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New Face: Fiona Britton

After moving from her native Ireland to Reno and then to Australia, Britton finally found her way to UNLV as a faculty member at the School of Dental Medicine.

People  |  Jul 9, 2018  |  By Kevin Dunegan
Portrait of Fiona Britton

Fiona Britton, visiting associate professor and vice chair of biomedical sciences, School of Dental Medicine (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

The dental school’s Fiona Britton has stories to share, beginning with at what age she learned to pull a perfect pint of Guinness, what fueled her interest in academic research, and her experiences in Sydney, Australia. (She even has nice things to say about the other University of Nevada).

Why UNLV?

UNLV provides a terrific graduate program in dental medicine. When a career opportunity arose at the school — one in which I could apply my research skills and extensive teaching experience to the delivery of an integrated curriculum — I jumped at the chance.   

Where did you grow up and what was that like? What do you miss about it?

I was born and raised in Donegal, Ireland, in a rural, picturesque village that straddles the border of Northern and Southern Ireland. My parents owned the local pub that has been in our family since 1860. A family of eight, my siblings and I lived above the pub and had to learn to pull pints of Guinness at a young age. I was able to apply this talent and bartend throughout much of my college days. All my family lives in Ireland, so my husband and I visit often.

What is your current job title and what are a few of your duties?

I am vice chair of biomedical sciences at the School of Dental Medicine. I am responsible for fostering the continued delivery of an outstanding integrated curriculum in dental medicine, evaluating and coordinating biomedical science activities, and identifying opportunities that enhance the educational experience for our dental students. I co-direct the administrative duties for the department, including planning and goal setting, and developing and implementing dental health research topics.

What inspired you to get into your field?

I always enjoyed science in school and knew from an early age that I would study science at university. My first exposure to research was as an undergraduate on a Welcome Trust research summer scholarship. Those first physiology experiments involved contractile studies of sheep lymph nodes, which were obtained fresh each morning at a nearby abattoir. Those abattoir visits didn’t deter me since, after that project, I was keen to pursue a research career.

I earned my Ph.D. in biomedical science at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland and, following graduation, accepted a postdoctoral position in Dr. Burt Horowitz’s lab at the University of Nevada, Reno. While in Reno, I developed an interest in understanding the molecular mechanisms of cellular excitability. 

My overall research goals are to define the physiological roles of individual genes that encode ion channels. I was able to obtain consistent National Institutes of Health funding for my research, which enabled me to support a number of students and postdocs in my own lab. A key inspiration for me has been the student interactions in the classroom and the research lab. I enjoy their enthusiasm and approach to understanding a complex topic, and it’s a great feeling when they have the “I get it” realization.

What is the biggest challenge in your field?

Within academics, the biggest challenging is carving out a research niche, developing grant writing skills, and balancing research and teaching commitments. My early career path was easier than anticipated due to finding a research topic that interested me, and having a superb mentor in Dr. Burt Horowitz.

Finish this sentence, “If I couldn’t work in my current field, I would like to…”

Write a food blog. I love trying new restaurants, and enjoy finding and attempting new recipes at home.

Tell us about a time in your life when you have been daring.

I think relocating from Reno to Sydney during 2012 was daring. Having been at UNR for 15 years and obtaining tenure, moving to Sydney was a huge jump out of my comfort zone. However, it was quite an adventure. I (again) embraced life in a new country, worked in a different research environment, and established new academic collaborations. Planning the logistics of moving our home and pet that distance was quite a challenge.

What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?

I am a big Rod Stewart fan! I am so excited that I have the opportunity to see his concert in Las Vegas.

What books do you have on your bedside table?

I have two books at the moment: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann and Caesar’s Last Breath by Sam Keane, which is a collection of entertaining stories to explain the science of the air around us.

Tell us about an object in your office that has significance for you and why it is significant.

My office is still quite bare at the moment except for a framed photomicrograph my husband made for me several years ago. A talented microscopist, Will captured fluorescent images of individual cardiac muscle cells only 20 microns in size. The cells are artistically arranged like flower petals which he called “a flower from the heart.” It’s very romantic in a nerdy scientist way.