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Woolf Fisher Scholarship 2023 Harry Gardner

The three Woolf Fisher Scholarship recipients for 2023, from left, Sophia Geris, Samuel Thompson and Harry Gardner.

One University of Otago Honours student hopes understanding how the brain forms and stores memories will take him one step closer to finding a treatment for memory disorders such as Alzheimer's Disease.

“I feel that memory is the essence of who we are and our conscious experience and that is then our opening to fully understanding the mind,” says Harry Gardner, of the Neuroscience Programme.

Gardner recently won a Woolf Fisher Scholarship which will see him embark on his PhD at the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge.

Gardner first developed an interest in memory mechanisms during his undergraduate degree.

“I learnt we can determine the physiological processes which underly such a complex phenomenon like memory,” he says.

“I also thought I might be able to use what I learnt about memory to my advantage when studying for exams,” he laughs.

Synaptic plasticity is the ability of neurons to change the strength of their connections (synapses) and understanding this process further could potentially shed light on the process underlying memory encoding and storage, Gardner says.

He plans on using his time at Cambridge to investigate the neuromodulation of synaptic plasticity to progress a more computationally accurate model of memory processing and storage.

He hopes to relate his findings to disorders and dementias associated with memory loss and cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer's Disease.

“I think there is still so much to uncover and so many exciting techniques on offer at a place like Cambridge University that I cannot wait to use.”

In Aotearoa New Zealand, it is estimated that Alzheimer’s Disease affects about 10% of people over 65 years, and almost 25% of people over 85 years, Gardner says.

As a result of Aotearoa New Zealand’s ageing population, the prevalence of Alzheimer’s is set to double every 20 years, so it is crucial to research better treatment options now.

“Our lack of knowledge regarding memory and disease mechanisms means we are unable to cure Alzheimer’s, and current treatments only slightly delay inevitable symptom onset and death,” he says.

“As a result, Alzheimer’s disease and wider dementias have a massive financial and societal impact, with 1.3 trillion dollars being spent on dementia care globally in 2019. Not to mention the effects on friends and family that neurodegenerative disorders have, both mentally and emotionally with the need for constant caregiving.”

The Woolf Fisher Scholarship is worth more than $70,000 a year for up to four years at Cambridge University and is available to New Zealand students under the age of 30, taking on a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD).

Gardner says he was initially “quite emotional” upon learning he had won one of the scholarships.

“It has been a lot of work, not just the application and interview process, but the last four years of study,” he says.

“I read the first four words of my letter of offer and called my parents straight away; I was so excited to tell them.”

He was also very relieved as studying at Cambridge without the financial support of the scholarship would be too expensive.

During his time in the United Kingdom, Gardner is looking forward to picking up cricket again, and watching a few of the world-class motocross races.

“I am very excited to see the beautiful historic buildings which make up the university and being able to travel all around Europe because everything is so close.”

Upon completion of his PhD, Gardner plans on returning to Aotearoa and applying the skills, techniques, perspectives, and connections he obtains to help further the neuroscience research landscape.

“I want to thank the Woolf Fisher Trust for providing me with this opportunity and the University of Otago for an amazing four years of study which has sparked my drive for research.”

The two other scholarship recipients  were Sophia Geris of Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington and Samuel  Thompson of the University of Auckland.

-Korero by internal communications adviser, Koren Allpress

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