Spotlight on early-career investigators: a Neuronet interview with Sarah Gregory

In this early-career researcher interview, we talk to Sarah Gregory who is a PhD student and study coordinator at the University of Edinburgh (UK). The main focus of her research is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA), the stress response system, in cohorts of participants at risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

She started her PhD as a part-time student in October 2018 and is aiming to finish in October 2022. She has been working on the EPAD (European Prevention of Alzheimer’s dementia) project for the last few years.

Can you tell us a bit about your PhD?

The focus of my PhD is to look at the HPA axis in mid- and later- life cohort studies to understand how it associates with Alzheimer’s disease. The HPA axis, or the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, is the stress response system. We know that people with higher cortisol seem to have a faster progression in their memory and thinking abilities when Alzheimer’s dementia or Alzheimer’s disease is present, but we do not know as much about how it might affect risk for Alzheimer’s people in groups of people who do not yet have Alzheimer’s disease. 

What is your role in the EPAD study?

My role in the EPAD study is the Edinburgh site coordinator, managing the participant visits to collect the study data. I also support the Scottish EPAD participant panel which meets twice a year to provide participants input into the running of the protocol as important stakeholders in this project. 

EPAD involves many academic, industry and SME partners. What has been your experience of working on such a large public-private partnership?

I have really enjoyed working on a study that has been a public-private partnership. It allows us to bring expertise from a multitude of backgrounds to solve problems and develop innovative solutions. Being a pan-European project has allowed sites to learn from diverse settings and sharing practice across our centres has been one of the biggest benefits of the project for me. 

What do you see as the key challenges for your field?

Writing this in the midst of the COVID19 pandemic I think one of the key challenges will inevitably be funding. Funding for Alzheimer’s research, whilst growing, was still significantly lower than we see in other disease areas but is a disease that brings a huge burden of cost, both financially as well as socially and emotionally. Continuing to advocate for and promote research funding opportunities will be key to continue and accelerate progress in our field. 

The EPAD project has developed the EPAD Academy and you are part of it. Could you please tell us a bit more about it?

I have been a member of the EPAD Academy since 2017. During the EPAD General Assembly in 2019 the EPAD Academy hosted training sessions specifically designed for early career researchers which were fantastic. We’ve also had access to many webinars covering a range of topics relevant to early career researchers as well as building a network of contacts across the project.

EPAD has involved research participants as research partners and established several research participants panels across multiple European countries. Could you please give us more details on this patient, public and participant involvement?

Attending the Scottish EPAD Participant Panel is one of the highlights of my role within EPAD. The panels were set up as the major method for participants to contribute to the ongoing running of the study. The panel meetings are participant led with staff attending to support with logistics, such as room booking and minuting, as well provide any study updates and ensure topics discussed in the panels are actioned within the study.

Where do you see your career progressing after your PhD?

Having spent the last 10 years working in clinical trials I am interesting in continuing a career in this field, ideally intertwining my interests of research ethics (I’m a voluntary ethics committee member), participant involvement, protocol design and stress as a modifiable risk factor for disease.