Pursuing the PhD Puzzle – 6 Inspiring Female Researchers

2021 is the British Heart Foundation's 60th anniversary year and, whilst we look back with pride on the foundation's life-saving accomplishments, we also cast our eyes to the future, reflect on our place in the changing research landscape, and consider our role in building a diverse and inclusive research community. We want to start by celebrating the next generation of female researchers; we asked BHF-funded PhD students at our six Centres of Research Excellence to reflect on their doctoral journey so far, what motivated them to choose STEM, who inspires them, and what the future holds. Click on their name below to discover their story.

> Claire Aitken, University of Oxford

> Maria Faleeva, King's College London

> Zuzanna Jablonska, Imperial College London

> Samantha Mason, University of Cambridge

> Kalyani Pandya, University of Edinburgh

> Cara Trivett, University of Glasgow

Claire Aitken

Claire Aitken

Claire Aitken is a 1st Year PhD student, having only recently completed the MRes year of the BHF 4-year PhD programme, at the University of Oxford. Her research looks at endothelial mechanotransduction in the vasculature and the role that this plays in atherosclerosis development.

When did you know you wanted to pursue a STEM subject, and study for a PhD?

Biology was my favourite subject from an early age in school. I was particularly fascinated by the complex workings of the human body, and this led me to pursue an undergraduate degree in physiology. I really enjoyed learning about how multiple systems work together within the body to maintain its function, and this interest inspired me to pursue a career related to science.

However, it wasn’t until I had taken some time out of education to work in healthcare that I realised I had a passion for medical science, and I was drawn to research as a way of understanding more about disease processes and how science can be used to develop and improve treatments. I decided to pursue a master’s degree in cardiovascular science, and during this time I had the opportunity to carry out a research project in the field of vascular health. I found the subject area completely fascinating, and I enjoyed the challenge of carrying out research to approach unanswered questions, which inspired me to study for a PhD.

Do you have a formal/informal mentor?  How important are they to you as you plan for the future?

I am lucky to have PhD supervisors who are really invested in my development as a scientist. During a PhD there is so much to learn and lots of new skills to develop as you progress along the path to become an independent researcher, and I think it is hugely important to have a mentor who can help guide you in this process. I have also found that having the opportunity to work in a BHF Centre of Research Excellence means I am surrounded by other scientists who are passionate about their research, and this really inspires me in my own career.

What are you most looking forward to over the next 3 years, and what does the future hold for you?

I am looking forward to seeing how my PhD project develops and how I progress as a scientist in this time. I think that working in science is so exciting because you are always working to discover something new, and I am really excited by my project and where it might take me over the coming years.

I would like to make the most of the opportunities I have in my PhD studies to broaden my knowledge and learn new skills. I am hoping that this will be the start of a long scientific career for me!

Maria Faleeva

Maria Faleeva

Maria Faleeva is entering the 2nd year of her BHF-funded PhD at King’s College London in Professor Cathy Shanahan's lab, where her research investigates the interplay between vascular ageing and matrix biology. Maria is also flexing her entrepreneurial muscles developing a mobile app that will provide a platform for researchers to share best practice. Sign-up on the Your Lab Partner website to learn more about its development and launch.

What are you finding most rewarding about your PhD experience?

By far the most rewarding aspect of my PhD has been being at the forefront of a field in which I am incredibly interested. It has been everything from spending hours puzzling over unexpected results or scouring previously published papers for ideas on what to do next. In a sense, it has been similar to trying to put together a puzzle, with each piece revealing a little bit more on what the final result shall be.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your PhD, so far?

Closely tying into the most rewarding aspect of my PhD, the greatest challenge I have come across this year is learning how to correctly plan out and structure ideas for future experiments. Although it has been no small feat learning all the new techniques associated with my PhD, for me it has been a lot more difficult being able to think critically on how to progress my research. When undertaking a PhD, there are infinite unknowns, but the vital skill is being able to look at the information we already have and making informed, yet novel, decisions on the next steps to take.

Maria Faleeva and lab colleaguesYou’re developing an app, ‘Your Lab Partner’. What ignited the idea for this and what motivated you to turn it into a reality?

