IPN Student Profile: Amanda McFarlan

I’ve been fascinated by behaviour and understanding why we do the things we do from an early age. This curiosity, coupled with my affinity for science subjects, led me to pursue undergraduate studies in neuroscience. I enrolled in the fall of 2012 at Carleton University and began taking all the basic science courses –chemistry, biology, math and physics. However, the one subject that caught my attention was a neuroscience course: Introduction to Mental Health and Disease. In this class, I was introduced to the brain and immediately became intrigued by its complexity. We learned about the basics of the brain: the organization of its many structures, and of course, the action potential. What I found the most interesting, however, were our discussions on mental illnesses and neurological disorders. I was captivated by what happened when things went awry. It quickly became clear to me that I was passionate about studying the brain and that I had made the right decision to pursue studies in the field of neuroscience.  

My curiosity for understanding how the malfunction of the brain could lead to a number of debilitating disorders prompted me to volunteer at the Royal Ottawa Mental Hospital to gain experience working with patients with mental illnesses. It is through this experience that I developed a true understanding of the importance of providing adequate treatment and support for individuals suffering from mental illness. As a volunteer, I was fortunate to have many roles which allowed me to interact with patients. In one of these roles I volunteered as a recreational therapist assistant on the schizophrenia unit where I organized leisurely activities for patients. I found my experience in this volunteer position to be both extremely rewarding and educational. I was thrilled that I could provide an entertaining afternoon for the patients on the unit and at the same time, have the opportunity to receive hands-on learning in areas that had been covered in my university courses.  

My role as a mental health volunteer has had a huge impact on my decision to pursue studies at the graduate level. The experiences I gained through my 2+ years as a volunteer allowed me to discover my true passion for helping individuals suffering from neurological disorders and mental illness. This ultimately led me to apply for graduate studies in the field of neuroscience at McGill.  

I started my Master’s degree in McGill University’s IPN in the fall of 2016 under the supervision of Dr. Jesper Sjöström. In this lab, I study epileptogenesis –the gradual process by which the brain develops epilepsy– in rodents using state-of-the-art techniques such as optogenetics and 2-photon laser microscopy. I have found this research topic to be extremely fascinating and necessary because there are many unknowns in the field of epilepsy pertaining to the development of the disease. Additionally, anti-convulsive drugs are the primary treatment for epilepsy, but these are only effective in ~70% of cases. For these reasons, it is critical to continue studying how epilepsy develops in the brain, to advance our understanding of epilepsy and to discover new ways to treat this disorder. My goal is to aid in this endeavor by studying the synaptic plasticity of inhibitory interneurons in cortical microcircuits to determine their impact on neocortical seizures in rodent models of epilepsy.