The course that inspired a career in brain research

Conor Owens-Walton, brain imaging, brain Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, epilepsy

“I’ve had a long and windy road to get to where I am, much of it around The Australian National University (ANU) campus,” states postdoctoral researcher, Dr Conor Owens-Walton.

“I might not have been the best student but I am proud that I persisted with my studies and research despite self-doubt and plenty of distractions along the way.”

When he graduated from ANU in 2007 with a Bachelor of Arts/Science, Dr Owens-Walton was unsure of the path he wanted to pursue.

 “I decided to work for a year in government and private sector jobs, but things didn’t feel quite right.”

“The study of behavioural neuroscience during my undergraduate study sparked my curiosity about the brain. When I was thinking about my future and what I wanted to do, that course and subject matter was top of mind.”

With a thirst to learn more, Dr Owens-Walton enrolled in a Master degree in 2013. He performed exceptionally well, receiving a Letter of Academic Commendation from then ANU Chancellor, Professor Gareth Evans.

“It was during my Master (research) program that I met my PhD supervisor, Associate Professor Jeffrey Looi.  Jeff is such an incredible scientist, doctor and mentor, and he inspired me to continue down the research path and pursue a doctorate.”

My PhD was in the field of brain imaging in Parkinson’s disease. Using MRI analysis techniques, I investigated how the physical structure of the brain is impacted by the disorder, and how these changes relate to clinical symptoms.”

“My research showed that as a person loses brain tissue in Parkinson’s, important connections between some deep-brain structures and the cortex (the important outermost surface of the brain) break down, and the severity of this dysfunction is closely linked to symptoms patients with the disorder experience.”

After graduating from ANU with a PhD, moving to the USA in early 2020 was a ‘no-brainer’.

“When my partner was offered a postdoc position in California, I knew it was a great place to be with some of the best brain imaging labs in the world.”

Today, Dr Owens-Walton is working at the University of Southern California where he is continuing his research on Parkinson’s and also focussing on epilepsy and Alzheimers’ disease.

“Our lab is full of mathematicians and engineers, so we develop and use a range of advanced techniques to study brain imaging data.”

“My current Principal Investigator, Professor Paul Thompson, established the ENIGMA (Enhancing NeuroImaging Genetics through Meta-Analysis) Consortium, which is a worldwide alliance of over 2,000 scientists that run some of the largest studies of the healthy and diseased brain. With Paul’s guidance, I am now leading a new collaborative project on Parkinson’s disease with 13 centres and 2,000 participants, worldwide.”

Being away from Australia has been hard at times but Dr Owens-Walton knows the sacrifice is worth it.

“The work is really challenging, from a technical perspective, but I am learning an incredible amount from some very talented people in my lab.”

“I’d like to get back to Australia to see family and friends again, but returning to Australia permanently is a complex proposition as there are abundant opportunities in America.”

“If I do return, I’d like to play a greater role in supporting and building up the next generation of scientists, particularly those from groups traditionally not well represented in the field.”