Rachael Sumner

PhD Candidate
Centre for Brain Research
School of Psychology and School of Pharmacy

ABOUT RACHEL SUMNER

PhD Candidate
Centre for Brain Research, School of Psychology and School of Pharmacy

Technology for a better prognosis

Rachael came to the University of Auckland, fresh out of high school, intending to study marketing. She enrolled in a Bachelor Commerce in Marketing conjoint with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.

She can only attribute this initial pathway to the lack of neuroscience and psychology training in high school, because the first time she saw a large image of a real human brain as part of first year lectures she was absolutely hooked and proceeded to take every available course in cognitive neuropsychology.

“I became really intrigued by the process of mapping the neural basis of human behaviour in health and in disease”

Rachael is most interested in how the ever-evolving understanding of brain function might be applied to provide better outcomes for patients experiencing neurological disorders and mental illness, and how the development of novel neuroimaging techniques might contribute to the translation of the latest research into clinical therapies.

One of the biggest limitations of research into better understanding mental illness is a lack of understanding of the biological manifestations of both its causes and symptoms. Furthermore, this also leads to a lack of methods of exploring treatment options and efficacy.

Her first research project, during her Honours Degree, involved measuring neural plasticity in the visual cortex using electroencephalography technology (EEG), this technique was developed and pioneered here at the University of Auckland and it allowed her, as a first time student researcher, to work with the same scientists that developed this paradigm. It was at this same time, that Rachael took up a research assistant role for an MRI study, which took her imaging knowledge even further.

For her Master of Science Degree, Rachael had the opportunity to understand the neural basis of learning and memory at a more applied level by using functional MRI (fMRI) to understand how we “imagine the future”.

“Working with EEG and functional MRI technology provided me with a priceless opportunity to research among some of the best and pioneering researchers in their field.”

Her current PhD studies have contributed towards realising her goal of participating in research that leads to meaningful outcomes for patients. Her talent, passion and determination were rewarded with a coveted Doctoral Scholarship Grant from the Auckland Medical Research Foundation (AMRF) to help her complete her studies.

Today Rachael is a member of the Auckland Neuropsychopharmacology Research Group, led by Research Fellow Dr Suresh Muthukumaraswamy. This team is currently conducting the KETDEP Study; using EEG and fMRI technology to investigate the biology behind the therapeutic benefits of a novel, rapid-acting antidepressant, used to treat patients experiencing major depressive disorder who do not respond to traditional treatment.

Rachael is very humbled by the generosity of her research participants, who give their time to help contribute her ongoing studies. She is inspired by the fact that even though her patients know that this research may not benefit them directly; their participation might translate into clinical practise and help others in the future.

“Meeting each participant and hearing their stories reminds me why I started heading down this path. It reconfirms that what we’re doing is important.”