Researching abroad: Cannabis and decision making in the Big Apple

by Michelle Taylor @chelle_bluebird

Setting off for TARGs 2013 annual retreat to Cumberland Lodge in Great Windsor Park, I was looking forward to hearing a talk from an invited guest speaker. Gill had flown in from Columbia University to talk to the group about a recent drug administration study her lab group had completed. The research being conducted by their lab was very different to the epidemiological research that I am used to. Now don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy the research that I do, but these studies sounded new and exciting. After listening to the talk, the evening activities began with dinner and a quiz. Luckily, I ended up on the same quiz team as Gill, giving me the opportunity to ask more about her research. I decided to grab the bull by the horns and offer my help in one of her future studies, and so my trip to the Big Apple began…

central park 1Nine months later I was on my way to Heathrow for a two month stint collecting data on a cannabis administration study. I was both excited and apprehensive. I have never lived more than a 3 hour drive away from family, and have always been in a city where I have known people. I didn’t know whether I would get homesick, or whether I would make friends on my trip abroad. These feelings of apprehension soon disappeared in the first few hours of my first day at the New York Psychiatric Institute. Everyone I met was so friendly and welcoming, even the many morning commuters who stopped to help the lone Brit who was obviously puzzled by the subway map at 7.30am.

yankeesI was to spend the next six weeks collecting data for a study examining the neuro-behavioural mechanisms of decisions to smoke cannabis at the Substance Use Research Center in the New York Psychiatric Institute at Columbia University. This research centre is unique; it is one of the largest drug administration centre in the world and has licenses to administer a wide variety of drugs, including cannabis, cocaine and heroin. This means that much of the research conducted here is cutting edge. The aim of the study that I would be working on was to shed light on how and why drug abusers repeatedly make decisions to take drugs despite substantial negative consequences. The study used brain imaging (fMRI) to examine the neural and behavioural processes involved in decisions to self-administer cannabis, compared to decisions to eat food, in regular cannabis users. We also examined the influence of drug and food cues on the processes underlying these decisions. To do this, participants were recruited as inpatients and stayed with us in the lab for a week. Data collection for this study is still ongoing, but I will be sure to write another blog post with what we found when the results are available.

coney_2I found this research fascinating and it was a pleasure to be involved in the work carried out in this department. The experience was made even more enjoyable by the people I was working with. There were many office conversations about the British and American slang that was being used, many lunchtime trips to Chipotle (an American fast food restaurant that I am definitely missing since my return to the UK), and several Friday evening trips to the local Irish bar. One office memory that will always stick in my mind was meeting a very accomplished researcher in the field of my PhD, a researcher that was definitely someone I should be impressing. Upon entering this individuals office on an extreme
ly hot New York day, the fan was turned to the meeting area and the smell of cannabis filled the room as the flow of air reached me (I had been administered the drug to a participant earlier that afternoon). Probably not the best first impression I have ever made!

milkshakeI did, of course, take every opportunity to explore New York. I was lucky enough to get tickets to watch the New York Yankees beat the Boston Red Sox at the Yankee Stadium, which was also one of the last games played by baseball-legend Derek Jeter. I made several trips to the American Natural History Museum (my favourite type of museum, and this one cannot be done in a day), and while there saw a live spider show, a 3D film about Great White Sharks and a full T-Rex skeleton. The glorious weather allowed for several leisurely strolls around Central Park. And, of course, the American food definitely needs a mention. If anyone reading this takes a trip over the Atlantic, I would definitely recommend visiting Big Daddy’s Diner for what could be the best milkshake on the planet. And don’t be shy about trying a hotdog from one of the carts that can be found on nearly every street corner. The reason there are so many of them is that they’re delicious! I would also recommend a trip to the Russian Tea Rooms for caviar afternoon tea, an evening at the New York Metropolitan Opera (if that’s your cup of tea), and a trip to Coney Island.

t_rexAlthough it was daunting going abroad for that length of time to begin with, I don’t think I would be having those feelings again and I would definitely jump at any opportunity to work in a different environment in the future. I am very grateful that I am a PhD student in a large working group like TARG, as without this I probably would not have come across opportunities such as this one. This experience has taught me the importance of inter-disciplinary research, and the need for several fields contributing evidence to a much larger research question. Since this trip, I have been successful in a fellowship application allowing me 9 months in a different department at the University of Bristol, an application that I probably would not have made if it wasn’t for my experience at the Columbia University. I am an epidemiologist and do not have any plans to change that; however I do plan to conduct more interdisciplinary research in the future. I would like to that Gill (and everyone in her lab group) for welcoming me and making this trip possible. I look forward to hopefully working with you again in the future…

How I ended up on the other side of the world

By Sarah Griffiths

My New Year’s resolution this year was to get out of Bristol for a bit. I love living in Bristol and enjoy my PhD research, which is what brought me to the city in the first place. But the weather was pretty miserable in January and, after a year and a half, perhaps I was starting to take the place for granted. I decided that it would be a good time to look into some of the great opportunities there are to travel in academia.

I had heard that it was possible to get funding to visit a foreign university through the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) during your PhD. The WUN is an association of 16 universities around the world who have decided to cooperate to promote international research collaboration. I looked at the research that was being done at each of these universities to see if any fitted with my PhD topic and found Face Lab at the University of Western Australia. Face Lab, I learned, was doing some fascinating research on the nature of emotional expression coding in typical development and in autism. Perth also looked like a pretty fun place to spend some time so I decided to apply.

