Confessions of . . .


University of Otago School of Biomedical Sciences neuroscientist Prof Louise Parr-Brownlie

Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) departmental science adviser and University of Otago School of Biomedical Sciences neuroscientist Prof Louise Parr-Brownlie is a highly regarded researcher, senior leader and wahine toa who has a wide range of experiences working with Māori, the health research sector and government policy experts. Her research specialty is Parkinson’s disease, and her internationally recognised expertise is in understanding how brain cell activity controls movement and the changes associated with Parkinson’s disease. She also advises the ministry on policies and how funding might be allocated to produce equitable outcomes that benefit all of New Zealand.

Why do you do what you do?

Life as a scientist means we uncover new knowledge. It is exciting when you realise that no-one else knows something, and you get to share what you’ve found, why it is important, and apply that knowledge to consider health and wellbeing in a different way, or facilitate the development of a new diagnostic or treatment. However, the real impact of the research is when something you have discovered makes a difference to the lives of people with Parkinson’s disease — nothing brings more joy than when your research has improved the lives of people in the community you serve.

In 2024, we will investigate which bacteria change in the gut when dietary compounds are consumed, how this alters gut and brain leakiness, and which markers of inflammation are altered in the blood. These findings will contribute to future dietary recommendations for people who are at risk of Parkinson’s disease, and other brain disorders.

What is your earliest memory of doing something that now relates to your career?

My route to my science career was through sport. I wanted to understand how the brain controlled movement, and how performance in sport might be optimised. From that perspective, I played sport from a young age — athletics and softball in primary school; and netball, orienteering, cross-country and athletics in later years. I was always naturally inquisitive and wanted to understand how everything worked. I think these are traits of many scientists. The formal training to understand Western scientific processes and theories only began in high school.

Who influenced you growing up?

My whānau. My mother and grandmother shaped my values, work ethic and the way that I do things. I was fortunate to have some amazing teachers, the kind of teachers that motivated me with something, and somehow taught me to love learning too.

What is your most embarrassing moment?

My sister spoke at the end of my inaugural professorial lecture, and after she had been talking for a couple of minutes, she let my family nickname slip. She was mortified and had been trying so hard to use my proper name. It was actually quite funny. Many friends know my nickname, but only my dad, a few aunties, a couple of my siblings and my nieces and nephews normally use it. [She declined to share her nickname].

Who would play you in the film of your life?

Oh, that’s a tough one — maybe Felicity Jones — she was amazing in On the Basis of Sex, playing Ruth Bader Ginsburg who became an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in the United States. Or perhaps Keisha Castle-Hughes — she has played many strong wāhine roles, including in Whale Rider.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

Probably potato chips. It’s the crunchy texture and savoury/salty flavour. I can’t resist them. Please, don’t put them in front of me.

If you could do it all again, what would be your dream job?

The leadership roles that I do now. I would still have had to do the training to be a scientist, complete my PhD, and lead a research team. The only thing that I would change is getting to this point in less time, and being confident that the way I think and my values-based leadership would make a difference. I heard too often early in my career that I was focusing my time on the wrong things — the type of projects I did, and engaging and serving the needs of Parkinson’s and Māori communities. It is these experiences that have opened the doors to senior leadership roles.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Barak Obama, Jacinda Ardern, Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, my mum and nana. Having four feisty, articulate women at the table would be wonderful. I would love to have a few hours with mum and nana to ask all the questions I didn’t get a chance to ask before they passed away. I would want to talk to Barak Obama and Jacinda Ardern about being courageous, values-based leaders. The kōrero with Pōtatu Te Wherowhero would be to understand why he was chosen to unite many iwi during Aotearoa New Zealand’s land wars. And Ruth Bader Ginsburg would be invited because I admire her critical thinking and fortitude to fight bureaucracy.

What single thing would improve the quality of your life?

More hours in a day, or an extra day in the week. There are always more interesting and fun things that I want to do in a day. Since this isn’t possible, I need to carefully consider what I say yes to so I have enough time to deliver on the things that are really important.

Property aside, what’s the most extravagant thing you’ve bought?

A new car in 2019. We had planned to upgrade our car to something that was two or three years old. However, a car dealer offered a three-year interest-free loan on a new car, which made sense financially.

The most extravagant hour or so was having high tea at Raffles Hotel in Singapore earlier [last] year. It was the first time my husband and I had done this. It was a holiday treat.

What song makes you relax?

One song that instantly brings a calm, contented state and makes me smile is Air that I Breathe by the Hollies. It takes me back to hearing the song for the first time when I was about 8 years old. I was in the lounge of the house I grew up in, during a thunderstorm. The opening bars are unique, so when I hear it unexpectedly, it takes me back to that moment.

What keeps you awake at night?

Most of the time, I’m fairly exhausted at the end of the day, and I am fortunate to fall asleep very quickly and sleep soundly throughout the night. Sometimes when I have a big talk coming up, I wake up rehearsing some of the slides. It’s annoying, but it does help me get the wording right. Very, very occasionally when I have a lot of tight deadlines on important work, I wake very early and start my day. Thankfully, this only happens a couple of nights a year.