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DPhil student on the British Heart Foundation Cardiovascular Science Programme (2016-)

Lisa Simpson smiling in a labWhat is your current role?

I am a 2nd year student on the British Heart Foundation Cardiovascular Science Programme.

What is your academic background?

I am originally from Aberdeenshire, and attended my local Academy before studying Physiology at the University of Aberdeen. It was here that I was first exposed to cardiovascular medical science.

After graduating, I chose to work as a research assistant with Professor Paul Leeson in Oxford. I wanted hands-on experience in the lab before embarking on a doctorate, and felt that Oxford would be the best place to get it. Working in Oxford also helped me to prepare for my DPhil application; I knew potential supervisors better, and was able to explore the interdisciplinary and collaborative cardiovascular community at the University.

Tell us about your research.

I work on mechanotransduction in vascular health and disease. Amazingly, we still don’t know how endothelial cells sense blood flow. Mechanosensors have been and are being identified but we don’t really know how different types of flow are sensed. This is critical because turbulent flow is associated with the formation of atherosclerotic plaques. An overarching question is: can we inhibit the pathogenic effects of mechanotransduction without disrupting protective flow signalling?

One main approach I take is to use immunofluorescence imaging, which enables me to show how cells (and their actin filaments) align in the direction of flow in linear blood vessels where the blood flow is uniform – alignment is a hallmark of the anti-inflammatory endothelial phenotype. In contrast, cells exposed to turbulent flow, such as those found in areas of the vasculature which curve sharply or branch, cannot align and have increased pro-inflammatory markers.

Why did you choose this DPhil programme?

I chose the BHF programme because of the opportunity to do rotations in the first year, which I thought would allow me to gain knowledge of new techniques and areas of research. By the time I started my main project with Ellie Tzima, I had worked in three different Oxford labs. The strength of this DPhil programme is that it offers an extensive range of lab projects and supervisors allowing for interdisciplinary collaborations to be fostered.  There is great support throughout this DPhil programme particularly in the first year where students attend course related tutorials to help with critical analysis, problem solving and writing techniques.  BHF students have access to many different training courses offered by the Medical Sciences Division and other departments throughout the duration of the DPhil programme.  Structured within this BHF DPhil programme in Oxford are regular mini symposiums where all students from each course year have the opportunity to present their work once a term.  This is particularly great for 1st and 2nd year students who can practice presentations in a friendly and encouraging atmosphere.  I found this very useful for improving my talk presentations and this developed my confidence when I had to talk at more formal meetings.  I have been able to attend numerous local meetings and symposiums that take place in Oxford which have given me great exposure to presenting and provided useful constructive feedback on my work from both my peers and more senior researchers.  Students on this programme can speak at a diverse range of internal meetings and conferences including those put on by the student’s department and /or college, those by the Medical Sciences Division, the BHF and BHF CRE.  As Oxford has a BHF Centre for Regenerative research, this allows access to more internal seminars and meetings and allows for communication across the larger BHF research network.  Every year there is a National BHF Student Symposium where students from every BHF doctoral training programme within the UK can come together and present their work in both talk and poster formats.  This is always a very engaging and interesting event where you can network with other students.  I have thoroughly enjoyed these meetings and was fortunate enough to win 1st prize for my research talk at the BHF National Student meeting at Imperial College London, 2019.  The BHF DPhil programme offers generous financial support for travelling to national and international conferences and by virtue of being at Oxford there is also financial aid that can be accessed from some colleges.  

How do you engage with the British Heart Foundation?

The British Heart Foundation (who fund my DPhil) are a charity, and I strongly believe there is a need to engage with them through helping to raise money and communicating with donors. Every year I attend the National Meeting of BHF students, which gives me the opportunity to speak to BHF staff and other BHF students across the country. I value this network immensely, because it helps me to put lab work in context and perspective, and gives me wider experience of communicating about research.

What does a typical day look like for you?

My typical day in the lab starts sometime between 9 and 10am, and I leave for home between 6 and 7pm. As with any research-based job, there’s a need for flexible working but this is also an obvious advantage of doing a DPhil. The key thing is to be professional in your approach.

What do you do outside of your DPhil?

I am a student at Worcester College, and I play football for the college team. I also enjoy other aspects of college life, including bar nights and dinners. As a scientist, it can be hard to integrate if you don’t live in, but there are plenty of opportunities to get involved in a sport, society, or committee position, and this is a great way to feel part of the college community. I also enjoy baking for my lab, and am a big fan of the Great British Bake Off!


Find out more about the BHF Cardiovascular Science programme