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My Cardiff diary

24 July 2017

Why was I in Cardiff? Eighteen years ago, while still in medical school, a Cameroonian geneticist took a few of us in our Genetics club (which I had joined out of a natural impulse) to a laboratory in Cotonou, Benin republic, where he introduced us to the Sanger sequencing that was soon to revolutionise the world of medicine.

My interest in genetics has not waned since then, even when I took the practical step of going through a psychiatry residency, this being the clinical specialty that made me decide to be a doctor in the first place. My fellowship dissertation, still following that natural impulse, was on the only kind of genetics that was doable for a Nigerian trainee psychiatrist – a family study of psychiatric morbidity among schizophrenia probands (a patient who is the initial member of a family to come under study)

Upon qualification, I sent off the abstract to the World Congress of Psychiatric Genetics. I was lucky, courtesy of a travel grant, to attend the meeting in Boston in October 2013, where I sat in the audience and listened to mind-blowing presentations by Jordan Smoller, Stephan Ripke, Mick O’Donovan and Michael Owen, among others. The lack of an African presence in the Genome-wide Association Study (GWAS) data that was being presented was galling.

Three years later, I attended a two-week workshop on neuropsychiatric genomics organised by the International Brain Research Organisation and the University of Cape Town, where the faculty included greats like Stephan Ripke, Ben Neale and others.

Those two weeks in Cape Town left me hungry for more, and by the time we were awarded (together with collaborators at Imperial College, London) a seed grant for a study on genetics of childhood onset psychosis, I knew I needed to go on a pilgrimage, to Cardiff, the European capital of psychiatric genomics.

Barely hours after sending my application for the Cardiff summer school to Professor George Kirov, I received a positive response, and a few weeks later, on a sunny Monday afternoon, after travelling more than 24 hours (including a stopover in Doha), I was on a train from London’s Paddington Station to Cardiff. I got off the train at the Cathays Station and dragged my bags all the way to the Hadyn Ellis building, oozing adrenaline.

I was keen to hear James Walters talk on ‘Big Data and GWAS’ and the original timetable I’d been sent showed he’d be starting any minute. I asked breathlessly at the registration desk if I’d missed my chance to join the talk and was handed an updated programme which showed there’d been a swap in the schedule with George Kirov, who was about to start speaking about ‘Copy Number Variants and Neurodevelopmental Disorders’.

The following day I did listen to James Walters, who spoke brilliantly about the work of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium, and Dr Anthony Isles (‘Epigenetics and the Brain’) among others. My Wednesday highlights were Lawrence Wilkinson (‘Putting psychiatric genetics to work – using neuroscience to convert statistics to biology’) and Mick O’Donovan (‘Major breakthroughs in schizophrenia genetics provide insight into pathogenesis’).

The care that went into planning the curriculum was evident in that there were representative presentations from the longitudinal landscape of psychiatry, from child and adolescent psychiatry, to schizophrenia and bipolar disorders, addiction and dementias. Neurology and neurosurgery were represented by presentations on epilepsy and the cognitive benefits of stem cell surgery.

I missed the high throughput sequencing tour, but Professor Kirov linked me up with great staff such as Alex Evans and Will Nash who more than made up for what I had missed. There was also a tour of the Neuroscience and Mental Health Research Institute, housed on the third floor of the Hadyn Ellis building, where we were introduced to the remarkable work being done with stem cells.

We also visited the brand new CUBRIC, housing some of the most sophisticated brain imaging equipment in the world. Finally, given the early career profile of most students, the organisers thoughtfully included career workshops for medical and non-medical scientists.

Ideally I would like to see the summer school offer a two week programme with more time devoted to practical exposure. Without the benefit of the two weeks I had spent in Cape Town, the sessions on Bioinformatics with Elliot Rees would have been difficult to follow.

Besides the opportunity to meet world-class researchers, the school provided an opportunity to mix with peers from different parts of the world. I enjoyed hanging out during and after dinner with colleagues from Croatia, Pakistan, Germany and Egypt – with friendships formed which may well span a lifetime as a new generation of brain researchers emerge and grow (the field) together.


Contributor’s Bio: Niran Okewole studied Medicine at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria and did residency training in Psychiatry at the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Yaba Lagos, Nigeria. He has a Master’s degree in Child and Adolescent Health (University of Ibadan) and works as a consultant at the Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Aro Abeokuta, Nigeria. His two most recent publications are a twelve-year chart review of childhood and adolescent onset psychosis, and a study of maternal depression and child psychopathology.