‘My role is to look at people’s brains’

When Owen Phillips was offered a job in Rome that involved looking at people's brains, he couldn't pass it up. He talks to The Local about being a neuroscience researcher at Fondazione Santa Lucia.

'My role is to look at people's brains'
Owen Phillips is a neuroscience researcher at Fondazione Santa Lucia

So what made you decide to take up neuro research in Italy?

I was at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and was contacted through a friend about being part of a research team in Rome. Los Angeles is a great city but Rome seemed like an adventure I couldn’t pass up.

What does your role entail exactly?

My role is basically to look at people’s brains. We are now able to take a variety of different pictures of the brain that show us different things. For example, we can check the contents, such as how much iron a region of the brain has or where blood is flowing when the brain is at rest or we can look at the brain’s connections. These connections are like the wires running between processors in a computer. We can visualize how these look in a healthy person compared to someone who is suffering from a neurological or psychiatric disorder.

On a typical day, I spend way too much time switching between a variety of different computers. To offset this, I try to get out for walks or exercise at the gym, which I find actually helps me with my research.

How difficult was it to find such a position here?

I was fortunate, and from what I hear unique, in that it wasn’t a difficult process for me.

A lot of Italian research scientists tend to work abroad and struggle to find work in their field upon their return. Would you say it is therefore easier for a foreigner to find work in this field in Italy?

I wouldn’t say it’s easier for a foreigner to find work in this field in Italy. I would actually say it’s harder. It all depends on what field of science you are in right now though. For me personally, I work in a very specific field that is going through tremendous advances. I have Italian friends in research who have moved and are moving to the USA and other countries to continue their research. That’s the great thing about being in science right now (or the worst part depending on how you look at it) because science in general is exploding and you can do really cool research all over the world.

What's attractive about doing this role in Italy?

Rome is such a historic place and being able to do the research I am interested in with great facilities is very attractive.

Are there any downsides?

Of course there are downsides but the positives of living in such a beautiful country with incredibly friendly people has more than made up for any negatives.

How advanced is neurology in Italy?

Neurology in Italy is very advanced. They have a large group of fantastic researchers who are doing the most cutting edge stuff with the best people all over the world. For example, Dr. Margherita Di Paola has done some really interesting work in the Huntington's disease field at the Fondazione Santa Lucia with the support of researchers from Germany, Spain and the USA

What are your thoughts in government funding into scientific research?

This is a big one but I will keep it short. Just in terms of capital, it takes huge investment for a country to produce a good Doctor or researcher. To put all this into a person and then just cut them loose is a pretty absurd waste of money. Simply, it’s like carving a fantastic sculpture and then letting someone take it from you so they can display it and make money without giving you any credit.

Right now, a lot of countries are cutting back on funding, which means a lot of great and incredibly smart people are on the market. If you were a government body, you could join that club and cut back – or you could soak up all these talented people for cheap and use them to boost your economy and teach your own up and coming generation, so that they would have a huge advantage over others in the future. Historically, this is what the United States has done and now China is jumping on board with this strategy.

How equipped is Italy to care for people with mental health?

The doctors and psychologists I have met in Italy are fantastic. However, I haven’t been directly involved with mental health issues in Italy.

What would you advise others in a similar position to you and who would like to work in Italy?

It’s been great. Check out my blog,,  I post some of the stuff onto it an try and answer people’s questions when they ask.

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