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From the 28th to the 31st of August I had the pleasure of working with the Breathe Oxford team thanks to the In2scienceUK programme. This programme enables 6th form students to gain more experience in science and work life. I worked closely with Lucy Marlow, a research member of the team who introduced me to the other researchers and explained what their role was within the team. During the week Lucy also helped me to read my first scientific paper and build a presentation to show other members of the research team in their Journal Club.

 On the first day I was given an introduction to the amazing work that they do. They research how the brain influences our perceptions of breathlessness; from having Asthma myself this question intrigued me. I was left wondering whether it was just my mind telling me I need my inhaler ever time I walk up the stairs or if I actually need it! 

From this I was lucky enough to observe one of Lucy’s participants taking part in a study. After building the study packs including questionnaires about interoception, anxiety and the participant’s asthma (which I also had a go at completing myself) they were ready to give to a real participant. The participant was asked to breathe into may devices including a spirometry test measuring the amount of air exhaled in the first second of the breath, the vital capacity which is the amount exhaled in total and the peak flow (or the highest speed of the exhalation). They also measured the fraction of exhaled nitric oxide in the breath, which is a marker of inflammation. After that another breathing test was conducted with the participant, who breathed into a long tube while Lucy changed filters on the other end to make their breathing harder and easier. The task measured how sensitive the participant was to these slight changes in their breathing (a concept called interoception). I was able to have a go at this at the end - I was quite aware of my breathing! After looking away while Lucy conducted a blood test, I had time to finish off my presentation.

I was really proud to present my finished presentation to the group. Lucy helped me to analyse the paper and make notes so I understood all about the dimensions of interoception in autism and how that might affect emotions and anxiety. I read from graphs and even explained how the heartbeat discrimination task worked! All of this was new to me but I enjoyed reading the paper and finding out new information about topics which I love learning about. I also enjoyed the essential post Journal Club cake to finish the day off!

On the last day Sarah gave me the task of becoming the very first person to try out their MRI analysis demonstration. I was given a tutorial on how to use the programme, including using commands to bring up the correct brain scans. Running my mouse over the scans changed the image to different parts of the brain so I could see the structure in great detail. I was even more impressed when I was told the brain belonged to Sarah herself! I then progressed to finding which part of the brain I was looking at so that I could also investigate the function later on. With the support of Sarah, I successfully explored the brain using complex software, making me feel like a ‘brain scanning computer wiz’!

Over the week I have gained so much knowledge and enjoyed learning about things I didn’t even know were possible. Neuroscience has always fascinated me and now with everything I have taken from this experience I am excited to look further into neuroscience and maybe even write my own paper!

Thank you to the Breathe Oxford team for welcoming me for the week, showing me their work and to Lucy for looking after me!