How mentoring is helping us develop the research stars of the future
David Grieve and PhD student Arya Moez are using stem cells to try to regrow new blood vessels to help people with heart and circulation problems. Sarah Brealey hears how expertise is passed on to a new generation of researchers.
“Everyone needs a mentor,” says Dr David Grieve. “When I started out as a postdoctoral researcher, Ajay Shah, BHF Professor of Cardiology at King’s College London, helped me a huge amount.”
Fifteen years later, Dr Grieve is running his own lab at Queen’s University Belfast and has published 40 peer-reviewed papers in cardiovascular journals. His work focuses on cardiovascular remodelling – the specific changes that occur in the heart as a result of cardiovascular disease (CVD), including the influence of diabetes – to find new forms of treatment.
Dr Grieve has been funded by the BHF throughout his career. He says this has been “essential”. He is still in touch with Professor Shah, who “supported me by developing my independence.”
“He encouraged me to write my own papers and make funding applications, and gave me opportunities to supervise postgraduate students,” says Dr Grieve. “He really helped me prepare for having my own lab.
“When I moved to Belfast, that support helped me to meet the challenge of setting up as an independent researcher. And that support is still there to this day – whether it is commenting on a funding application or sharing resources, such as tissue models.”
Searching for new treatments
Dr Grieve is currently supervising four students at different stages of their PhDs. One of those students is Arya Moez, who hopes to make discoveries that could lead to new treatments for heart failure and other diseases.
Arya is working with partial induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which can be derived from blood or skin and turned into cells that can potentially create new blood vessels. This could treat critical limb ischaemia (loss of blood supply to the limbs, a possible complication of diabetes).
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.
When you see someone with potential, you want to support them
Partial iPS cells can be created from the patient’s skin or blood, so there are no issues of compatibility or rejection. Challenges include producing enough cells to treat patients and keeping cells alive once they are introduced into the body.
“I am hoping to find a new therapy – that is what motivates me,” says Arya. “Having David’s support means a lot, and so does the support of the BHF. Without both of those, I wouldn’t be here.”
Dr Grieve says his role is to “supervise, advise and mentor” while Arya does the hands-on project work. She’s already displaying the traits for independent research.
“When you see someone with potential, you want to support them,” says Dr Grieve. “Although she is at an early stage, she has plans for her future career.” Arya’s long-term aim is to return to her native Afghanistan and set up a lab.
“Research is non-existent there,” she says. “I want to be one of the first people setting up a research centre and motivating and encouraging students.” Global movement and scientists working together across borders are beneficial for research, says Dr Grieve.
“We encourage people to go away [to work]. Labs do things differently around the world; you can learn from that and it promotes collaboration.”
Even if Arya moves away, Dr Grieve hopes to continue offering support from a distance as her career develops.
Funding young researchers
Arya, who is also an Austrian citizen, moved to Belfast to take up her BHF-funded studentship and work with Dr David Grieve. “Relocating has given me the chance to excel in my career and means I am surrounded by expertise.”
Dr Grieve says it is vital to fund scientists at this early stage in their careers. “These are the next generation. The PhD students are part of the research programme and are just as likely to make impactful and exciting discoveries as anyone else.
“One of the good things about the BHF PhD programme is that it tries to give a generous stipend, and that definitely helps to attract the best students.” Arya says: “I am thankful to the BHF for funding my project. Having the funding makes this possible, both in terms of my time – and we work long hours in the lab – and the money to buy the equipment that we need. I hope the BHF’s work to support young researchers will continue.”
BHF support for students
BHF PhD Studentships enable graduates to take a three-year PhD degree at a UK university. The award covers stipend, tuition fees and up to £10,000 in annual research consumables.
Applicants need a first class or 2:1 BSc, or an MSc at merit or distinction.
They must be supported by a named supervisor and a second supervisor. Just over half of applications are funded and in 2014/15, the BHF funded 33 new PhD Studentships at approximately £110,000 each. In total, 141 PhD Studentships are currently being funded.