I am a PhD student with a background in Genetics (UCL) and Genomic Medicine (University of Manchester). I am interested in understanding the mechanisms through which senescence pathways collectively modulate the ageing phenotype. I have joined Joao Passos’ lab in order to investigate the role of cellular senescence in skeletal muscle ageing.
With age, our muscular function and strength decline, leading to loss of muscle mass and capacity for physical activity, known as sarcopenia. The goal of the project is to characterise the nature of cellular senescence in ageing muscle, determine the signalling pathways involved, and identify possible interventions. I believe ageing research is the condition of possibility for improved health outcomes in ageing populations, and am thus excited to work with a team of passionate ageing scientists conducting world-class research into clinically and socially significant conditions.
February 2019 – Published a review in the Free Radical Biology and Medicine journal: Mitochondria and Cellular Senescence: Implications for Musculoskeletal Ageing.
February 2019 – I received funding to carry out a year of my research using innovative transgenic models that interrogate the impact of senescence on musculoskeletal ageing developed at Mayo Clinic.
I never thought of ageing as a potential career path until I chose to do a Biology of Ageing course in my third year at university. I learned two things while I was on that. The first was that I came to understand ageing as a biological process that we can try and understand or manipulate on a cellular and molecular level. The second was that ageing is actually a disease, the symptoms of which are age-related conditions, such as heart, brain, liver, kidney failure etc. All these manifest as the result of the pathology of ageing. The implication here is that if we manage to stop ageing, we could cure all diseases of ageing - this completely blew my mind. It was through this shift in understanding that I became really interested in contributing to the research that is bringing us closer to understanding the mechanisms that can modulate the whole ageing phenotype. On an epidemiological level, we have an ageing population, with 11,000 people turning 65 every day, therefore age-related diseases are becoming more prominent in public health agendas, which is why it is also important to understand these ageing processes.
I did my BSc in Genetics at UCL and then worked for two years in the NGO sector. I then came back into science by doing my postgraduate diploma in Genomic Medicine at the University of Manchester. I then discovered that bioinformatics was not really a passion of mine; I wanted to return to my wet lab background and explore my interest in ageing and now I’m here doing this PhD.
I’m looking at muscle ageing: why it happens on a cellular and molecular level, and how we could slow down or eliminate this process to improve muscle health in older life. The context for this research is that with age we drastically lose our muscle mass and muscle strength - what we call sarcopenia. On average we will lose 1% of our muscle mass every year after the age of 30 so that by the time we are 75-80 we would have already lost upwards of 60% of our muscle mass, which leads to a lot of health and mobility problems. Biology of ageing is really about trying to maintain (muscle) health throughout those latter years rather than extending maximum human lifespan. My project tackles muscle ageing through a cross disciplinary lens. I’m lucky to be part of, and have access to, the BRC’s lifecourse studies which are collecting muscle, lifestyle, physiological and RNAseq data from individuals aged 50-85. At the same time, I am also part of a group which specialises in understanding cellular senescence; a mechanism that has been shown to be causal in ageing of several organs including the brain, liver and bones (amongst others). I am now trying to understand how cellular senescence could bring about ageing in muscle and what therapeutic measures can be put in place to curb musculoskeletal decline.
Older people who suffer from sarcopenia lose their independence and are more prone to injuries and falls. Skeletal muscle is a very important organ - it regulates our basal metabolic rate, maintains muscle health through muscle-bone crosstalk, helps us achieve every day tasks and protects our vital organs; if it withers away, so do all of those functions. So it’s no surprise that musculoskeletal diseases are the most common cause of chronic disability worldwide. The cost of managing those musculoskeletal diseases are higher than breast cancer, stroke and cardiovascular disease combined. It is a huge burden on the public health system and on people’s daily lives and so sarcopenia is important to study and prevent.
It feels great, like being part of a family. All the other students that are with me on this journey are working on ageing as well, and it’s always so useful to talk to them over our monthly brunches and share the challenges and joy of our work. NIHR not only offers support to students financially, but offers opportunities and resources for the research itself, to widen your network and knowledge/skills repertoire. There are a lot of opportunities to get feedback from the public on your research, and also opportunities to learn from different departments and benefit from what they have to offer through official and non-official programmes. This variety of collaborations and skills is important because once you have completed your research it helps future proof you and your work in the field. I really enjoy being part of the NIHR.
It’s been easier to contact muscle experts or people doing research on muscle in Newcastle because I am under the umbrella of the BRC and its research themes. I have been in contact with the MIU (Muscle Immunoanalysis Unit), and Sir Doug Turnball’s group who work on Mitochondria in the muscle, in order to benefit from their established knowledge about experimentation on muscle and how to analyse certain muscle stainings.
Publishing my first review. It was hard but the experience was very important early on for me. I have found writing my own paper has helped me to understand my work a little more; it’s enforced why I am doing it and why it is important. Another highlight was the BRC Showcase Event as it gave me the opportunity to mix with a people of different backgrounds and expertise, including clinicians, basic scientists, epidemiologists and statisticians all working on age-related diseases. I presented a poster along with the other BRC students. This gave me the chance to strike up conversations and get feedback from experts from all walks of life, which really helped me come back to my research with more energy and different perspectives in my mind.
The paper is on musculoskeletal senescence; which is a topic that is just beginning to enter the spotlight but that has as of yet not been widely discussed. I read all the literature on this topic, trying to find as much evidence as possible that cellular senescence has a role to play in ageing; and on top of that that mitochondria could play a central role in causing cellular senescence in the muscle and would make a suitable target for therapeutic drugs. We then identified the questions in the field that researchers still need to work on. I tried to present my research and theoretical trajectory as the ideal approach to begin answering some of these questions.
Our PhD projects exist because there is a gap in knowledge in that field, so being able to identify that gap should be relatively easy. However really understanding the qualities of that gap and why your research is the best way to answer it is the starting point to any publication. Secondly do a lot of reading and really have your finger on the pulse of the field and understand what perspectives/approaches might be interesting to you and those doing research in this field. I would say write concisely, every line has to say something or further your argument in some way. If you don’t have enough data, release a review or a hypothesis paper. This will help start to establish your name in your field of research and demonstrate why your work is relevant. both muscle and senescence. My PhD has given me the opportunity to work at the Mayo Clinic in the US, and I think this will be a really interesting and rewarding experience.
The people. Everyone is just so friendly; there is a community feeling here that I have never found anywhere else. I really enjoy that about Newcastle and the North because it helps you slot right in and feel comfortable.