I got in touch with Professor Gill Rhodes who leads Face Lab and asked if she would have me for a visit for a few months and she kindly agreed. I then went ahead and filled in the application form. This involved writing a research proposal, including details of how the exchange would benefit the university and myself. Additionally I was to submit a CV and supporting statements from my supervisor and the Head of School in Bristol, and Gill at UWA. There are two calls for applications a year: one in February, which I went for, and one in November. A few months later I heard that my application had been accepted and I was going to be spending 3 months in Perth in the autumn!

Cycle path

I’ve now been in Perth for 2 weeks and I’m so glad that I decided to come. The people I have met both in the University and out have been incredibly friendly and helpful. I’ve found accommodation in a great area in a complex that has a pool (!) Everyday I get to cycle along the river to the university, looking out for dolphins that supposedly live there.

I’ve also found that working in a different lab has renewed my interest in research. A change of environment and the opportunity to discuss new ideas with experts you wouldn’t otherwise meet is a great remedy for any mid-PhD disenchantment. Here I’m working on a project about recognition of emotion in a crowd of faces. This is a topic that is complimentary to my PhD research but different enough to be new and exciting. I hope that when I return to Bristol I will bring back new ideas and fresh enthusiasm to my PhD, as well as a tan! I will let you know in 10 weeks time. In the meantime, if this has inspired you to take part in some “academic tourism” (as one other WUN funded visitor I met this week called it), the next deadline for the WUN researcher mobility funding is in 7th of November so get applying!

Sarah is a PhD student in TARG researching emotion recognition in children with autism spectrum disorder. You can follow her on Twitter @SarahGriff90 and see her academic profile on the University of Bristol website.


Conferencing in South America: A tale of cocaine, capuchins, cachaça and chupacabra

I have to admit, I’d been a little apprehensive about this trip. This was the first time I’d visited South America, let alone solo, and since that initial invitation to present arrived in my inbox a little over a month ago, my head had been filled with cautionary tales from everyone with whom I’d shared my travel plans.

Now, on the penultimate day of my visit to Belo Horizonte, I can honestly say I am devastated to be leaving. Despite my eleventh hour travel and lodging arrangements and sparse audience (problems exacerbated, or indeed caused, by my woefully inadequate grasp of Portuguese), I can honestly say that I’ve never before had such a rich and eye-opening conference experience.


This has been nothing like the traditional, slick, and sanitised Western conference experience to which I’ve grown accustomed. The programme was no more than a loose hint at timings (Brazilians, I have learned, are very relaxed about punctuality), posters were strung wildly with (what appeared to be) repurposed wire coat-hangers, and there were no lavish spreads of patisseries and exotic teas during symposium breaks (that is not to say, of course, that Brazilian cuisine is lacking – more on that later).

What there was, however, was a gathering of incredibly hospitable and astute neuroscientists, all with a keen interest in a shared cause – drug abuse. A carefully selected programme of speakers, hailing from multiple continents and disciplines, presenting cutting-edge science, was matched by an equally impressive daily schedule of cultural events. These included a moving performance from Orquestra Jovem de Contagem. This is an orchestra of children hailing from the very poorest areas of the city (the favelas), tutored and directed by a Professor of Music at our host institution, the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais. Their forthcoming US tour stands testament to their talent.

But enough of the conference. I learnt more outside of the classroom. I spent one evening with my hosts at a beautiful local restaurant discussing Brazilian drug culture and political corruption, being treated to traditional Brazilian cuisine. I sampled my first (and second and third) caipirinha(s). I stayed up until the early hours with six wonderful Professors kind enough to tolerate my naive (but enthusiastic) ramblings, ensconced in an impassioned discussion of science and policy. I was driven to the beautiful Inhotim Institute, a botanical garden and contemporary art gallery, and to Ouro Preto (“Black Gold”), an 18th century mining town famous for its exquisite Baroque architecture, by three American Professors sweet enough to take me under their wing for the week.



I was struck by the immediate contrast between first and third world, painfully apparent on even the shortest journey through this city. I watched wild capuchins play in the rafters of a local restaurant, drank freshly pressed sugarcane juice (delicious) and coconut milk (less enjoyable –see picture) by the roadside, and cycled up russet-red dirt tracks into the mountains encircling the city to greet a sunset never to be paralleled. And there may or may not have been a sighting of a chupacabra. Oh, wait, a capybara.

coconut milk

If you’ve persevered through my confused ramblings this far, thank you. If you’ve skipped ahead to what appears to be the concluding paragraph, nice work. It is. So here I sum up: This trip has taught me two things, which I hope to share. Firstly, don’t limit your travel to the ‘Western’ world – you’ll be missing out, you just don’t know it yet (I didn’t). Secondly, embrace opportunities to travel to conferences alone – you’ll make so much more of the experience, and meet so many more people, when pushed outside of the comfortable and familiar. Frederico, David, Colin, Bob, Monica, Sarah, Yael, Analice, Ricardo, Reinaldo – if you happen to stumble upon this, thank you for making my time in Brazil such an incredible and memorable experience. I can’t wait to see you all again. Finally, I want to thank our TARG Prof, Marcus, for very generously letting me travel in his place. This was an incredible opportunity. I hope you enjoyed the cachaça!



Obrigado por ler!


This article is posted by Jen Ware