Meet the Yorkshirewoman growing brain cells in a lab to find a cure for Alzheimer’s

Selina Wray has just been made a professor at University College LondonSelina Wray has just been made a professor at University College London
Selina Wray has just been made a professor at University College London
From growing up on free school meals in Barnsley, Selina Wray now leads a team of pioneering dementia researchers and has just been made a professor. Chris Burn speaks to her.

When Selina Wray was preparing to become the first member of her family to go to university, regulars at the Barnsley Trades Club, where she worked, put together a collection to help pay for her textbooks. Two decades later, she has just been awarded a Professorship for her pioneering dementia research at the prestigious University College London (UCL).

Speaking over the Zoom video calling app from her home in London, 38-year-old Wray says being made a professor “has not quite sunk in yet” following the lengthy application process which requires six references from her scientific peers, including two from outside the UK.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“I have never applied for anything like that before; one of the nicest feelings is it relies on your peers and my peers think I am the same as them,” she says.

Selina at the ARUK conference in 2018 collecting the Early Career Investigator of the Year award.Selina at the ARUK conference in 2018 collecting the Early Career Investigator of the Year award.
Selina at the ARUK conference in 2018 collecting the Early Career Investigator of the Year award.

Wray’s parents have both passed away – her mother died while she was at university and her father around five years ago – which she says has made the achievement somewhat bittersweet.

“It is a bit emotional – it would have meant so much to my parents. Not being able to tell them is really sad but I know they would have been really proud of me. All they ever wanted was for me to have a life that was more secure than what it was growing up. I was able to tell other family members who cried down the phone when they heard.”

Wray, who grew up in social housing in the Kingstone area of Barnsley and received free school meals, says: “There is no real reason I should have grown up to be a scientist. My dad was a painter and decorator and did a lot of DIY at home – some of my earliest memories were watching him take stuff apart and put it back together so I guess that was the first inkling of me thinking about how stuff works.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

She studied biochemistry and biological chemistry at the University of Nottingham before undertaking PhD training at Kings College London. Wray became a junior research fellow at UCL’s Department of Molecular Neuroscience in 2009 and her career subsequently progressed to see her appointed as a senior research fellow in UCL’s Department of Neurodegenerative Disease in 2017.

Selina with her mum in Barnsley.Selina with her mum in Barnsley.
Selina with her mum in Barnsley.

Her current role involves leading a team to unravel the causes of Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal dementia, by using stem cells to investigate how the amyloid and tau proteins builds up in the brain during the diseases and causes damage to key nerve cells.

One of the major challenges of understanding Alzheimer’s is that the changes in the brain start decades before symptoms become apparent in a patient so the aim of Wray’s work is to try and assess what the first things that go wrong in the brain are.

As part of the extraordinary research process, brain cells are grown in a laboratory setting by taking skin from the upper arm of patients. It is then transformed from skin cells into stem cells and then into brain cells, to allow the team to mimic what happens in the brain.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“It sounds a little bit cheesy but in medical research you feel you have got a chance to make a difference even if you are a small piece of a very large jigsaw,” Wray, whose work is funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK, says.

“With my research into Alzheimer’s disease, it is hard for me to think of anything more important than that at the moment because there aren’t any treatments. People are starting to realise this is a huge social problem. We urgently need some treatments that can intervene and help people living with Alzheimer’s disease.

“We already have some interesting data from the work. No two people who have Alzheimer’s have an identical experience. There is a lot of patient to patient variability. We are trying to understand what causes that variability. We have been doing that at the moment with 10 people with Alzheimer’s and matching up with people without Alzheimer’s. It may not seem like a lot but generating the cells is quite a labour intensive process.

“We have been able to see in the cells that different people generate different types of amyloid so maybe you can design different types of drug to stop different types of the condition.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“My dream is that in two decades we have treatments to choose from and we could take a patient’s cells and say ‘this is the best treatment for you’. That is way in the future but it is good to be ambitious.”

