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Associate Professor Peter Oliver

Dept of Physiology Anatomy and Genetics and MRC Harwell

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When did you first get interested in the brain?

Almost by accident – during my PhD in the late 90s - before any genome sequencing - I became excited by the fact you could discover entirely new genes with a combination of genetics and DNA cloning; therefore, you could be the first in the world to define the sequence of a brand-new protein. Then, an opportunity arose to continue similar positional cloning experiments in Oxford using new mouse models of nervous system disorders – that was the perfect-first post-doctoral opportunity for me.

Who has inspired you during your career?

Firstly, in terms of my own career path, I have been most inspired by those that have been critical of my work - at all levels. Getting a red line across the pages of my first grant proposal was the most important lesson I have learnt in being a scientist. In my opinion, it is sometimes easy to say that an internationally-recognised scientist is your inspiration, with limited understanding of how and why they have achieved that success. For those that have inspired me, I have witnessed their direct involvement in the blossoming of a student or post-doc. That legacy - if maybe somewhat difficult to measure - is a true mark of success alongside high-ranking publications or keynote speeches.

As for becoming a scientist, I met Jonny Ball – my hero - on stage at the Oxford Playhouse when I was 8 years-old. Simple.

What has been the most important paper in your area in the last 12 months? 

I can’t select a single one, but I am particularly drawn to papers where hypotheses have been honestly challenged in more than one model system. With the huge complexity of the human brain and neuronal cell function in general, there are of course caveats to every single experimental system in the field; therefore ‘important’ papers are not just those that have high impact, but those that stand the test of time across more than one fields of neuroscience. 

What is the next exciting breakthrough in your field going to be?

‘Personalised medicine’ is perhaps an over-used term; however, in certain neurological disorders, the advent of genome sequencing has the potential to provide a paradigm-shift in the selection of therapeutic options. Our new work focusses on genetic causes of epilepsy where exome sequencing can sometimes provide – in combination with input from expert clinicians - vital information regarding the choice of anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs). Across many neurological disorders in the coming years, genomic data will likely become more commonly applied as a valuable diagnostic tool.

What do you do outside the lab?

I’ve been playing the drums in bands for over 30 years; in addition to playing gigs, I see a lot of live music and go to festivals with my friends – often we’re almost the oldest there, but we’re the best prepared! My daughter and I go to gigs together too – that’s part of my own legacy!

What’s your favourite film/book/music?

I am a big fan of math-rock, and had the surreal experience a few weeks ago of dancing with former snooker-world-champion-now-DJ Steve Davis to the math-rock anthem ‘Atlas’ by Battles at The Bullingdon in Oxford. That beats swimming with dolphins on any bucket-list. For TV, I basically only watch Taskmaster.