Brain scientist Helen Murray is tired of people asking her when she's going to stop playing ice hockey.

Murray, 27, captains our national women's ice hockey team the Ice Fernz, which requires intensive training, constant fundraising and six weeks away each year.

In her day job she is one of 400 researchers in Auckland University's world-leading Centre for Brain Research, and on Tuesday she will graduate with a doctorate for four years of research which may help us to stave off Alzheimer's disease.

Her blog of her life journey opens with a quote from a British writer Faith Jegede who said, in a speech about her two autistic brothers: "The pursuit of normality is the ultimate sacrifice of potential."

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Helen Murray's blog
Helen Murray's blog

"I love that talk, she is really trying to challenge the idea that we should all aim to be normal," says Murray.

"That resonated with me because throughout my PhD a lot of people told me you are going to have to stop playing hockey.

"I think I can be a scientist and play hockey. I've got these two things that I love, and I think I'm good at them, and I'm going to do that!"

Murray has played hockey on skates since she was 10, initially on roller blades.

"It was a family hobby we took up," she says.

"My brother found a pamphlet at school about playing inline hockey and started it. I gave it a go. My dad gave it a go. We all started."

Helen Murray (left) in action against Mexico at this year's world ice hockey championships in Iceland. Photo / Mats Bekkevold (smats1984)
Helen Murray (left) in action against Mexico at this year's world ice hockey championships in Iceland. Photo / Mats Bekkevold (smats1984)

By 14 she was playing for the national junior women's team. She took up ice hockey at university and has played in the Ice Fernz since 2013, captaining it since last year. She also plays in the national women's inline hockey team, which she has also captained.

Her mum Moira Murray has supported her all the way and was the Ice Fernz team leader at this year's world championships in Iceland.

"I wouldn't be able to do any of this without my mum," said Helen.

Dr Helen Murray prepares for work at Auckland University's world-renowned Centre for Brain Research. Photo / Michael Craig
Dr Helen Murray prepares for work at Auckland University's world-renowned Centre for Brain Research. Photo / Michael Craig

Her father, Brent Murray, a software developer, led her into science.

"My Dad loved science, he loved learning new things," she says.

And ironically it was her father's death from cancer, when she was just 15, that led her into medical research.

"I spent a lot of time around doctors growing up, as you can imagine," she says.

"It seemed to me doctors didn't know enough, so I wanted to be finding out what's going on. I wanted to be solving the problems.

"I never quite knew what a job as a scientist looked like, but I knew I was interested in medical science."

Dr Helen Murray holds a slice of one of the human brains donated to the Centre for Brain Research by deceased people's families. Photo / Michael Craig
Dr Helen Murray holds a slice of one of the human brains donated to the Centre for Brain Research by deceased people's families. Photo / Michael Craig

Her research, working with actual human brains donated to the Centre for Brain Research by deceased people's families, has found that people with Alzheimer's disease can continue to grow new brain cells or neurons and adapt existing neurons to learn new things - a feature known as "plasticity".

"A lot of the things that go wrong in Alzheimer's disease start going wrong up to 10 years before the first symptoms manifest," she says.

"So for 10 years the brain is able to adapt and mitigate those problems, so understanding plasticity allows us to foreshadow the disease, to slow the progression of the disease.

"We can't prevent the brain cells dying off. But if we can keep the brain able to compensate for the problems for longer, then we might put off the symptoms for longer. We're trying to get the most use out of the cells that are still there."

"Understanding plasticity allows us to foreshadow the disease, to slow the progression of the disease." Photo / Michael Craig

She is now applying for fellowships to continue her research in collaboration with the US National Institutes of Health. If she gets the funding, she will work for half of each year in Washington, DC, and the other half in Auckland.

But she is also determined to keep up her sport.

"I think I'm playing some of the best hockey I've ever played, and I'm really enjoying the leadership positions that I've been in," she says.

"Now my biggest challenge is getting leave, it's about six weeks of the year that I'm away for sport. As long as I have understanding bosses I will keep going."

Auckland University by numbers

41,865

students 2016

33,105 fulltime-equivalent students 2016

5075 fulltime-equivalent staff 2015

$338 million research income 2015

11,025 graduates 2016

3240 graduating next week

Centre for Brain Research

181

principal investigators and research fellows

225 doctoral students

$67 million current research funding