Her team work closely with specialists who treat Alzheimer’s patients as well as colleagues in the United States to develop their findings. “Our science is really collaborative – it is probably one of my favourite things about the job. I couldn’t imagine as a kid I would have all these friends and colleagues dotted about in various places in the US and Europe.”

She says the unlike many of her colleagues she has no personal connection to Alzheimer’s disease but has seen the cruelty of brain disease through what happened to her father.

“My dad passed away from a brain tumour which is not the same but he was sick for about a decade before. There were definitely some parallels there even though it was a different disease. It is really weird when you understand what is going on with the symptoms because of your research.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Another passion of Wray’s is improving equality in science and opening the door to more people from backgrounds like hers.

“I think I was really fortunate, I have always found myself in an environment with really great managers. You need people to go and champion you. One thing I have really found as someone working class is you don’t know how to do that very well. I felt for a long time I was lucky to be there rather than having a right to be there.

“Women are under-represented in science, working class people are under-represented in science. Partly I think it is because people don’t know what options are available to them. I was quite motivated but that can only get you so far. I grew up on free school meals and we lived in social housing. At university, I didn’t pay tuition fees and I had the maximum student loan.”

Wray has also been involved with the Athena SWAN initiative, which pushes academic institutions to implement policies that advance gender equality.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

She says some of the achievements have included making it mandatory to discuss promotion prospects at annual reviews given women are less likely to actively put themselves forward for more senior positions than their male counterparts. “We are trying to change what we can – quite small changes can have a big impact down the line. When you reach a certain level, you have a responsibility to hold the door open.”

Wray sees the parallel between her research work and equality campaigning. “It comes back to this idea of being a small part of a bigger operation – you never really know where the breakthrough is going to come from – a lot of science is about chipping away and having a constant determination to keep moving forward.” 

She has some simple advice for people from similar backgrounds to herself on breaking into scientific work.

“Look for people who are doing the job that you want - that is much easier today than it was 20 years ago thanks to things like Twitter and the internet generally. Try and find out a bit about their background and how they got to where they are.”Speaking a bit more generally, it is determination that will get you through. One of things I have got from my background is this idea of resilience and to keep chipping away. Having that determination to stay focused and keep going has been really helpful.”

Praise for professor from charity

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Selina Wray is no stranger to accolades, having previously won Alzheimer’s Research UK’s 2018 David Hague Early Career Investigator of the Year and being voted Red Magazine’s Pioneer of the Year in 2014.

Dr Rosa Sancho, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said of her new professorship: “Our warm congratulations go to Prof Wray for her contribution to dementia research throughout her career so far. We are delighted to be able to support a passionate dementia researcher like Prof Wray as she works to unravel a process that underlies two forms of dementia which cause heartbreak to so many.

“There are 850,000 people currently living with dementia in the UK, and with this number set to grow to over a million people by 2025, we urgently need to see more research funding to help find new treatments for the condition. Dementia is the greatest medical challenge of our generation and it requires a concerted response to tackle it effectively.”

Editor’s note: first and foremost - and rarely have I written down these words with more sincerity - I hope this finds you well.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Almost certainly you are here because you value the quality and the integrity of the journalism produced by The Yorkshire Post’s journalists - almost all of which live alongside you in Yorkshire, spending the wages they earn with Yorkshire businesses - who last year took this title to the industry watchdog’s Most Trusted Newspaper in Britain accolade.

And that is why I must make an urgent request of you: as advertising revenue declines, your support becomes evermore crucial to the maintenance of the journalistic standards expected of The Yorkshire Post. If you can, safely, please buy a paper or take up a subscription. We want to continue to make you proud of Yorkshire’s National Newspaper but we are going to need your help.

Postal subscription copies can be ordered by calling 0330 4030066 or by emailing [email protected]. Vouchers, to be exchanged at retail sales outlets - our newsagents need you, too - can be subscribed to by contacting subscriptions on 0330 1235950 or by visiting where you should select The Yorkshire Post from the list of titles available.

If you want to help right now, download our tablet app from the App / Play Stores. Every contribution you make helps to provide this county with the best regional journalism in the country.

Sincerely. Thank you.

James Mitchinson


Related topics:

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.