Interview with Professor Paul Heppenstall

Paul Heppenstall

Today, after his seminar, Professor Paul Heppenstall has been interviewed by two of our PhD Students, Nicola Maria Carucci and Giuvanna Testa. What follows is the summmary of their conversation

Nicola Maria Carucci: It is a very pleasure for us to talk with you today and thank you for the opportunity to ask you some questions.

Giovanna Testa: Which was the event in your life that was determinant to convince you that the research might be your way? In other words: when did you decide to be a scientist?

Paul Heppenstall: It’s difficult to answer. I don’t think that was a single event. I think that being researcher is a graduate serious event: you get results, then you publish the results and then people can read your results. It is not one single thing that makes you a researcher.

NMC: You need feedback from people.

PH: Yes, exactly. For me, probably, it was the first paper that I published that convinced me that could be the correct way. And then the others, one by one. Yes it’s a graduate process.

NMC: Can you give us an example of your most important success and, on the other hand, some example of negative findings, that are important as well in our career.

PH: Yes, they are. I think that, in term of importance, every single new finding that we find interests me. Every time you go in the lab, every morning, there’s something new. All this keep you interested, I can’t think than one of them is useless.

About the negative data, yeah: it could be a problem.

NMC: Papers and journals are done by positive data but no one talks about wrong ways.

PH: I think it’s important how to see at negative data. It’s difficult but possible to make a positive story from negative data. I think that, for me, the most important thing is not to go deep in some details but make narrative, to make a story. Even from negative data.  Right? So it’s about the way you think at the data. That is the most important think for me.

GT: The pain and, of course, the therapy of pain, is a hot topic today and is also full of expectation by patients and people that are waiting for a cure for different diseases. Why did you decide to study the pain and what is the translational value of your research?

PH: I basically decided to study the pain when I did my PhD, 25 years ago. I was interested in neuroscience and I want to address the brain field. Pain was a major problem for scientists and clinician, and it is still 25 years later. In the last couple of years we find a couple of findings in the lab that could really have translational value for people. And now we are strongly trying to do much more in this direction. From molecular basis to patients.  My experience of the past 10 years, being involved in grants and in consortiums, is that’s a major need for this. Now I think it is time to become more translational and for this reason my lab is working in this direction.

NMC: The current approach to study the pain is to generate animal model to analyse the molecular function of proteins (receptors, small molecules and so on) involved in nociception. But we have to consider that the pain is an important mechanism by which the organism protects itself and also by which the animals exert their social interactions. It is possible to find method to study empathy, risk evaluation and other behaviours using pain animal models?

PH: Yes. Most of the mammal models we use reflect very well some aspects of patients and translate very well into the clinics. But there’s a need for more complicated tests. Many labs are developing these aspects, such as empathy. But more complexity in behavioural tests is needed. The goal is to shift from simple reflexes to more complicated responses of animals. Emotional aspect of pain is something that is not addressed in my lab. We work on peripheral nervous system and its contribute to more complicated behavioural aspect is probably few. Our tests have to be rapid and conclusive, and it’s important to find a balance between fast reflexes and more prolonged responses.

GT: It is known that in our country the research founding are less and less every year; it is quite difficult for new generation to work properly and produce good science. How is, instead, working in a European Institute such as EMBL?

PH: It is different but also we have problems: because we found the capital internally. It is difficult because we do not apply for national funding here. If I think at my colleagues in European institution in Germany or in UK, they can apply for national funding as well. Here in Italy we are not able to do that. We hope that this situation will change. I know it’s difficult, but I’m foreign here and I don’t know the system as well as you.

NMC: Thank you for your time, this is our last question. Wrapping up, can you give us your best advice to young people to work in science?

PH: My best advice is to be excited and realize that you are working for yourself; you are not working for your boss. You are actually working for yourself, and when you are doing an experiment it should be fun, and all the other things will come. The way to go on it’s up to you and if there is enthusiasm your boss will support you. Enjoy it.