In profile: Dr Kjara Sophia Pilch, BBSRC Discovery Fellow

Image of a woman (Kjara Pilch) leaning against a wall.

As part of our Staff Profile series, we spoke to BBSRC Discovery Fellow, Dr Kjara Sophia Pilch who recently was awarded a BBSRC Fellowship. Here, she tells us more about her research background and interests.

Introduce yourself – who are you and what do you do?

My name is Dr Kjara Sophia Pilch and I am a BBSRC Discovery Fellow working with Dr Samuel Barnes within the Department of Brain Sciences. My project focuses on mapping synaptic dysfunction in ageing brains to the underlying molecular synaptic diversity, and in doing so I aim to improve our understanding of synaptic function and healthy ageing.

Can you tell us about your career so far – when did you join the college, and where were you working/studying before this?

I joined Imperial College in December 2022, working as a Research Associate with Dr Samuel Barnes and then took up the BBSRC Discovery Fellowship in April 2023. This was fresh out of my PhD at University College London where I studied the role of voltage-gated calcium channels in synaptic plasticity and brain development.

Can you explain a bit more about your research interests and what you’re currently working on as part of your fellowship?

I am highly interested in the diversity and dynamic nature of synapses. Their rapid adaptations during synaptic plasticity, for example during the encoding of new information, make them an incredibly fascinating aspect of brain physiology. Recently, the Barnes lab has shown that certain types of synaptic plasticity are dysregulated in the aged mouse brain which could contribute to pathological levels of brain activity and cognitive impairment. During my Fellowship I aim to map this synaptic dysfunction in the ageing mouse brain to the underlying synaptic diversity. For this I will identify functional synaptic clusters in the visual mouse cortex in vivo to then reveal their molecular identity ex vivo. With this approach we will be able to establish how the dysregulation of distinct synaptic clusters may lead to synaptic dysfunction during ageing and potentially reveal new ways to boost synaptic resilience.

What initially sparked your interest in your current field of research?

Studying Biomedicine as my undergraduate degree I was immediately drawn to neuroscience, particularly synapses. I was fascinated by their complexity and keen to study how synapses adapt so efficiently to the constantly changing environment in the brain. Especially during ageing, certain changes at the synapse may be beneficial for brain function, but the mechanisms remain to be fully understood. I think a better understanding of processes in the ageing brain will be hugely important for studying neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

What aspect of your role are you most excited about?

One aspect I am very excited about is how little we currently know about changes in synaptic function and plasticity in the ageing brain. Being able to correlate in vivo synaptic imaging with ex vivo analyses of the same synapse will be an important step towards an improved understanding of healthy synapse ageing. Additionally, I am excited about the collaborative nature of Imperial College fostering multi-disciplinary work wherever possible.

When you are not working, what are your main passions and hobbies?

I am a big fan of cycling through London and surrounding areas! I also love reading fiction and non-fiction, cooking different cuisines and travelling around the world.

And finally – if you were stranded on a desert island but allowed one luxury item, what would it be?

An accordion, so I can learn to play it!