Modeling intestinal cells takes a lot of guts — Helen Dockrell joins Real Scientists!

We are excited to welcome Helen Dockrell (@helen_reading) to Real Scientists! Helen is a PhD student of Computational Biology at Flinders University. Here’s Helen in her own words:


I enjoyed all my high school subjects and had no idea how to choose what I wanted to do when I finished Year 12. I tried studying Medicine and was frustraHDockrellted by how much detail our classes skipped over when we talked about molecular interactions. I ended up changing to a Bachelor of Science and studying it all in detail, which I absolutely loved. I chose a particular course that involved tutorials with full-time scientists and extra placement time and it was glorious. My majors were biochemistry and genetics, and I went on to complete an Honours year in biochemistry.

My current field is actually not biochemistry – it’s computational biology. My undergraduate degree focused very much on “pure” molecular biology – biology, chemistry, genetics. I noticed on my lab placements that many projects were coming to a standstill due to the requirement for computational analysis. This might be to process large volumes of data, to improve the consistency of an analysis or to predict how a molecule sits within a biological structure. The software required is often only available at high price, and then you need the computational expertise in order to work the software!

Nothing frustrates or intrigues me more than a loose end, so I taught myself to code and started writing my own software to process the increasingly vast volumes of information produced by scientific research.

I write software that builds up a picture of the intestines on a cellular scale. I research the tissue of the intestines rather than the contents, although I did hear of someone who worked on poo fluid dynamics at a conference I went to! There are so many types of data recorded from intestinal research that it has become difficult to conceptualise all the information effectively. Using a computational model helps with this – I structure the data into a 3D simulation based on a combination of physics and physiology. I can then work out what would happen if I changed things up – making the intestines longer or wider or squishier.

It’s surprising, I Helen_outdoor_picthink, that we understand so little about the intestines. Most people have had constipation or diarrhoea at some point, but noone really knows what that involves. The medications that exist for gut problems aren’t well understood, and there aren’t many of them. Your intestines have a very independent nervous system that communicates with your brain, so many people experiencing mental health difficulties also experience intestinal disorders. It’s also increasingly apparent that diabetes and obesity are linked to intestinal health (in ways other than sugar/fat = bad), as are types of cancer. When we understand our intestines, we understand how to eat to prevent disease, but also how to eat to treat disease and what medications to use to help in that process.

Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations? I’m not sure about obligations, but I do write science blogs for RiAus when I get the time. I love the idea of improving access to scientific findings, but I find it so hard to do effectively! Always working on whittling down big networks of ideas into smaller chunks. My blog posts are here:

I’m trying to sew a less consumerist wardrobe as my old clothes fall apart or become too small. I go op-shopping for fabric and recycle fabric from my own clothes. Designing patterns is loads of fun and it can be difficult to work with second-hand fabric with its quirks! I have a huge pin board of designs and details at home. Imagining a clothing design and imagining an intestinal structure are surprisingly similar processes!

How would you describe your ideal day off? Oooh I’d wake up around 10am, have some french toast and coffee and go to the art gallery. Then I’d go for a walk whilst listening to Hello Internet (my favourite podcast) and come home to spaghetti, Doctor Who, my partner and a new sewing project.


Please welcome Helen to Real Scientists!


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