Our penultimate interview of the year comes to you from Associate Professor Maurice Curtis. This small town guy is now a pioneer in the study of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease and is a source of pride to the university. Budding Neuroscientists - take note and if his field of work interests you, send him an email to enquire about potential research opportunities!
What is your background? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in many towns mostly around the North Island of New Zealand. My father was a church minister and so we got moved fairly frequently. I was, however, born in Rawene, a beautiful town on the Hokianga Harbour. I don’t spend much time there these days but I feel a stronger sense that Rawene is ‘where I am from’ as I get older. My most influential years (teen years) growing up were lived in Thames and there I gained a love of science, but spent most of my time riding my bike. The academic years were to follow.
What are your interests outside of university life?
I have a family, a wife and two daughters, and so I try and spend as much time with them as I can. My non-work, non-family passions include road cycling, mtn biking and anything to do with water. I always wondered why people thought that reading books for fun was so interesting (other than neuroscience/science books, as they are always fun – yes I am being serious), but over the past few years I have started reading a lot more just for interest sake…I have been reading some great history over the past few years and really enjoyed that. To give you a flavour of it, I read all the classics around the race to the south pole, the discovery of the worlds geography etc etc
What was your education pathway?
I was a middle of the class guy and only studied at school till year 12 (6th form we used to call it). I was encouraged to apply for Radiography school (medical Imaging) from 6th form and I managed to get in, much to my surprise. It was a difficult decision to leave school early and I had just turned 17 when I moved to Auckland to study at Unitec. My undergraduate programme was so interesting though and I loved every minute of it. My clinical placement was at Auckland Hospital and I enjoyed the contact with patients and professionals in the hospital. During my second year of study I fell in love with neuroscience and simultaneously met a person with Huntington’s disease; this would shape my career journey significantly. I knew I had to learn more about it. I asked Professor Richard Faull if he would take me on for a masters degree (slight fib, I begged and was very persistent..very persistent). Once I finished my degree I started my Masters degree followed by a PhD in Anatomy and Pharmacology. During my whole postgraduate life I worked at Auckland Hospital doing night shifts in the Radiology department. They were very exciting but hard-work years. I was very blessed to have accommodating and supportive bosses/supervisors and I will always be grateful to them for their generosity to me.
What are you working on right now?
My areas of interest are in understanding the earliest brain changes that occur in Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Many years before the overt symptoms are evident, the patient will have lost their sense of smell. I want to know what goes wrong in the olfactory system and whether we could alter the course of events early on so the rest of the brain is not affected. We are one of the few groups world wide working on the olfactory system in these diseases. My group also studies cell plasticity mechanisms that may be dysfunctional early on in these diseases such as polysialylated neural cell adhesion molecule system. Finally we are also interested in the mechanisms cells use to spread pathological proteins such as alpha synuclein and beta amyloid. Cells use a range of methods to spread pathology including use of tunneling nano-tubes which are conduits that form between two cells and through which all sorts of proteins can spread. Our ultimate goal is to stop the spread of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease out of the olfactory bulb.
What drew you to your field of interest? Was there a particular moment you knew that this topic would be your focus?
The topic above has been a journey because it is quite different to the area of research I started out in. When working as a postdoctoral fellow in Sweden (the work was done in NZ and Sweden) I discovered a long distance pathway for cell migration in the adult brain. The pathway went from the subventricular zone to the olfactory bulb and I was struck by the fact that the subventricular zone (regeneration area) is so close to the degenerating area in Huntington’s disease and that the cells can migrate toward the olfactory bulb to allow the sense of smell (which is dysfunctional in many neurological diseases) or to the site of injury on Huntington’s disease. What an interesting system to study and one with major implications for the origins of neurological diseases…..my lab has followed this line of research ever since.
A paper you have contributed to of which you're most proud?
If you ask me tomorrow it could well change, but my colleagues and I published a paper in Brain last year showing a ventral glomerular deficit in Parkinson’s disease olfactory bulbs. It is a nice piece of work done with exceptional colleagues. Some fun use of technology too.
Zapiec B, Dieriks BV, Tan S, Faull RLM, Mombaerts P, Curtis MA (2017) A ventral glomerular deficit in Parkinson’s disease revealed by whole olfactory bulb reconstruction. BRAIN 140:2722-2736 doi:10.1093/brain/awx208 (IF 10.2)
If you could give your undergraduate self any advice, what would you tell them?
1. Find people who are curious about the world (or a specific aspect of the world) and spend time in their presence.
2. Invest time into finding out what you want to do with your life – don’t leave it to chance. Talk to people from all sorts of professions. If you still aren’t sure, then study a professional course (nursing, radiography, accounting, medical laboratory science etc) that will earn you a decent wage at the end, then when you decide what you really want to do you will have an income source that will help you change direction…..however you could well love the profession and stay in it. You’ll spend a long time working, but if you love what you do then it becomes a hobby and you’ll always be happy doing it.
3. Surround yourself with people who want to see you excel and who want to see you be your best self and who would love to see you being above the mean.
Thank you to Maurice for his wonderful responses. If you're interested in his field of study, send him an email to enquire about potential research opportunities!