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Health, Sports & Psychology
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  • 10 mins
  • Level 1: Introductory

Solving the Parkinson's Puzzle

Updated Wednesday 9th May 2007

Dr Birgit Liss believes the answer to the Parkinson's puzzle will lie in the genetics of individual neurones.

In the brain of every patient suffering from Parkinson's disease is a mystery - why do some cells die but others survive? Little is known about the illness but Dr Birgit Liss believes the answer will lie in the genetics of individual neurones.

Birgit is one of just a few scientists in the world who've mastered the techniques which she hopes will help to unlock the puzzle of Parkinson's and maybe one day help the thousands of sufferers.

Meet Birgit Liss

What do you like most about your job?
"Freedom is the best bit. I can do what I want, whenever I want to do it…"


Copyright The Open University


I decide mostly on my own what I do, when I’m doing it and why am I doing it so it’s up to me. Nobody will say okay, you have been contracted, you have to work eight hours a day and you come in at nine and you go at six. Nobody actually controls that. Even when I make holiday I say okay I’m away for next week and I’ll be away for next week. Or sometimes I’ll say okay, I’ll work at home and then I’m not in or whatever, it’s always up to me.

Of course there are days where you wake up and say no, but if it’s kind of that day then I simply make an easy going day and checking emails, answering, writing letters, organising my desk, which is sometimes helpful. I think it’s what I love, it’s my life, it’s not my job.


What are your ambitions?
"I want to continue in science, researching Parkinson's disease, dopamine neurones and I hope to discover something new..."


Copyright The Open University


As a long term perspective of course it would be great to find out something that makes a difference. That would be quite little and whatever, but to find out something that was not known before and that I could provide for the scientific community to better understand a little bit more what’s going on in these dopaminergic neurons, what’s going on in Parkinson’s Disease, that would be great and I would be happy.


Is there anything else you would rather be doing?
"There's nothing else I could imagine doing as a job other than science, it's my life..."


Copyright The Open University


I’m really interested in these nerve cells, I really want to understand them and I like to design experiments and I like to do work in the lab and it’s so nice when you think ah, maybe I can do this and this kind of experiment and you plan it and it’s a long time until you actually do it and get your results, but when it’s working it’s so great.


What do your parents think of your work?
"My parents let me do what I wanted, although my Mum worried because she'd never heard of a biochemist before…"


Copyright The Open University


When I said to my mum after my PhD, “Mum, I would go to Oxford”, she said, “Oh couldn’t you find a job in Germany? Oh, have you got to go abroad?” I said, “Mum, I go to Oxford”, and she said, “Oh is this good then? Do you want to do this?” And then said yeah, it’s fine. And it was so lovely because when I told her I become a biochemist she said, “Hmm, what’s that? Hmm, sure that’s a good job? Sure you can earn money with that?” I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ll find something. I like it.” But now she’s very keen on understanding what I’m doing. She’s looking, watching TV, all the programmes about science and I make pictures of everything and told her about everything and she’s really - now she thinks it’s great what I’m doing, she likes it and she’s kind of, I hope, proud of me, what I’m doing.


What do you get out of your job?
"It's so satisfying to know that I'm doing something that could help people in the future. The most amazing time was when I gave a talk to Parkinson's patients about my research…"


Copyright The Open University


It was the most impressing, most rewarding thing I ever have done because in the audience actually Parkinson’s disease patients were sitting and saying, “What you do, we like it”, and said, “Oh, it’s good to see that young people are actually thinking about this and it gives us hope.” And then I said, “Yeah but what I am doing, please, please don’t think that I can cure you or that I have some miracle or whatever. No, no, no I am just doing my research.” And they said, “Whatever, you’re working on that and this is hope for us. Maybe not for us but maybe in 50 years or whatever, people working on that, they’re thinking about this illness, they try to find out”, and even if I can’t say yes we develop this medicine or whatever, to just say we try to understand more about this they say, “Oh, that’s great.”

What did you want to be when you were little?
"Believe it or not, "a researcher", although I had no real idea about what the job involved."

What were your favourite subjects at school?
"Mathematics and Sports"

What A levels did you study?
"Mathematics, Biology, History and German (my mother tongue)."

What was your ambition when you left school?
"To stand on my own two feet and manage an independent life in terms of finance, housing and career."

What did you do between leaving school and starting university?
"I worked over the summer full-time at McDonalds on an island called "Sylt" in the North Sea. It's a beautiful little island in the North Sea, close to the Danish border. You can only get to it by train or by ship - there are no roads going there. In the 70s German "high society" discovered it and it's now very expensive and trendy for holidays. I was 19 years old selling ice-cream, crepes, candy floss and working in a kitchen."

When and where did you go to university?
"I did a BSc and MSc in Biochemistry/Molecular Biology (1990 - 1995) and a PhD in Neuroscience (1996-1999). All at the University of Hamburg, Germany and all first class."

What were your ambitions after your degree?
"To become an independent research scientist and to build up my own research group."

What jobs have you had since your degree?
"Since my PhD I came to Oxford University as a research scientist on different projects. As I was always funded by fellowships I had the chance to work independently. Currently, I am supported by fellowships from New College, Oxford, and the Royal Society, which provide me with a flat, a salary as well as covering my research expenses. So, I don't "cost" my research group or University anything. That gives me a lot more freedom than a University position would. They also help by giving me a lot of support settling down in a foreign country."

What are your ambitions now?
"To continue my research, maybe finding out something that "makes a difference" (whatever that means), and most importantly: to have a happy life."

What was your first paid job?
"At the counter in McDonalds on a little island in the North sea. The money allowed me to rent my first flat in Hamburg and to buy books for University. It was fun."

What are you reading at the moment for pleasure?
"Dead Famous by Ben Elton."

What three luxury items would you take to a desert island?
"My laptop and a mobile phone so I can connect to the Internet (I'm addicted to the internet) and someone to give me a massage (no one special, just to relax)."

What was the last thing that you cooked?
"A "soup in a cup" yesterday evening. I cook something quick for myself every evening. It's not that I'm too busy, just that in the evenings, I'm too hungry to cook a proper meal. But when I have guests, I love to cook a proper dinner then."

How do spend your Sundays?
"Lying in bed reading until early afternoon, having a nice lunch, and watching a movie in the evening."

Whom would you most like to meet (dead or alive)?
"That's tricky - let's go for the most impossible one, and that's Sherlock Holmes. He was my childhood hero. I read all the novels and short stories about him several times. I was (and still am) fascinated by Sherlock Holmes' complex character. Would be great to know him personally - but for obvious reasons impossible."

Who or what would you put in Room 101?
"That's almost impossible to answer…but if I really had the chance to lock something away from the world, it would be nuclear weapons."


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