‘We all have the same goal, a world without dementia’ - Meet our new Head of Research

Alzheimer’s Society is delighted to welcome Dr Richard Oakley to our Research and Influencing team. We chat with Richard about himself, the challenges and opportunities ahead and what he’s excited about in dementia research.

Tell us why you wanted to join the team here at Alzheimer’s Society. 

Just like everyone else I have had a personal connection to dementia. My Grandad died from dementia and my Auntie is in the final stages of the disease now.

Dementia is one of the great health crises of our time. If I can play a small role in helping create a better research landscape and encourage more people to work in dementia research, I will feel content. 

What is your background in research?  

I did a PhD in supramolecular chemistry at the Bristol University, building complex functional molecules for drug delivery or electronics.

I then moved to the EPFL in Lausanne to do a two-year post-doc in tissue engineering, focusing on wound rejuvenation after brain injury or heart disease.  

After my post-doc, I decided I wanted to stay involved in research but move out of the lab, so I made the leap to Cancer Research UK.

If you were beginning a PhD in dementia research, what would your work focus on? 

Immunology. The potential of our immune system to cure many diseases without side effects is very exciting.

However, despite many recent exciting developments, we still don’t know enough about the immune system to really harness its potential. 

What’s unique about Alzheimer’s Society’s approach to funding research and why did it attract you to this role? 

Alzheimer’s Society is the only charitable funder to support dementia research towards new treatments and a cure as well as to understand how to prevent dementia and care for people living with the condition today - all key pieces of the puzzle.

At Cancer Research UK we used the ‘Patient and Public Involvement’ work at the Alzheimer’s Society as an example of good practice, and the opportunity to get closer to that is something I was really excited about.

We all do this job to help people affected by dementia, and the only way to know where our efforts should be directed is through conversation with people affected by dementia.
Dr Richard Oakley
Dr Richard Oakley

What risks has coronavirus posed to dementia research? 

Sadly, funding cuts are likely to affect early career researchers and we are all really worried we will lose a generation of very talented dementia researchers from the field.

Not only will this slow down the immediate advances in our knowledge, but the knock-on effect to future generations could also make dementia a less popular field to dedicate a career to.

There are also the clinical trials that have had to be paused, and may not be able to be restarted. This lost information could delay the development of future treatments for dementia.

How do you hope to turn that around going forward?

Right now, my focus is supporting our funded researchers and safeguarding their research through these challenging times. 

Long term, we need to look at where in the dementia research landscape Alzheimer’s Society is needed the most and where can we make the biggest difference. We need to talk to researchers, people affected by dementia and other funders. 

We are all in this together, we all have the same goal, a world without dementia.

If there is any positive to come out of COVID-19 it is that many organisations are collaborating more than ever before.

Through these collaborations we can ensure that we all have a better understanding of the current challenges facing people affected by dementia as well as researchers and ensure the continuation of a viable and relevant dementia research landscape.   

What's it like starting a new job without meeting anyone in person?  

It is weird to join a new organisation, and never go to the office or meet anyone face to face. It is particularly strange to manage a team that you have never met in person.

However, working from home has its advantages. The loss of a commute means I get to spend much more time with my children, which is my favourite hobby.  

What else do you enjoy outside of work? 

Outside of work, I am kept quite busy by three children (one, three and five years old), so other hobbies have taken a back seat slightly. 

However, I enjoy reading (non-fiction mostly), playing football (I support Crystal Palace) and playing squash. At some point in the future I would like to snowboard and scuba dive again as well!  

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