Why did you choose to work in ageing?
Everyone ages… There are so many age-related diseases and there is still so much more we need to understand about the underlying causes of why people age. When I tell people I’m involved in ageing research I often get asked for tips on how to live longer. But to me it’s not about living forever – it’s about focussing on healthy ageing and exploring ways to ensure age related conditions don’t prevent people from making the most of later life.
What’s your career path been like so far?
I originally started off studying mechanical engineering but decided it wasn’t for me and so I took a couple of years out. I then went on to study forensic biology as an undergraduate in Edinburgh and it was one particular module of that degree that fascinated me – the ‘molecular biology of disease’. I found it incredibly interesting that some of the natural processes in our body can actually cause disease over time. From there I decided to come to Newcastle to do an MRes in cancer studies and that brought me to my PhD here with the BRC.
What does your research focus on?
My research is looking at the role of mitochondrial dysfunction in facial appearance and ageing, in two particular areas. Firstly, we are taking facial images of patients with mitochondrial disease to look for non-invasive biomarkers in facial appearance. Secondly, we are researching whether patients with mitochondrial disease age faster and if they are predisposed to premature ageing from stressors – particularly sunlight on skin.
Why is this area so important?
It can take up to 10 years for someone to get a diagnosis of mitochondrial disease and we hope that this research can help establish facial imaging as a non–invasive tool for assessment and diagnosis.
Patients with mitochondrial disease have a genetic malfunction which causes the mitochondria to stop working efficiently, and there are many different problems that can occur because of that. Although ageing has been linked to mitochondria for years, its actual role is not yet fully understood so studying these patients can help to give us further insights into that.
The BRC has many research themes and links with infrastructure, do you feel this has been useful for you carrying out your research?
A big benefit of being a NIHR Newcastle BRC funded PHD student is that I can draw on the world leading expertise, infrastructure and support that exists within the centre, as well as having access to the cutting edge facilities that exist across the Newcastle University and Hospitals partnership.
My project spans the Neuromuscular Disease and Skin and Oral Disease themes so I am working with both the Dermatological Sciences Team and Dr Grainne Gorman’s team in the Mitochondrial Research Group. And my main supervisor is Professor Mark Birch-Machin who is faculty ambassador for the National Innovation Centre for Ageing (NICA) – with the strong links between the BRC and NICA that are already in place, I’ve found this really useful in shaping my research.
How does it feel being part of NIHR?
Being part of the NIHR is nice and has a way of making you feel you are part of a community and something bigger. The events that the BRC organises to support and train the students it funds are great, they’ve made me feel like I have my own little peer group family and support network of people as well as helping me to develop specific skills. Attending Patient and Public Involvement & Engagement (PPIE) training events have been invaluable in helping me think about how to translate my research to the public.
What has been your highlight of your time with us so far?
I have really enjoyed the whole process of writing and publishing my first review; this is definitely my top highlight so far. Writing it helped give me a perspective as to how my research fits in the broader context. And although my research is on skin it also gave me the chance to look at other areas I am interested in, such as hair follicles, as well as seeing what else is going on in the literature.
I have enjoyed being given the opportunity to present and talk about the research I am doing. So far I’ve been able to do this at the Newcastle BRC’s Impact Showcase; a Biochemical Society event in Glasgow; the North East postgraduate conference and the Mitochondria Research in Progress seminar.
What advice would you offer to another student wanting to release a publication?
Firstly and most importantly, don’t panic and take your time. If it is a review all the information is out there so it’s just about taking a strategic approach; I found looking at most recent papers first and then structuring the review around them worked well for me. And it’s likely there has been reviews on your topic before, so it’s important to consider how you can bring something new to the topic.
Secondly, peer review is vital but it can also be hard having people you don’t know critiquing your work. So don’t take it personally and learn from every comment to help you build a better publication.
What are you looking forward to and worried about during the remainder of your project?
Not getting everything done in time! But I think most PhD students worry about that! But I am really looking forward to some of the new lab techniques I have planned using the Bio-Imaging facility to look at mitochondrial processes – that will be really cool. And also, even though it will make me even busier, I can’t wait for our patient study to get up and running.
What do you enjoy doing outside of your PhD?
I enjoy painting and go to the cinema a lot. I have started to run again and I look forward to doing the Great North Run in September. Mostly I like to try new things, partly as I am fairly terrible at sticking to one hobby!
What do you like most about Newcastle?
The people in the city are great and really friendly. The quayside here is lovely and I enjoy running along the river. Coming from Edinburgh it took some time to appreciate it, but Newcastle is a very pretty city.