leadership vision for ABC. “Its too easy to remain static, but I think the greatest advances often come by looking outside individual disciplines. Some research might be considered high-risk, but then its also high-gain. We’re not doing this to feather our CVs.

“I was constantly told I’m too ambitious, but eventually worked out not to apologise for pushing the envelope. You shouldn’t be doing research if you’re only going to look at stuff you already know.

“I think the ABC’s raison d’etre should be that there is nothing wrong with being ambitious, with wanting to do the best research and with wanting to improve lives.

“If I can convince one student that their future lies in studying the brain, my job is done. If I can say to one family, we have used all our computer science and fancy tools, and we’ve scanned brains, so we can now help your child have a better life, then job done too.

“Equally, although passion and excitement make the days fly by, those qualities always have to be underpinned by the facts and the figures.

“In the medium-term, I want us to attract the top post-doctoral fellows and students, alongside expansion of our training provision for undergraduates and professionals who align with our activities.

“Long-term, I want to see a seamless relationship between the activities at the BCH and our centre, so clinicians and academics can collaborate to answer important questions about child health.”