Rachael Ward

Favourite Thing: I love microscopes. You can spend days preparing a sample to look at under the microscope so by the time you come to see it, you are really excited and maybe a little nervous too. It’s amazing what is revealed within cells and tissues when you magnify them. Not only do you suddenly think of new questions that hadn’t crossed your mind before but it can also be really beautiful. If you get the chance to use a microscope, go for it. I still get surprised and I’ve been doing it for years!



My secondary school was Prendergast School for Girls in London. 1988-1995


I studied Neuroscience at the University of Nottingham from 1995-1999. I then did my PhD at Queen Mary University of London from 2002-2008.

Work History:

I worked in two pharmaceutical companies called Eli Lily and GlaxoSmithKline before deciding to go back to university and do my PhD.


My postdoc position at UCL finished in February and I’m currently writing papers while I look for another job. I am looking in Berlin, Germany as I’m moving there this summer.

Current Job:

From 2008 until February 2011, I worked as a postdoc in the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology at University College London (UCL).

Me and my work

For my most recent job I studied how brain cells (neurons) communicate with one another.

Neurons pass signals between one another by releasing chemicals called neurotransmitters. This happens in specific parts of the neuron called synapses and is very tightly controlled. I studied how this release is regulated using a tiny nematode worm called C. elegans. You can read more about them here: C. elegans

This worm has only 302 neurons compared to the billions that humans have so its much easier to look at a worms nervous system than a humans! In this image, you can see a picture of a worm that I took. The worm is transparent so you can see its intestine and lots of eggs, ready to be laid. To look at the neurons more closely, I have used a flourescent protein that, when I turn on the flourescent lamp on my microscope, makes some of the neurons glow. Here you can see them as white dots in the worms head and along its body. myimage1

My work focussed on a neurotransmitter called serotonin that is known to contribute to feelings of well being as well as reducing anxiety and depression in humans so it is often known as the “happiness neurotransmitter”. It is important to understand how serotonin is released from neurons and how this is controlled. The hope is, if we have a better understanding of this, we may be able to make better drugs to treat depression.

I mentioned before that I love using microscopes. You can see a picture taken on my light microscope above but if I want to look inside neurons, I use an electron microscope. Here is a picture taken on an electron miscroscope of a worm, cut in half through its stomach. 


I have shaded in different areas so you can see them better. The cross section here is much less than the size of a pin head so it is very very small and you can’t see it without a microscope.

At an even higher magnification, this is a picture of a bundles of nerves that control the nearby muscle and therefore control the worms movement. I have drawn an outline around one of the neurons so you can see it more easily.


My Typical Day

A typical day in the lab is very varied, even though you know what you’re planning on doing, this might change during the day depending on how your experiment works out.

The nematode worms I use need to be “picked”. This is a bit like farming, but on a much, much smaller scale as the worms are only 1mm long. The worms are kept on agar (jelly-like) plates and we pick the worms using small wires from an old plate that is running out of food to a new one.

The rest of the day really depends on what experiments I have to do. I like to try to multitask so I often set one experiment running and then do something else. Perhaps look at a sample on the microscope, prepare samples for microscopy or analyse the behaviour of my worms. This may sound strange but we can tell a lot about how neurotransmitters are being released from how fast a worm moves or how “loopy” its movements are. Here is a video I look of worms moving on the agar plates

Near the end of the day, I look at my results on my laptop and, based on how things have turned out, plan the next day.


What I'd do with the money

I’m still thinking of ideas but I’d like to do something with a really inspiring organisation that I volunteer for which provides a day centre and activities for people who have had a brain injury.

I learnt a lot about the science of brain injury during my PhD. Many brain injuries are caused by accients but they can occur whenever someone hits their head. People who have had strokes and tumors may also have brain injury. It can affect people in many different ways. Movement or speach may be more difficult or someone may find it hard to concentrate or remember things. Although you can get a lot better after a brain injury, most people suffer from some of the effects for the rest of their lives. You can read more about it here: brain injury

Since I finished my last post doc position, I have been volunteering at Headway East London. Its a day centre especially for people who’ve had a brain injury and their families. I’ve found it really interesting and inspring to meet the people there and it puts a new perspective on the scientific work we do. A lot of the people there have told me that they think the public doesn’t understand the effects of brain injury or how to interact with someone who has one so I would like to use the money to improve the publics understanding.

I am very interested to find out what you know – have you heard of brain injury and if so, what? Do you know anyone who suffers from it? What is the best way for people to learn more about it?

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Interested and amused

Who is your favourite singer or band?

That’s really hard to say! In no particular order – Beastie Boys, Underworld, Prince and David Bowie

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Also a really difficult question. I’ve had some great holidays. Recently my boyfriend and I hired a convertible car and drove around California – one day were were in the desert, the next up a mountain in 2 meters of snow.

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

To travel all around the world, to be happy throughout my life and to make other people happy too.

What did you want to be after you left school?

When I left to go to univeristy, I knew I was interested in neuroscience but I had no idea what jobs involved neuroscience apart from being a psychiatrist which I didn’t fancy. I thought I’d study it anyway and see where it took me.

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

I used to get in trouble for little things like being disruptive and being cheeky. I have a short attention span so I messed around a lot.

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

One of the great things about science is that you can present your results at lots of conferences. I’ve been to New Orleans, Washington, LA and Boston as well as France and Portugal. You can get together with others and chat about your subject, coming up with new perspectives and ideas. Its really motivating as well as great fun.

Tell us a joke.

Why is there no asprin in the jungle? Because the parrots-eat-em-all.