Krystal Lau

Programme: Flatiron Health

Previous education: BA Biochemistry and Cell Biology, Rice University MSc Bioscience and Health Policy, Rice University

Past employment: Research Intern at Johnson & Johnson

Favourite place in London: Maltby Street Market

Krystal Lau is a Doctoral student in the Economics & Public Policy Department at Imperial College Business School.

Krystal studied an MSc in Bioscience and Health Policy at Rice University. She also worked as a Biologics Mass Spectrometry Research Intern at Johnson & Johnson. After winning a scholarship to study abroad, she came to Imperial College Business School to embark upon her research within health policy.

Past experience and achievements

Why did you decide to study the Doctoral programme at the Business School?

During my master’s programme I got a scholarship to do research abroad. I was keen to come to the UK and I knew that I wanted to focus on health policy, so I was told London was the best place to be. I found a great supervisor at the Businesses School here, Dr Katharina Hauck, and I really enjoyed it. I met some PhD students while I was here and they suggested I apply for the doctoral programme. I’m still working with the same supervisor now, and also Dr Marisa Miraldo. It’s very different here, compared to my experience of studying in the US. Because it’s such a good university, it attracts people from all over the world and the staff and students are really diverse. I’m the only American in my year group and I find that amazing because I get to interact with and learn from people from so many places, not just in Europe but also the Middle East, the Americas, China, and this broadens my horizons.

What previous work experience do you have and how did this prepare you for the programme?

I worked at Johnson & Johnson, which is a pharmaceutical company, where I did more basic scientific research. The processes that I learnt through that job and also through my science studies have really helped me prepare for my research as a doctoral student. Over the course of my research, I will go through a similar set of rules and regulations. I also worked at a behavioural health non-profit company, where I was doing an internship focussed on data analysis. The methodologies were quite similar to those I’m using now and the role helped me to understand how an analytical mind-set and the ability to analyse data can be useful in a health context.

Tell us about your greatest achievement?

Being awarded that scholarship to study abroad is probably my greatest achievement, because it kick-started the events that led to my becoming a doctoral student here. When I got that scholarship, it gave me a real confidence boost. I realised that I was doing something I was really good at, and it encouraged me to take that leap of faith to start the research I’m doing today.


Studying the Doctoral programme at the Business School

What aspects of the Doctoral programme have been most rewarding so far?

I have the flexibility to do work at my own pace. At the same time, that does mean my PhD can permeate my whole life. The PhD students are all very passionate about what they are studying, so we talk about and think about our research all the time. Even when we’re out having dinner it ends up permeating all our conversations! The PhD students are always very willing to help each other. I turn to my supervisors a lot when I have trouble with the big things, like what to choose for a research idea, how to formulate a question, all sorts of methodology issues, and if I have a very specific question then they will point me to someone else who knows more about it and all the professors are very willing to help when that happens.

What aspects of the Doctoral programme are most challenging?

The Master’s in Research (MRes) is a really good programme but it is tough. I don’t think I’ve ever had to work as hard as I’ve had to in this programme. For me, the most difficult thing was the economics module. Before I started the PhD I really didn’t know a lot of economics and so I faced a very steep learning curve in my first term. Now that I’m looking at it from the other side, I think it was good preparation for my research, both content-wise and also because I experienced being put into a tough situation and needing to stick with it and find a way to overcome that challenge. That translates a lot into what I do now for my PhD. Every day I go in, and some days are good, but some days my research doesn’t go to plan. At one point in the term I had spent countless hours working on something without getting anywhere. I met with my supervisor and she told me that’s actually very normal with research – you don’t make breakthroughs every day. But you have to keep your motivation and keep moving forward, maybe in a direction that you didn’t know you would take.

What is the focus of your current research?

