Dr Emma Yhnell is a senior lecturer at Cardiff University. With a PhD in neuroscience, she is an expert on all things neurons and takes great pride in sharing this knowledge with her students. There are many strings to Yhnell's bow: when not busy teaching, she is a passionate science communicator, writing and talking about neuroscience in entertaining, accessible, and, most importantly, fun ways.
She can be found nattering about neurons at various public engagement and outreach events and in 2018 delivered a TEDx talk on the ethical challenges associated with research into brain diseases titled “The ethics behind your neurogenetics”.
We caught up with Yhnell to find out more about her career so far, her desire to inspire the next generation of neuroscientists, and the innovative – and sometimes a little eccentric – ways in which she goes about achieving this.
There’s talk of “cuddly neurons”, bubble gun mishaps, and the joys of netball and open-water swimming thrown in for good measure.
What do you do?
I'm a senior lecturer at Cardiff University, and I specialize in neuroscience. I'm also a science communicator.
What aspects of your job do you find the most fulfilling?
I love helping people to find and discover new things, whether that’s the students that I’m teaching or different public audiences. I find it really fulfilling to be able to communicate a message to people or a new kind of theory or any sort of information that they have to learn as part of their course, and doing that in unique and novel ways. I love to use props in my teaching and music just to make things more engaging and entertaining.
Any career highlights?
Yes, lots of career highlights. My TEDx talk, I think was a good one for me. I spoke in that about my family history of Alzheimer's disease and brain diseases and how they can impact all of us, so that was a really nice career highlight. And then more recently, being shortlisted for Biosciences teacher of the year, that was really nice as well.
What did it take to get here?
I would say in terms of what it takes to get here, I did an undergraduate degree and then a PhD. I'm a bit strange in that my undergraduate degree was in biochemistry and my PhD was in neuroscience, so I made a bit of a transition there. And then I've done teaching qualifications as well through the Higher Education Academy, and a postgraduate certificate in clinical trials.
I think in terms of what it takes to get here just experience, especially in teaching and lecturing large numbers of students. But also in terms of hobbies and things. I think it's super important to try and maintain hobbies because academic workloads can be quite overwhelming. I love playing netball, that's my go-to at the moment. And a bit of open water swimming as well.
Imagine you’ve met yourself as a teenager at a careers fair: How would you describe what you do to your former self?
I love this question. Mainly because I think my days are so varied, which is why I love what I do. So it can range from teaching students to giving public talks to doing paperwork to fixing a computer. In terms of career fairs and meeting my younger self I think it's important to give things a go and just try different things. Often, I think we think we know what our career might look like, but we don't truly know until we experience it. And I think there will always be parts of a career or any job that you like more than others as well. So it's about balancing those. And also I would say I'd like to hope that I'm making a difference. That's one of my key drivers really.
What’s the most common misconception about your line of work?
I would say that lecturers know everything. It’s not true. That isn't a secret, it's a fact of life. I think sometimes there is this perception that lecturers just know everything and we don't. And I’m really comfortable and happy to say to students: “I actually don't know the answer to that” and go and research it and come back with an answer. I think it's really important that we acknowledge that we don't know everything. And, you know, you can only ever know so much so acknowledging when you don't know rather than bluffing is definitely a good thing to do.
Funniest moment on the job?
I'm going to show you a prop. So, meet my friend:
I love a prop. In my teaching, I love creating props or any unique ways to get people to understand things. So I [use this when I teach] electron neurotransmission – and he lights up!
I think the funniest moment for me is when I come to lectures and play music, or come with props, and when I turn these lights on, and there's like a simultaneous “ooo” from the audience. I really love that. It's funny, but it's also really lovely to get that feedback as well from the learners that I'm teaching.
Memorable misstep/hairiest moment on the job?
I think you have to prepare when you're using things like props for things to go wrong. So I also use a bubble gun to demonstrate neurotransmission that sometimes goes wrong if the batteries run out or if your prop breaks or all of these things. I think particularly in teaching, you have to be prepared for things to go wrong. So, you know, the computer might break down or, especially if you're trying to use innovative methods, you are risking that it might go wrong, and that's kind of part of the fun, but also can be a bit hairy. So always have a backup plan of what to do if it goes a bit pear-shaped.
What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?
My number one is probably surround yourself with people who support you and champion you and back you. That's really, really important. And then secondly, I'd say believe in yourself. I think lots of us don't do that and it’s a fine line but absolutely you should back yourself and know that your views and opinions are just as valid as anyone else's.
Let me also say that it's okay to change careers as well. That's important. I think very often we think that just because we’re doing something we'll be stuck in it forever. But that's not true. You can always change, you can always do different things.