A passion for research
For many people, a career in cardiovascular research begins this September as they start their BHF-funded PhD. Sarah Kidner talks to a current student about her experience so far
“I think there are very few careers that can be as rewarding as research,” says Maeve Elder, 24, who is beginning her second year of a three-year PhD studentship at the BHF Centre of Research Excellence, Imperial College, London.
Maeve is studying the link between chemotherapy and the heart. Her passion for science stems from her natural curiosity. “I constantly ask ‘why’ and I really enjoy learning new things. In research, you learn new things every day.”
This questioning attitude is exactly what we’re looking for in the PhD students we fund. The hope is that we’re funding the BHF professors of tomorrow, while, in the meantime, students bring a fresh perspective to others’ potentially life-saving work. Maeve’s supervisors share and encourage her love of research. “I was in the lab one day and my supervisor came running in,” she says. “I had just sent him some results and he wanted to discuss it further. Although he has been doing research for 40 years, he was just as excited as I was.”
Centres of Research Excellence
Maeve feels proud to be part of one of our six Centres of Research Excellence. “I feel very privileged to be able to use some incredible equipment and to work with high-calibre people,” she says.
During a recent visit from the Friends of Imperial College society, she led a group on a tour of the building and was struck by their enthusiasm. “I had to wrap up the session and tell the lecturers that their time was up! I spent the whole visit making mental lists of people I wanted to speak to again,” she says.
You only get to do a PhD once, so try to make the most of it
Each year the BHF accepts 48 per cent of student applications and, for those who manage to secure a place, the real challenge continues in the lab. “A PhD is hard work. The experiments are very demanding and they require blood, sweat and tears,” says Maeve.
She does her lab work two or three times a week, and on those days she starts early; it takes her about an hour to get set up and about three hours to do the experiments. She tries to get in at least two per day. On days when she’s not doing lab work, Maeve analyses the large amount of data generated, prepares chemical solutions and tries to keep up with the current literature.
A valuable contribution
Maeve’s research focuses on the effect that chemotherapy agents have on the heart. While effective, these treatments can damage the heart and lead to heart failure. “The growing epidemic of cardiac problems in cancer patients relating to cancer drugs is a major clinical issue,” she says, referring to breast cancer survivors, where cardiovascular mortality overtakes cancer as the leading cause of death nine years after cancer surgery. By studying mitochondria – tiny structures inside our cells that produce energy – Maeve hopes to discover some clues about why this happens.
Concerned about chemo? Find out more
Heart cells are especially reliant on the mitochondria because the heart uses a lot of energy when it beats. Longer term, Maeve hopes we might be able to work out how to protect the mitochondria and potentially prevent the damage to the heart.
But she’s aware that it will take time. “Research is a long process,” she says. “My work will be combined with the work of hundreds of others to aid the survival of people with diseases of the heart and circulation. I hope that in three years’ time I can contribute something worthwhile to that.”
Asked if she has any advice for this year’s student intake, Maeve says: “Surround yourself with enthusiastic and supportive people and do the experiments you find most interesting. You only get to do a PhD once, so try to make the most of it.”
Our £11.9 million donation to Imperial College
Imperial College is one of six Centres of Research Excellence funded by the British Heart Foundation and has been awarded £11.9 million worth of research funding. PhD candidate Maeve Elder’s supervisors are Professor Sian Harding and Dr Alexander Lyon, a BHF Senior Lecturer who has a special interest in heart failure and the cardiac complications of anti-cancer therapies.
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Centres of Research Excellence
Total funding to date awarded by the BHF and areas of special interest
£11.9m Imperial College: World-leading stem cell researcher BHF Professor Michael Schneider and his team hope to come up with ways to reverse the damage caused by heart failure.
£15m King’s College London: This centre is making great strides in understanding the structure of the heart at a molecular level. One of our newest BHF Professors, Kinya Otsu from Japan, is researching new treatments for heart failure.
£3m University of Cambridge: BHF Professor Nick Morrell and his team are using innovative research approaches to find ways to prevent heart attacks.
£10.6m University of Edinburgh: Edinburgh’s Centre is identifying and exploring factors such as stress and exposure to air pollution, and the impact they may have on heart health.
£3m University of Glasgow: The funding will allow Glasgow scientists to investigate blood vessel damage that is caused by chronic conditions such as obesity and diabetes.
£14.4m University of Oxford: World-leading regenerative medicine specialists at Oxford, like Professor Hugh Watkins (pictured), are coming up with ways to repair damaged hearts.