Maike Haensel and Salina Nicoleau are PhD students at the National Heart and Lung Institute in the Vascular Science Section. Maike is funded by the British Heart Foundation and Salina is a Presidents PhD Scholar.
I get knocked down but…
MH I decided quite early that I wanted to do something science or medicine related. Initially I thought I wanted to study medicine, but I realised I was more interested in understanding how everything works, so I decided to study Biological Sciences. However, I had a bit of a set back before I started studying science. When I told my teacher at high school that I wanted to study Biology, she discouraged me, she said her only advice was that I should not study biology as my grades were not good enough. That was very tough to hear. But I pursued it anyway and now I am here at Imperial finishing my PhD…in medical research! Maybe my story will help other people.
SN I was more of a literature person when I was a kid, I used to read loads of books. I remember a teacher asked me to solve an equation on the board and I couldn't – she told me I was rubbish. I lost total confidence in my maths ability and I could never see myself choosing science as a path. Luckily I then got a tutor who was amazing. He taught me to think about maths in a different way and that unlocked everything for me. All the scientific things I’ve achieved since are based on that. I think without him, I wouldn't be here.
Our research focuses on developing new ways of modelling lung diseases, to better represent what happens in the human body
Visible female role models in society are lacking. Having faced barriers ourselves, we started our podcast to do something about it. Encourage women to pursue their dreams.
Coming from an international background has forged who we are - open minded and accepting of other cultures.
Object one: Heart model
SN I work on a disease called Chronic Thromboembolic Hypertension, which is basically a lung disease caused by blood clots occluding the arteries in your lungs. I'm looking at changes in the arterial geometry - the diameter of the arteries - and how that affects blood flow, which in turn affects the cells lining the vessels. The function of the endothelial cells lining your arteries is very important - when they become dysfunctional, this can lead to an increased risk of blood clots forming.
MH I work in the same area as Salina, but I'm interested in looking at how different diseases communicate with each other. Pulmonary hypertension is a common cause of other lung diseases, but we don't really know what the link is. We are using what we call organ-on-chip devices, which are basically chips where you can have two layers of channels separated by a porous membrane. You can add different cell types into the channels and then look at how they communicate with each other. I am also looking at external factors like pollution or smoking to see how this affects the cell types and disease model. My aim is to establish a model where you can look at cell to cell communication.
Object two: Microphone
MH Our podcast – Elevat(Her) - started during lockdown. I was in Germany and Salina was in France, and we got to know each other over Microsoft Teams. We were sharing ideas and stories about our past and realised that we’d both had setbacks and been disheartened, and thought it would be nice to talk about it so other women don't have to go through the same thing alone.
SN The idea behind it was we felt there was a lack of visible female role models in society. We wanted to make sure that people would see us and realise they can also chase their dreams. We can all raise our voices, we can all be what we want. I think you can achieve whatever you want, if you put your mind to it. Of course, there are many barriers, but we wanted to address this – the barriers are there, but we can do something about it.
MN Basically our goal is to empower our listeners to achieve their full potential and elevate their life. We try to do this by highlighting different positive female role models.
SN In terms of which of our guests has really impacted me, I remember feeling a lot of emotions when we were recording Rosie Russell. She is a lab safety manager and she is a transgender woman. Her story was just breathtaking and so inspirational. She has been through a lot of challenges and is an example of how strong you need to be sometimes to get to where you want to be.
MH Someone who left an impact on me who was one of our first guests - Dr Alyson McGregor. Her research is on the effects that sex and gender have on emergent conditions, and why medicine often has dangerous side effects for women as this is not always taken into consideration in research. That opened my eyes. Since then, I've been trying to also implement looking at sex differences in my research.
Object three: Globe
SN I am French – three quarters French, and a quarter Japanese - I was born in Paris but raised in the suburbs. I've always been brought up in a very international environment, speaking several languages since I was a kid. I feel like it's really forged who I am, in terms of being open minded and accepting other cultures. I used to go back to Japan quite a lot during summers and experience school there. And the Japanese aspect has painted me in a way, it's part of my personality. I'm very happy that my mum passed on that culture. I wouldn't be the person I am now without it. I'm glad that I can share my Japanese culture with people who have never been there – it’s very humbling to be able to share that richness.
MN I'm from the south of Germany, near Lake Constance and the Alps. Growing up there we were outdoors a lot and enjoying nature. My town is small so you can cycle everywhere or play in the street. That's why I felt the need to get out and explore the world. I lived in New Zealand for a year and I lived in Norway during my studies. And then now the UK, so I've always been super interested in exploring different cultures and countries. And I can't wait now that COVID is having less of an impact to travel again. I feel grateful I was able to have all these experiences up to now.
Raising our voices
SN I do weightlifting - a few years ago I was often the only woman in the gym, now so many women are lifting weights - all fighting for the squat racks! That’s the way it should be. Sometimes when you lift more than the guy next to you, he looks at you, and you're like “Yeah, that just happened”. It has taught me to accept my body the way it is. Being strong and not being afraid to say that you're strong. It carries over into other aspects of life, I'm not afraid of raising my voice against someone who's more senior, or a man. I think there are so many benefits to being active and being strong.
MH Living abroad and doing a PhD at Imperial has definitely helped me to raise my voice. As you go through life there are more and more instances where you have to speak up to achieve what you want. Every time it is super difficult. There's always challenges in life where you think “I don't want to go through this right now”, but it is something I am getting better at, and it has got me to where I am today.
Go your own way
MH After my undergraduate degree in Frankfurt I knew I wanted to do a Master’s, but I didn't know in what field, so I applied to companies for an internship and got an acceptance from a pharmaceutical company in Slough. Whilst I was there I explored different Master’s ideas. After my MSc in Molecular Medicine here at Imperial I worked another year at the company during which I took time to choose my PhD project. When I found it, I knew this was the one.
It's important people know that PhDs are not the only pathway. I have set up a link between my old company and Imperial for students so they can get an insight into a different work environment and explore the idea of working in industry. Having gone through academia and industry I want to reach out to other students so they can see those opportunities too.
SN I've been at the NHLI for almost three years - but I've been at Imperial forever! I did my undergraduate degree here in Chemistry, then I did a Master's in Global Health Nutrition at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. I came back to Imperial to do a second Master's in Molecular Medicine. And then soon after that, I went onto my PhD. Whilst I learned a lot throughout my PhD, I do not wish to stay in academia after graduating - I cannot wait to explore what else the world has to offer me!
"Imperial has always been my home"
No place like home
SN Imperial has always been my home. I’ve always felt like I belong because it is so international. There’s also a big French community which made me feel welcome during my undergrad. In terms of the NHLI I've been lucky to be part of the student committee. It’s really helped me to get an insight into what's going on behind the scenes, what kind of research everyone does. It's been great to bring students together through that community. I really enjoy the vibrant aspects of Imperial in terms of nationality and research. And I also like that standards are high - it's motivating to work in a competitive environment.
MH What I love about Imperial and NHLI is that there are so many PhD students and we are all around the same age. We often go out for drinks and socialise. I also like that it is so international, so you always fit in wherever you go. During my Master’s here I always felt like I belong here. That was why I chose to come back for a PhD – I love the environment, the people and of course the research.