My motivation was initially sparked from my early personal experiences in the lab of being plagued by a constant uncertainty of whether what I was doing was “right”. I would stress from start to finish over any experiment and could not find a centralised app which I could rely on to answer my questions. The more I spoke to students just starting out on their research careers, the more I realised how important it is to develop a system that allows individuals to grow in independence and confidence, no matter what their physical lab settings. This pushed me to create Your Lab Partner, a platform on which researchers can streamline their execution of methodologies and refer to for clarification on their queries.

What does the future hold for you? Do you think you’ll pursue other entrepreneurial activities?

I honestly do believe that this entrepreneurial venture only arose due to my love and heavy involvement in research. Although it is difficult to predict the future, I don’t see myself leaving the research field, but would love to continue to implement my future ideas for Your Lab Partner, as it hopefully grows throughout my PhD studies.

After launching the app’s initial version, which shall contain pre-uploaded methods, and integrated timers and formulae, we hope to expand the app into a social network so that individuals, along with university course and group leaders, can publish their own methods that will be visible either to a general or to a specific audience. We hope that the second version shall not only help scientists with their daily lab routine, but also work towards bridging connections between research groups and individuals.

[Right-hand photo] Maria with her lab: Professor Cathy Shanahan, Dr Sadia Ahmad, Shanelle De Silva, Dr Syabira Yusoff, Dr Meredith Whitehead, Dr Meng-Ying Wu, Marco Antonazzi, Dr Andrew Cobb, Robert Hayward, and Baoqiang Kang.

Zuzanna Jablonska, PhD Student at Imperial College London

Zuzanna Jablonska

Zuzanna Jablonska is a 1st Year PhD student on the BHF’s 4-Year PhD Programme at Imperial College London, where her research aims to prevent cell death after heart attack and overcome the issues around traditional therapeutic strategies, such as heart transplantation. Zuzanna is committed to communicating her research with the public and inspiring younger scientists through her blog, Life of Sci, and through outreach activities. Follow Zuzanna on Twitter and Instagram.

Tell us about ‘Life of Sci’, and why you’re so passionate about sharing your PhD experience, and communicating your research.

‘Life of Sci’ began as a platform for me to document my scientific journey and share my experience with others who may be interested in a similar career. Having followed other PhD students on social media, and knowing just how much insight they provided me, I wanted to help the next generation of aspiring scientists.

As researchers, I think we have a shared responsibility to communicate our findings with each other and, more importantly, the greater public. My blog and Instagram page allow me to connect with other scientists, as well as those who are simply curious about our work.

When did you know you wanted to pursue a STEM subject, and study for a PhD?

I really have always loved science and its ability to answer my never-ending questions. It’s intellectually stimulating, rapidly progressing, and there is always something new to learn.

Choosing a STEM subject at university seemed obvious, as studying Biology and Chemistry at school had always piqued my interest. My undergraduate degree in Biology only opened more doors and led to more questions, a trend which continued throughout my Masters. My fascination for the subject is only growing stronger, hence me taking the next step with a PhD.

What has been the most challenging aspect of the PhD journey so far?

The experimental independence placed upon you when you start your PhD research. Despite years of lab training undergraduate, Masters, internships and seemingly endless reading and writing nothing can prepare you for the personal responsibility that comes with undertaking doctoral studies. It’s a big leap, but that’s not to say it’s impossible and certainly doesn’t mean that it’s not an exciting and rewarding experience. It really allows you to discover how you work at your best and take forward strides in your scientific path.

Zuzanna Jablonska with her lab at Imperial College London

What does the future hold for you?

Experiments, experiments and… more experiments! I’m excited to continue working on the research projects I’ve been involved in and see where I take them (or they take me!)

My long-term desire is to stay within academia, hopefully becoming an academic lecturer and mentor. I have a passion for teaching, and I would love to guide future scientists through their own amazing research. Science is ever advancing, and I want to continue to contribute to its progression.

[Right-hand photo] Zuzanna with her lab team at Imperial College London's Centre for Translational and Experimental Medicine in Hammersmith.

Samantha Mason, PhD Student at University of Cambridge

Samantha Mason

Samantha Mason is starting the 2nd Year of her PhD at the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute, University of Cambridge, where she’s researching platelets and heart regeneration. This year, Samantha will represent the postgraduate community at Clare College as MCR President, ensuring that all students have a voice.

What are you finding the most rewarding about your PhD experience?

