BHF Alumna Dr Vijay Kunadian is a Consultant Interventional Cardiologist at Newcastle University. In this Alumni Story, she discusses her determined journey into interventional cardiology, the gender gap in diagnosis, treatment and aftercare for heart disease, and the women who inspire her.
Just 1% of academics specialising in your area of interventional cardiology are women. What inspired you to pursue this sub-speciality?
When I was training, you needed to have published papers and have a doctorate in order to obtain a Cardiology Specialty training number. My MD (Newcastle University) project was all about coronary angiography and coronary artery blood flow. The project involved in-depth analysis of hundreds of coronary angiographic images. During this time I became very interested in interventional cardiology. There were no female interventional cardiologists or trainees at the time in the North East of England, so I am very grateful for my male consultants and mentors who were very supportive of what I was doing.
I was presenting my work from my MD project in nearly every cardiology congress, nationally and internationally, which again ignited my passion and enthusiasm for interventional cardiology. You couldn’t get a consultant post in a tertiary cardiac centre without an international overseas fellowship, so I went to Boston, MA to undertake an academic fellowship with the TIMI/PERFUSE study group at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School. The bottom line is to make the most of opportunity and support from mentors, work hard, always be willing to learn, be grateful, respectful of others, and go with your passion. That’s what brought me here.
What advice can you give to junior researchers thinking of pursuing this and other male-dominated areas of research?
Go with your heart. Find good mentors who you trust and respect to guide you. There are some incredible, highly accomplished individuals out there in the UK and overseas. I had and still have mentors in the UK and abroad, some of whom are BHF Professors. Get your head down, stay focussed and you will see the fruits of your labour down the line. In Cardiology, and Medicine in general, there is no shortcut. Sometimes you might think ‘I am not going anywhere’, but these are times of growth and development.
The UK has one of the lowest numbers of female cardiologists in Europe – what can universities and organisations like the BCS do to help improve this situation?
If someone is interested in Cardiology and any sub-specialty, they must be encouraged. I am here because my mentors (mostly men) gave me positive feedback, like ‘well done’, ‘you are doing fine’, ‘I am proud of you’, etc., which motivated me.
Ignore people who tell you that “if you choose cardiology, then it’s tough on women or “you’ll never be able to have a career as well as a family”. It is crucial that all students are nurtured to strengthen the work force of the future in our amazing specialty where there is much need for dedicated and committed professionals.
Why do you think the gender gap in diagnosis, treatment and aftercare for heart disease exists?
This is due to the tradition of women putting others (partners, children, family) first. Importantly, heart disease is considered a man’s disease, and there is lack of awareness among patients, the public and care providers. Women often associate major illness with women’s organs, such as breast cancer, cervical cancer, uterine cancer, etc. But the data suggests that CVD is the leading cause of death in women worldwide.
Can the BHF do more to help address this gap?
I truly believe if anyone can make an impact, it is the BHF. Raising awareness will be the key that will make the difference. We have the data and research on sex differences but we must take that message out there in the open, not just keep it within cardiology and medical journals, so that women think of “heart first” and seek help straight away.
What research would you like to see funded that could help us better address the gap?
Studies that address unique characteristics in women, such as coronary artery spasm, microvascular disease, studies on pregnancy related cardiovascular conditions such as preeclampsia, eclampsia, hypertension in pregnancy, gestational diabetes. I would like to see studies funded that evaluate the effect of female hormones on CVD in young, pre-menopausal, early and late menopausal women, as well as studies that look into the effect of mental stress on women’s CV system. The list goes on. These are just a few of the areas where there is a paucity of adequate research to impact the management and prevention of CVD in women.
Which female cardiologists do you admire, and why?
In academic interventional cardiology, I admire Professor Roxana Mehran, who is based in New York. During my time in the USA as an International Academic Fellow, the Society of Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions (SCAI) USA organised for Professor Mehran to be my mentor, and I am thrilled to have ongoing collaborations with her and her group.