Research

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. Here are 10 inspiring women scientists whose work we've supported.

1. BHF Professor Federica Marelli-Berg

BHF Professor Federica Marelli-Berg

Professor Federica Marelli-Berg is BHF Professor of Cardiovascular Immunology at Queen Mary University of London, and one of the country’s leading experts on the immune system.

Her research is focused on finding ways to limit damaging immune responses which can cause rejection following a heart transplant. "Current anti-rejection drugs, taken by patients after organ transplantation, stop rejection but also shut down other aspects of the immune system," she says. 

The professor believes the solution is to develop drugs that are much more specific. “The aim of my research into transplantation is to block the immune system only as it relates to the heart,” she says.

As one of the BHF’s most senior researchers, and the leader of a team of 20, Professor Marelli-Berg is also now helping to raise the next generation of scientists.

2. Professor Joanna Wardlaw

Professor Joanna Wardlaw

Professor Joanna Wardlaw is Chair of Applied Neuroimaging at the University of Edinburgh, and an expert in brain scanning. Her internationally-recognised research focuses on trying to prevent, diagnose and treat stroke more effectively.

Lacunar stroke is a little-known type of stroke that affects the small blood vessels deep inside the brain. Professor Wardlaw is studying how these strokes are caused, and in particular she’s looking at the lining of blood vessels – the endothelium.

Problems with the small blood vessels of the brain contribute to around 40 per cent of dementia cases. “There is a lot going on in the brain that we don’t understand, but treating stroke and dementia as if they are completely different is a bit artificial, and we should look at them together,” says Professor Wardlaw.

Her team is now testing new treatments for lacunar stroke, funded by £850,000 from the BHF.

3. 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. Short episodes of AF are relatively common, particularly in older people, and may go unnoticed. More recently, Professor Casadei was awarded BHF funding to use UK Biobank data to study whether having 'unnoticed' AF can affect brain function.

4. BHF Professor Costanza Emanueli

BHF Professor Costanza Emanueli 

Costanza Emanueli is BHF Professor of Cardiovascular Science at Imperial College London, and an expert in the field of microRNAs. These tiny molecules can regulate the proteins produced by our cells, and so alter how they behave. They can also be found circulating in our blood – so they can act as ‘markers’ for different diseases or conditions.

Professor Emanueli and her team are carrying out research to find out whether changes in microRNAs have an effect on heart and circulatory diseases associated with diabetes, and whether these changes can be reversed using drugs that block or imitate microRNAs. 

5. Professor Sian Harding

Professor Sian Harding 

Sian Harding leads the London BHF Centre of Regenerative Medicine. 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

Researchers led by Professor Harding have developed a way to grow thumb-size patches of heart tissue that contain up to 50 million human stem cells. The stem cells are programmed to turn into working heart muscle that can ‘beat’. One or more of these patches could be implanted on to the heart of a person who has had a heart attack to limit, and even reverse, the loss of the heart’s pumping ability.

6. Dr Andriana Margariti

IPS cells

Induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells

Dr Andriana Margariti is an expert in stem cells at Queens University, Belfast. She works with induced pluripotent stem cells, which are stem cells that are created by reprogramming cells taken from adult donors back into a stem cell that can turn into different types of cell in order to grow new issue.

Diabetes can lead to damage to your blood vessels, which can raise your risk of many different problems including heart attack, stroke, sight loss, foot problems and kidney damage. Dr Margariti and her team are using blood samples donated by people with diabetes to grow blood vessel cells which are helping them to understand what goes wrong with the blood vessel lining in people with diabetes. She and her team are currently investigating whether a ‘harmful’ form of a protein, called QKI, could contribute to the dangerous effects of diabetes on our blood vessels.

The impact of her research has been recognised by several prestigious awards, including the Papanikolaou Prize from the Hellenic Medical Society for significant contribution to medical research and the prize for outstanding performance and scientific research awarded by King’s College London. She has also established collaborations with two world-leading cell reprogramming labs, in San Francisco and Boston.

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.

Glasgow 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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