When I manage to get my western blots to work! Okay, maybe that’s not the most rewarding thing, but it’s certainly gratifying when my experiments produce data that behaves as expected and strengthens my hypothesis. Many hours are spent troubleshooting and adapting protocols so when everything comes together to produce a meaningful result it’s a satisfying feeling.

I also find it very rewarding that I get to spend every day in the lab working on an intriguing research question that I am so interested in and passionate about. I feel extremely grateful to be in the position I’m in; continuing my scientific education at a world-leading university and as part of an incredible research institute.

Who, or what, most inspires you, and why?

In the scientific field someone I find incredibly inspiring is Rita Levi-Montalcini. She discovered the first of the cell-growth factors with Nerve Growth Factor, and my own PhD revolves around growth factor work, although I’m looking at angiogenic growth factors belonging to different families. I’m also in awe of her commitment to the pursuit of science despite so many obstacles and so much adversity. She did a lot of work later in her career around access, particularly for women in science. It is scientists such as Rita that have made it easier for young women such as me to pursue careers in science. She remained an active researcher right up until her death at the age of 103!

Outside of science, two of my role models are Serena Williams and Michelle Obama. Again, it’s their focus on female equality, the gender pay-gap and access to education for young girls that I find particularly inspiring.

What do you get up to when you’re not studying?

Samantha Mason with colleagues at a socially-distanced picnic, CambridgeIt’s so important for mental balance to pursue hobbies outside of the lab PhDs are stressful! Sport helps to keep me sane. When I arrived at Cambridge, I started playing rugby and joined the women’s development team. Rugby is welcoming, inclusive and empowering and promotes so many of the values that I strongly align with!

I’ve recently been voted as Clare MCR (Middle Combination Room) President for 2021-2022. This means that I represent the postgraduate community within Clare, my College at Cambridge. I was passionate about putting my name forward as often the bureaucracy of the College system can mean the voices of students get lost. This year the committee and I have been focusing a lot on trans activism and trying to ensure that Clare is a welcoming and safe space for our transgender and non-binary students.

What does the future hold for you?

A very scary question! It feels like hardly any time has passed since I got my place on the BHF 4-year scheme but, somehow, I’m already half-way through the programme!

I really want to stay in science after I finish. But, inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that I haven’t left the UK in 2 years, I’m also itching to travel and explore new places. So, I’m thinking about doing a post-doc abroad. I’m leaning towards Australia, but I’d be open to lots of places. After a couple of years living outside the UK, I think I’d want to return to Cambridge to continue my academic career I love it here and there is so much interesting research going on!

[Right-hand photo] Samantha [second from left] with her lab at a socially-distanced picnic during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Edinburgh PhD Student Kalyani Pandya on Graduation Day

Kalyani Pandya

Kalyani Pandya is about to embark on the 1st Year of her PhD at the University of Edinburgh, having only recently completed the MRes year of the BHF 4-year PhD programme. Alongside her studies, Kalyani will be organising vital fundraising events to support the BHF!

When did you know you wanted to pursue a STEM subject, and study for a PhD?

I have always loved learning and understanding new things, especially those that have implications on society and improving people’s quality of life. For me, STEM subjects provide a direct opportunity to answer important questions that not only spark my interest, but are of value to others. At the same time, I decided to pursue what I enjoyed most, having really enjoyed biology at school.

I was incredibly lucky to go to an all-girls school that motivated me to pursue STEM subjects and highlighted how important it was to have more women in science. At the University of Edinburgh, I see the important cardiovascular research carried out, public engagement efforts to raise awareness and fundraising completed not only by lecturers, but PhD students as well. All in all, this motivated me to pursue a career in academic research.

Who, or what, most inspires you, and why?

There are many things that inspire me to be part of the team at Edinburgh, the enthusiasm and ambition of my group and supervisor being a big one. I also appreciate having such a great support system in place, provided by my lab group and everyone else that I have met on my PhD program so far. There is an incredible potential to learn that starts with being surrounded by mentors that have accomplished so much in their careers (and are still as motivated as ever!) It is inspiring to see how dedicated my mentors are in carrying out their research, but also in sharing their knowledge and trying to bring out the best in students like me. With all these incredible opportunities and support, I feel inspired and determined to make an impact with my research.

Kalyani with friends and lab colleaguesYou’ve joined the University of Edinburgh Cardiovascular Research Centre BHF Fundraising Group. What activities are you looking forward to taking part in now that restrictions have been lifted?

