Dr Fleur Howells receives a Claude Leon Merit Award

29 June 2016 | Story by Newsroom
Neuroscientist and senior lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry, Dr Fleur Howells recently received the 2016 Claude Leon Merit Award for early career researchers.
Neuroscientist and senior lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry, Dr Fleur Howells recently received the 2016 Claude Leon Merit Award for early career researchers.

The annual award is given by the Claude Leon Foundation to young researchers in recognition of their ability of making a significant independent contribution to their field. The award serves as encouragement to continue outstanding scholarly achievements.

Dr Fleur Howells is a neuroscientist who conducts studies in translational animal models of psychiatric disorders and uses multi-modal brain imaging techniques to better understand human psychiatric disorders.

Her research focuses on psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia and methamphetamine-induced psychosis. With her research she aims to understand the neurobiological mechanisms which underlie the diagnosis of schizophrenia, which will serve to improve both diagnosis and prognosis of the disorder.

Academic leanings

“During my second year of undergraduate studies, I knew that I had no alternative other than to study beyond an undergraduate degree and I knew that it would be in the broad and beautiful arena of neuroscience,” says Howells.

She looked across South Africa for potential mentors and found her research home with Professor Vivienne Russell at UCT. She joined Professor Russell's lab in 2004 for her honours degree and graduated with her PhD in neurophysiology in June 2009.

“I majored in physiology, my first love, and psychology for my BSc. Within psychology I was drawn to psychopathology. What attracted me so strongly was that I could not comprehend or understand what life would be like with these mental disorders,” says Howells.

She knew from her undergraduate years that she wanted to conduct research in the psychotic disorders. She also knew that she needed to cross disciplines, combining physiology with psychology, and enter the field of psychiatry.

“Among all of the mental disorders listed and presented, the psychotic illnesses were the hardest for me to understand. I found schizophrenia and the other psychotic disorders intriguing and I felt great empathy for those individuals that lived with this chronic mental health disorder,” she says.

Howells had an interest in conducting research in clinical populations and using animal models of psychiatric disorders to gain greater insight. During her PhD, she began looking for postdoctoral mentors from across South Africa who would be willing to support her translational research approach. She identified Professor Dan Stein as the most suitable to support her endeavours and provide mentorship.

“A fun story is of meeting with Prof Stein a year before I submitted my PhD and his response was simple, 'Show me a copy of your PhD.' I did exactly that in January of 2009 and initiated my postdoctoral research in February 2009 – and I am still here in the Department of Psychiatry as senior lecturer in neuroscience, a first in our Department,” says Howells.

Apart from her research, Howells also currently supervises five postgraduate students at MSc and PhD level.

Claude Leon Merit Award

The Claude Leon Merit Award recognises her ongoing collaboration with Professor David Kingdon, a world expert in psychosis from Southampton University, and Professor David Baldwin, head of psychiatry at Southampton University. Howells will spend a month with these two mentors and develop their existing collaborations.

“I find that this kind of acknowledgement from the university encourages me. Often as a researcher you tend to, or at least I do, get caught up in your own research, making it difficult to step away to evaluate your successes,” says Howells. “This recognition provides the pause to celebrate and feel rewarded for your labours and provides further motivation to achieve your research goals.”

Bulls eye

Although still a novice in archery, Howells enjoys shooting arrows at the Bellville Archery club.

“I like to shoot some of my beautifully pink arrows into the gold. I'm still quite a novice, but I'm working on increasing the poundage on my bow to potentially start in national competitions, maybe next year,” says Howells.

For relaxation she practices Kundalini yoga.

“This relaxes the brain and body from the week of work. I love the deep mental relaxation and whole body tranquillity that this practice provides,”

She is also completing her MBA part-time, with a thesis deadline in early December. After completing her MBA, she is looking forward to spending more time with family and friends and cooking up a storm or two, visiting markets and catching up with coffee dates.

“Family and friends are a great support and I would definitely not be where I am without them,” says Howells.

Story Chido Mbambe. Photo Michael Hammond.

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