I’m looking at the 2009 swine flu pandemic (H1N1) and how hospital resources were used at that time – how many people went to hospital, how did that change throughout the course of the pandemic, and how much did that cost the NHS? Beyond that, I am hoping to further analyse the reasons why people did or did not use NHS resources. The flu virus itself was not actually that dangerous. It wasn’t much more severe than normal flu. So, knowing that, I want to understand why so many people did go to hospital. In 2009 social media use was growing, so I’m interested to find out what this can tell us about the information people were getting online and how social network interactions may have influenced people’s decisions to go to hospital, to GPs and so on.

Have you experienced any unexpected changes to the development of your research?

When you do any PhD, you need to come up with a good idea, make sure it’s interesting to other people, make sure that no one else has already done it and then make sure it’s feasible. Finding a topic that satisfies all those points is very difficult. When I came up with my idea, I searched to see if it had already been done and it hadn’t, but during my research I started to see that the reason for that might be that it is too hard to do! We don’t have the proper data sets for it and a lot of social media data is very sensitive; it’s held by the social media companies and so it’s hard to get access to that information. That will probably impact the direction of my research.

Which seminars, events or guest lectures at the school have been especially useful?

The Business School puts on seminars for different departments. I especially like the ones where we have people come in who are finishing PhDs, post docs and so on, who want to apply for a job at the Business School and as part of their application they give a presentation about their research. It’s a good window into what we’ll be doing in a few years’ time. You get a feel for what a job presentation entails and what sort of questions you might be asked, and you can assess how close you are to reaching that stage.


Being a part of the Imperial College Business School community

How would you describe the Business School community?

Very friendly. I feel like I can approach other professors and they will help me even if they’re not my supervisor and the students are also really nice and very willing to help me even if it’s not their project or their interest area. You’re surrounded by such intelligent people who are really good at what they do. We do all put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do well. We push ourselves to find interesting research questions and to try to make a really novel contribution to the research community. We’re all pretty ambitious and self-motivated people by nature and being in an environment surrounded by other highly motivated people can feel intense at times but it’s also a really good thing.

What has been the greatest opportunity you have had at Imperial?

Engaging with an international community. It’s a world-renowned Business School and very conveniently situated in South Kensington, London. Many people come to work or study in London, or they pass through the city on their way to somewhere else, so I get exposure to so many interesting external speakers and often they are willing to meet with PhD students. Also, the professors here collaborate with people from all over the world and often they will come to visit campus and give presentations.


Thinking to the future

What are your future career goals?

I like academic research so my main career plan is to go into academia, but I’m not sure where exactly. I think that will depend on the nature of my research, because when you apply for a position at a university or business school you have to make sure your research interest fits what the institution is currently working on. If too many people are researching a similar area they might not want more, or they might actually be really keen for more. So I will go where my research will fit best.


Living and studying in London

Do you think studying in a central location such as London is beneficial?

I’m doing health policy work, so it’s great that most of England’s health governing bodies are based in London, as well as many top universities. My supervisors know a lot of useful contacts at other London universities and in bodies like Public Health England or the Department of Health. In that sense, being in London is really good for networking purposes, for collaboration and potentially for future career opportunities as well.

What can a weekend in London look like for a PhD student?

I like to explore cities, so if it is a nice day I like to visit the street markets and afterwards just walk around for a bit. For me, the best part about being in London is the fact that there are so many things happening all the time, so you will often just happen upon something interesting. I remember one time I was walking around in the summer and I walked right into a street party. There is never a shortage of things to do in London and I never feel bored. In London you can do anything.

In your opinion, what is the most exciting, undiscovered place in London?

I have a favourite street market called Maltby Street Market. There are so many street markets in London, and some serve food, some have vintage clothing, or trinkets, but the ones I really like are the smaller ones that most people don’t know about. Maltby Street Market is held on a very tiny street in Bermondsey. The food is really good and I like to go whether it’s sunny or rainy. That area is very cool. There are a lot of hidden, relatively unknown art galleries and museums that are really good.


Programme: Flatiron Health

Previous education: BA Biochemistry and Cell Biology, Rice University MSc Bioscience and Health Policy, Rice University

Past employment: Research Intern at Johnson & Johnson

Favourite place in London: Maltby Street Market