Cambridge Professor Jenny Morton visits our Centre

28 September 2015
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Professor Jenny Morton is a New Zealander born and raised in the Far North, who is Professor of Experimental Neurobiology in the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience and she is also the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, and a Professorial Fellow at Newnham College.

Her research is focused on understanding the mechanisms underlying neurodegeneration and on developing strategies to delay or prevent the death of neurones in injured or degenerating brain, particularly in Huntington's disease.

Invited by Professor Louise Nicholson and brought to Auckland by The Ralph and Eve Seelye Charitable Trust Fund, Professor Morton has been busy delivering lectures and seminars throughout our University. During her first public lecture in the country, she talked about her origins and trajectory, Cambridge’s highly personalised educational model and that she only delivers about 15 lectures per year.

 

We recently sat down with Professor Morton and talked about her life at Cambridge, the challenges she’s had to overcome, the Supervision System, her legacy to science and her collaborations with the Centre for Brain Research.

 

What are the benefits of personalised education?  Do you think it’s possible for a similar model to be applied in New Zealand?

"Undergraduate education is highly personal in Cambridge. Every student has face-to-face tutorials with senior people, with an hour of small group ‘supervision’ teaching in every subject every week. Together, the academics and the students review the lecture material for the week and discuss it as well as additional readings beyond the lectures to expand their horizons.

So, all students have the typical university experience, as well as the individualise learnings they gain due to the Supervision System. As well as academic tutorials, the college system gives all students great pastoral care.

The Director of Studies role in Cambridge is purely academic, but all students in Cambridge also have a Tutor, who is responsible for their pastoral needs. Cambridge students are academically gifted; however they face the same issues and are no different from youth in every country. But the colleges give them a support system and network to fall back on. If they become ill, pregnant, injured or have financial problems they can get help easily. Cambridge students are indeed very lucky.

I don’t think the personalised model of education in Cambridge could ever be adopted in New Zealand due to cost as it is very expensive. However, they could extract some of the good things of this model, such as having a Director of Studies, particularly for graduate students."

 

What would you like to accomplish in your lifetime? What would be your ultimate legacy?

"You make me sound as though I am at the end of the road. My contract at Cambridge doesn’t end until 2027!

Scientifically, I feel as though I’ve left a few legacies behind;

  • I published my first HD paper on early stage Huntington’s disease in 1993 (with Professor Richard Faull). At the time nobody else was researching this stage of Huntington’s disease, the whole focus of the field was on mechanisms of neuronal cell death. Our interest in early stages of disease, where there is a prospect of treatment, helped move the field to consider what was happening at the early stages of Huntington’s disease, as well as at the end.

  • I’ve proven that you can use mice to understand cognitive function. In 1997, when I started using HD mice for cognitive testing, rats were the species of choice for behavioural testing and mice were rarely used. It is now fully accepted that mice can be used for testing cognition.

  • I was the first person to research the relationship between cognitive dysfunction and sleep disorders in Huntington’s disease.

  • I was one of the first people to develop tasks for testing cognitive function in models of neurological disease.

  • My lab published the first longitudinal EEG studies, as well as the first longitudinal brain study using MRI.

 

In the future, I would like to find a way of treating early stages of Huntington’s disease. If we can find a way to delay the onset of symptoms and slow down the progression of the disease, it would be a major advance. I am also planning to continue exploring and understanding what drugs do to the HD brain, as current drugs have only been tested on neurologically healthy people."

 

*Read Professor Jenny Morton’s full interview in the next edition of our Connections Magazine.