I am really looking forward to organising a range of fundraising events with my peers, such as the annual BHF ceilidh. It will be nice opportunity for the whole centre to get together again whilst raising money for a great cause.

I am also looking forward to incorporating the city of Edinburgh into our fundraising events, similar to the ‘seven-hill challenge’ recently completed by my fellow BHF students. This will be another great opportunity to make the most of living in Edinburgh, which we haven’t had a chance to this year. 

What does the future hold for you?

I am looking forward to beginning my PhD with Dr Adriana Tavares; exploring the impact of sex and age on scar-formation following heart attacks. Having just completed my final master rotation project in her lab, I am ready for the next step in my academic career, applying the multitude of skills that I have learned.

I really hope I will be able to travel to national and international conferences in the years coming up, to get to network and to become part of the wider BHF community.

[Right-hand photo] Kalyani [far left] with fellow Edinburgh PhD students enjoying time togther outside the lab.

Glasgow PhD Student Cara Trivett with her Mum

Cara Trivett

Cara Trivett is a 2nd Year PhD student at the University of Glasgow, where her research investigates osteopontin as a precision medicine target. Cara has raised over £850 for the BHF in 2021  as well as completing the Edinburgh Half Marathon in May, Cara joined forces with fellow Alumni in July for the ‘Tour de Scotland Research’. Follow Cara on Twitter.

What are you finding most rewarding about your PhD experience?

Because I am only a year in, I am finding the “little wins” really exciting, so when each small part in experiments goes to plan and I get good results, I feel really satisfied. I have already learnt so much and gained so many new skills that even if I don’t have many results yet, I can still feel happy about what I am doing.

There are also opportunities for me to do things like public engagement, teaching and presenting at conferences. Although it is really nerve-racking, and I constantly feel like I have a bit of imposter syndrome, these give me a huge sense of pride and ownership over my project! 

You took part in the fantastic Tour de Scotland Research fundraising initiative in July 2021. Why was it so important to you to do this?

Cara Trivett and colleagues holding a BHF sign in front of The Kelpies sculpture, Falkirk, ScotlandI feel very lucky to be supported in my research and, being based in the BHF Centre of Research Excellence in Glasgow, many people in my building are also on BHF-funded projects. It felt really important for me to show my gratitude and support, especially as not many people know that PhDs are often funded by charities like the BHF. Getting on my bike was one of the things that got me through the various lockdowns and restrictions, so I decided to put that work to good use! Raising awareness and money seemed like a small thing I could do in return.

Sport has always been an important part of my life, so I’m keen to encourage my peers to be active, have fun and support each other especially women who sometimes feel they can’t. I was so happy to see plenty of my female colleagues cycling the Tour de Research andCara Trivett with fellow students at the Edinburgh Science Festival achieving their own personal bests. Through the magic of social media, we could all see how we were getting on and give each other a bit of moral support.

Do you have a formal/informal mentor? How important are they to you as you plan for the future?

Although I don’t have a formal mentor, I have a good relationship with both my supervisors and more senior students working in our labs; I feel comfortable enough to discuss problems and celebrate successes with them. Outside of academia, I have a lot of support from friends and family. I find it’s so easy to get wrapped up in my PhD project and their perspective is invaluable, especially my Mum. Until very recently, Mum read every single written piece of work I ever submitted!

The student and alumni networks that I am part of through the BHF are filled with advice, stories and opportunities to connect with people. These platforms will be so helpful to me when I have to start seriously thinking about life beyond my PhD

What does the future hold for you?

For the time being, I am focusing on making the most of the opportunities I am exposed to through my PhD. I’d love to finally get to an in-person BHF-student conference.

Post-PhD, the short answer is I don’t know! I am really enjoying research and might look to apply for a BHF (or another funding body!) fellowship as an early career researcher. I also love living in Glasgow, so we will see! On the flip side, I find public engagement and education really rewarding so I might pursue these avenues. I am lucky to know many other women in science so, as far as I am concerned, the sky is the limit!

[Right-hand photo, top] Taking a photo break at The Kelpies, Falkirk, Scotland, whilst cycling the Tour de Scotland Research with BHF-funded colleagues.

[Right-hand photo, bottom] Cara with fellow Glasgow students at the Edinburgh Science Festival.

Find out more

BHF 4-year PhD Programme

BHF Non-Clinical PhD Studentships

MBPhD Studentships

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