Matthew Nolan



Secondary School: Our Lady’s High, Lancaster; St Cuthbert Mayne, Preston. Degrees: University of Birmingham and University of Aberdeen.


BSc, PhD

Work History:

University of Aberdeen, Columbia University (New York), University of Edinburgh

Current Job:

My job title is professor. I lead a research group. I also teach undergraduate and postgraduate students.


University of Edinburgh

My Interview

Me and my work

My research addresses the question of how we know where we are. In particular my lab aims to understand the part of the brain that figures out where we are at any given time. We want to know how nerve cells in this part of the brain talk to one another, and what molecules make these nerve cells special. Research in this area has broad implications. The part of the brain we study is also the first to go wrong in Alzheimer’s disease and some of our ongoing projects are starting to give new clues to what might be happening there. There is also a lot of interest from robotics and computer science industries in applying lessons from how our brains work to development of software for navigation.

Typical day

My days vary a lot. Most days I will talk to students and research fellows in my lab about their projects. This might involve looking at new results or planning future experiments. I will often spend a fair bit of time writing papers or applications for research funding. I also teach undergraduate and postgraduate students. This involves giving lectures as well as organising smaller seminar and discussion groups. Several times a year I’ll travel to give talks about my groups research. This is fun, although I have a young son and don’t like being away too often or for too long.

What topics do you work on?

How do we know where we are? How do neurons responsible for figuring out where we are talk to one another? What are the key molecules that ensure these neurons talk to one another in the right way? In brain disorders what goes wrong with the systems responsible for figuring out where you are?

What methods do you use?

Electrophysiology: recoding electrical activity from brains.
Optogenetics: controlling the brain with light and genetic tools.
Animal behaviour: watching animals learn to find things.
Computer modelling: building theoretical models that try to account for how brains work.

Who was your favourite teacher?

The teacher that influenced me most was probably my English teacher from my first two years at secondary school. She was called Mrs Kendal. At that time I loved reading, but struggled with grammar and writing well. So my grades for English were not very good. Mrs Kendal was a fantastically enthusiastic and motivating teacher. She taught us a lot of basic principles that I still use today. Now I writing is an important part of my job and something that I enjoy a good deal.