10 inspirational women in science

Did you know that almost two thirds of BHF-funded PhD students are female? But women are under-represented in senior cardiovascular research roles, something the BHF is working to change with our research strategy. Here are 10 inspiring women scientists whose work we've supported.

1. BHF Professor Barbara Casadei

BHF Professor Barbara Casadei

Barbara Casadei is BHF Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Oxford. She divides her time between research, running the John Radcliffe Hospital’s Hypertension Service, which looks after patients with hard-to-treat high blood pressure, and teaching.

She’s been funded by the BHF for her research into the causes of and potential new treatments for atrial fibrillation (AF), an abnormal heart rhythm that can increase the risk of stroke and heart failure. Her work includes a clinical trial identifying possible ways to prevent atrial fibrillation in patients who have had heart surgery.

2. Dr Janet Chamberlain

Dr Janet Chamberlain 

Janet Chamberlain is leading a BHF-funded team at Sheffield University, looking for ways to keep coronary arteries clear after an angioplasty. Every year, thousands of people in the UK receive one or more stents as part of this procedure to improve blood flow through a narrowed section of coronary artery – either as a planned procedure or as an emergency treatment for a heart attack.

Stenting involves inserting a small mesh tube to widen narrowed coronary arteries, and is usually very effective. But sometimes, scar tissue in the stented area can lead to the blood vessel narrowing again afterwards. Janet Chamberlain and her team are studying whether coating stents with carbon monoxide-releasing molecules can help to prevent this from happening.

3. BHF Professor Costanza Emanueli

BHF Professor Costanza Emanueli 

“Junk DNA” might not sound the most promising topic for scientific study. But Costanza Emanueli’s work could help patients with recovery after heart surgery. The newly-appointed BHF Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Bristol is studying microRNA, tiny molecules inside the genome.

They form part of what is known as non-coding DNA, or ‘junk DNA’, so called because they don’t directly code for (give instructions for the body to create) the creation of proteins and therefore the construction of cells.

4. Professor Sian Harding

Professor Sian Harding 

Sian Harding leads the London BHF Centre of Regenerative Medicine  from Imperial College London. We established three such Centres in 2011, led from London, Edinburgh and Oxbridge, fostering collaboration between researchers to find a way to mend broken hearts

Professor Harding studies chronic heart failure, and one focus of her research is a rarer condition called Takotsubo syndrome, which is a sudden and temporary bulging of the heart muscle that causes acute and short-term heart failure and mimics the symptoms of a heart attack. Takotsubo syndrome happens in times of extreme emotional distress such as bereavement, which is why it’s also known as broken heart syndrome.

Professor Harding is looking at the role of adrenaline and the fact that in Takotsubo syndrome, adrenaline causes one type of beta receptor in the heart to switch its behaviour to being protective and reducing the stimulation of the heart, which is why people make a good recovery. Understanding this could lead to treatment opportunities for people with chronic heart failure.

5. Maeve Elder

Maeve Elder 

Maeve Elder’s research focuses on the effect that chemotherapy has on the heart. These cancer treatments can be lifesaving, but can also damage the heart and lead to heart failure. In the case of breast cancer survivors, cardiovascular issues overtake cancer as the leading cause of death nine years after cancer treatment. By studying mitochondria – tiny structures inside our cells that produce energy – Maeve hopes to discover some clues about why this happens.

Maeve is doing a PhD studentship at the BHF Centre of Research Excellence, Imperial College, London.

6. Arya Moez

Arya Moez

Arya Moez hopes to make discoveries that could lead to new treatments for heart failure and other diseases. Arya, an Austrian citizen who is originally from Afghanistan, is working at Queen’s University Belfast with partial induced pluripotent stem cells, which can be derived from blood or skin and turned into cells that can create new blood vessels. This could treat critical limb ischaemia (loss of blood supply to the limbs).

If the technique is successful, it could be applied to other illnesses linked to blood-supply problems, such as heart failure following a heart attack, and some diseases of the eyes and kidneys. Despite being at an early stage in her PhD, Arya is already demonstrating independent research and is planning her career. Her long-term aim is to return to her native Afghanistan and set up a lab.

7. Dr Nicola Mutch

Dr Nicola Mutch at work in the lab 

Dr Nicola Mutch's research centres on understanding the biological processes that help the body form, stabilise and dissolve blood clots. A blood clot can lead to a heart attack or a stroke, by restricting or completely blocking oxygen-rich blood supply to the heart or brain. Understanding these complicated series of chemical changes could help scientists to identify what predisposes certain individuals to develop blood clots or bleeding complications, the key factors in how many diseases progress and how we treat certain illnesses.

8. Dr Danielle Paul

Dr Danielle Paul  

Dr Danielle Paul has been fascinated by science since she was a child. She discovered a passion for physics, completed a physics undergraduate degree and then began a BHF-funded PhD looking at cardiac tissue under the microscope.

Now, using specialist microscopes that use electrons instead of light, Dr Paul examines proteins within heart muscle, looking at the molecular structure of the heart. Dr Paul uses these images to create 3D ‘molecular movies’ of how the heart functions normally and when it is diseased.

She took a career break from 2012 to 2014 to spend time with her newborn daughter, Hadley (now three), and her son, Harrison, who was aged two at the time. Dr Paul’s post at the University of Bristol is funded by a BHF Career Re-entry Research Fellowship - grants specifically aimed at getting talented researchers back into science following a career break.

9. Dr Nicola Smart

Dr Nicola Smart 

Dr Nicola Smart is head of a research team at the University of Oxford, where investigating new ways to repair the damage caused by a heart attack. Dr Smart's research is focused on the cell layer that covers the surface of the heart, called the epicardium. 

She wants to build on her previous discovery, in mice, that there are cells in the epicardium with the ability to grow new heart tissue. These cells are lying dormant, so she is working on different ways to “wake up” the cells and encourage new heart muscle to grow.

10. Professor Rhian Touyz

Professor Rhian Touyz 

BHF Professor Rhian Touyz has “a vision” to better understand how damage and aging of the vascular system causes cardiovascular disease and, in particular, high blood pressure. Professor Touyz moved more than 3,500 miles from Canada to the University of Glasgow to follow this vision. “The university invited me to take over the directorship of the Institute for Cardiovascular Medical Sciences. I saw this as a fantastic leadership and research opportunity,” says Professor Touyz.

The university is now a BHF Centre of Research Excellence, and under BHF Professor Touyz’s leadership, it is working hard to discover possible causes of vascular dysfunction (damage to the blood vessels), which contributes to high blood pressure and many associated cardiovascular diseases.

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