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In conversation with Dr Sarah McKay

Posted by Catharina Vendl on 21 August 2018

In conversation with Dr Sarah McKay

Dr Sarah McKay is an Oxford-educated neuroscientist, who left her academic career behind to follow her second passion, science communication. Sarah has become an influential “brain health” commentator, regularly featuring on ABC radio, Channel 7 and SBS insight. After several years of freelancing she set up her own business, the Neuroscience Academy. Sarah is the author of ‘The Women’s Brain Book: The neuroscience of health, hormones and happiness’.

CV: Sarah, you’ve just published your first book. At the upcoming conference of the Australasian Medical Writers Association (AMWA) you will be giving a workshop on this experience. Which one was the tougher job, completing your thesis at Oxford University or writing this book?

SM: It took me a year to write ‘The Women’s Brain Book’. I didn’t work on anything else during this time. I had to research most of the knowledge I presented in the book, which made it very time-consuming, but I loved every minute of it. It was a very rewarding process and I learned a lot. My PhD was much more challenging. After more than three years working on your very specific topic you get tired of it, whereas the book includes such a variety of different aspects of the female brain I couldn’t get enough of.

CV: Where did the idea of writing this book come from? Has this always been a dream of yours?

SM: The opposite actually, I’ve never really wanted to write a book. I anticipated that it would be a huge workload and how I got into it was more of a coincidence. I was approached to write a book by an agent who asked what was the piece I’d written that received the most attention. I once wrote a piece for the ABC on brain changes during menopause. The article received an overwhelming response and that was the seed of the book idea. At first I wasn’t convinced at all as I couldn’t imagine investing so much time and energy into a project I wasn’t really excited about. Eventually we came up with the idea to investigate the impact of female physiology and hormones on the brain of women as they experience the different stages of life including puberty, pregnancy and menopause. I got hooked on the idea straight away and it worked out really well, as my agent found a great publisher, Hachette, and we’ve since signed deals to have the book translated into several different languages.

CV: You have just mentioned pregnancy as one of the key stages in a woman’s life cycle, this is also discussed in your book.  A lot of women report that their brain functions differently when they are pregnant. They tend to forget things more often and find it difficult to focus. Is there actually scientific evidence for the existence of the ‘baby brain’ as it is commonly referred to?

SM: Interestingly, several scientific studies actually came to the opposite conclusion. These studies tested pregnant women in the lab and found that their cognitive skills such as their memory were enhanced. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. For a pregnant woman, it is more important than ever to find enough resources such as food and shelter to protect her offspring. And indeed, there are reports of pregnant women who say that they feel more switched on. I also felt like this during my first pregnancy. At that point, I had never heard of the ‘baby brain’. We certainly have moments of forgetfulness when we are not pregnant such as not remembering where we put the car keys. Sometimes women might just associate those two events with the ‘baby brain’. However, it is certainly true that women especially in the later stages of their pregnancy can suffer from a lack of sleep and exhaustion. This is one of the factors that can trigger forgetfulness and general impairment of cognitive skills. The prime minister of New Zealand is a very good example that women can still be at the top of their game whilst being pregnant.

CV: Sarah, you are not only a successful author, but you are also running your own business. Tell us more about the Neuroscience Academy and its goals!

SM: I founded the Neuroscience Academy in 2015. It is a 10-week online professional development program designed to bring research in brain health, performance and thriving to a global audience. The course consists of eight modules over 10 weeks. Each module includes a 60 to 90 min video that delivers the neuroscientific background. The client then performs certain exercises to implement the research findings. For instance, this can be as simple as keeping track of your physical exercise for a week. In addition, I offer a one-hour live webinar to answer questions once a week. My clients are psychologists, coaches and therapist from all over the world and undertake the course for professional development. So far around 550 people have participated in the program.

CV: The Neuroscience Academy sounds like a unique concept. Were there similar businesses on the Australian market when you started your company?

SM: There were other professional development programs out there. However, none of them combined scientific theory and practise similar to the Neuroscience Academy.

CV: Before you had your own business, you worked as a freelancing science writer. What did you like about the job?

SM: I started science writing and communication whilst I was still in academia. I fell in love with it straight away. When my colleagues in the lab would read the ‘Journal of Neuroscience’ during their lunch breaks, I preferred magazines with a broader focus like ‘New Scientist’ or ‘Scientific American’. While in academia you tend to get your teeth into very specific topics and work on it for years, the pace of science communication is much faster. I enjoyed the variety of that.

CV: You have successfully established yourself as a freelancing science communicator, which can be an incredibly difficult thing to do. What would you recommend to people who are thinking of venturing from academia into science communication and writing?

SM: Transitioning from academia to freelance science communication is a big step. It was probably the scariest thing I have ever done in my career. You need to build up your network and portfolio. The AMWA offers excellent opportunities. In addition to meeting people in the field, the AMWA also provides courses to learn the trade. One of the secrets of my success was certainly that I started doing commissioned pieces for the corperate world early on. Bear in mind that writing for popular science magazines rarely pays your bills.

CV: Thank you for the interview, Sarah!

Catharina Vendl

PhD candidate University of New South Wales

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In conversation with Dr Sarah McKay