Throughout the year the NHLI welcomes postgraduate research students who are progressing their careers in respiratory, vascular and cardiac sciences.
As every pathway to a PhD is different, we thought we would ask some students about their individual PhD journeys - from finding funding to advice they would give to someone thinking about applying for their own PhD.
First up, some of our respiratory students; Helen Stoelting, Lauren Headley, Karim Boustani, Nicoletta Bruno and Kunyuan Tian.
What is your PhD about?
Helen – My PhD centres around remodelling of the lung during asthma or allergic airway disease during early life, looking at both school-age children with asthma, but also pre-school wheezing in the chest which happens before that. A lot of children who have pre-school wheeze go on to develop asthma later in life, but some of them don’t and at the moment we don’t really know why that is.
Lauren - The methods of diagnosing and assessing asthma are pretty complicated and can be invasive and aren’t always accurate. So for me, the goal is to make a sampling method where we can just analyse it and tell people you need to be on this medication or this isn’t going to work for you, just to simplify the process, making it much easier for patients and doctors and ultimately not see people suffer.
Karim - For my PhD I’m looking at the role the antibody response plays in asthma and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) – a lung disease that scars the lungs - and specifically why some types of antibodies are increased in patients with these diseases. I want to investigate why we find some types of B cells in the airways in the first place. If we can understand how these cells are contributing to inflammation and disease, we can hopefully target them with treatments.
Nicoletta - I’m looking at steroid resistant asthma in particular, both in animals and humans. I’m looking at the asthma types that are not strictly related to allergy and that are more resistant to the current therapies. It’s more about identifying which mechanisms are going on because there’s not much known about it, and when we learn more it will make a difference.
Kunyuan - I’m looking at genetics and environment, recreating the onset of pre-school wheeze and the progression to asthma. The approach of my project is to set up an animal model using a virus to induce a viral response which will make the mice susceptible to asthma.
Who are you funded by? Was it easy finding your funding?
Karim - I am funded by an Asthma UK studentship as part of the Asthma UK Centre in Allergic Mechanisms of Asthma. After completing my MSc in Immunology at Imperial, I knew I wanted to study respiratory immunology at PhD level so I decided to apply.
Helen - The British Lung Foundation (BLF). My MSc research project supervisor already had funding secured for PhD students through her larger research grant and she helped guide me through the application process which was really helpful.
Lauren - I went on the FindaPhD website which found my MRC/Asthma UK joint PhD on it. It was one of the more straightforward applications I’ve done. I had to send over my CV then have a Skype interview. How easy it is all depends on the funding you’re applying for and the research group.
Kunyuan - My funding is from Asthma UK which I came across on the British Society of Immunology website. I think the scholarship was also advertised on the Imperial website too. I found the application process very straightforward. I didn’t actually apply for this one initially but it was suggested to me that I apply for this PhD instead. I didn’t think I was ready for this but when I had a closer look into it, I thought it sounded really interesting so it all worked out well.
Nicoletta - I found my MRC-Asthma UK studentship on the FindaPhD website. It was a fairly easy application process – I just had to send a cover letter and my CV, and the interview was quite straightforward compared to other interviews I’ve had.
What were you doing before starting your PhD?
Nicoletta - I studied my undergraduate degree in Biotechnology in Bologna, Italy, then I completed a MSc in Pharmaceutical Biotechnology in both Bologna and in Munich, Germany. I then worked as a research assistant in Cambridge at the Sanger Institute for two years before deciding that I wanted to do a PhD.
Helen - I did my undergraduate degree in Molecular Biomedicine at the University of Bonn in Germany and then I took a year out to do some internships at Bayer, a German biomedical company, and also worked in some university labs. This was a really helpful experience as it made me realise that I don’t want to work in industry! I really enjoyed the project I did as part of my MSc in Immunology at Imperial. I had half a year of lectures and then completed my research project with Professor Clare Lloyd, whose group I am working in now.
Lauren - Before coming here I did my undergraduate degree at King’s College London which I extended into an MSci that was Integrated Physiology and Pharmacology for Research. However in order to do the BSc I had to do an Access course as I didn’t actually have A Levels. I applied to a few universities for two different courses and I got offers from King’s and London Southbank which I thought was miraculous. It always seemed like it was A Levels or nothing, I was offered a place and I really enjoyed it.
Karim - I did my undergraduate degree London in Biochemistry at Kings College London and then I moved to Imperial to do an MSc in Immunology.
Kunyuan - When I was at high school in Singapore I decided that I wanted to study at a university in London so I applied for an undergraduate degree in Biomedical Sciences at University College London. I then did my MSc in Immunology here at Imperial and was a research assistant over at Imperial College’s Hammersmith campus before starting my PhD.
Why did you choose Imperial?
Karim - I was already at Imperial for a year doing my MSc and I really liked it, and I knew I wanted to work within the field of immunology and lung inflammation. I knew Imperial had an excellent department so I thought I’d apply.
Helen - It was actually more down to chance! I knew I wanted to study Immunology and in Germany there are a couple of universities that are renowned for Immunology, and one of those was where I did my undergraduate degree. I knew I didn’t necessarily want to stay in the same city or at the same university so I started applying to places abroad and Imperial’s MSc just looked really interesting. They had a scholarship which was easy to apply for, and even though I didn’t get it, I still came and I don’t regret it.
Lauren - After completing my BSc in Pharmacology at King’s College London I actually had a PhD lined up in Australia. It was my dream to go out there but my husband said he didn’t want to go! I told him that I would apply for this PhD at Imperial, thinking I was never going to get it so we could still go to Australia…but then I ended up getting it! It’s been such an amazing opportunity; I never could have dreamed of coming here.
Nicoletta - It’s quite funny actually, I applied and didn’t really know that Imperial had such a good reputation for research! It was only once I started that I realised how lucky I was.
Do you have any advice for someone considering a PhD?
Helen - It’s difficult to say now because I’m still quite early in, but I think your heart has to be in it. There will be some difficult times somewhere along the line and if you’re not enjoying research, don’t do it. But I do think anyone can do it if you set your mind to it.
Karim - The advice that I would give to anyone thinking about doing a PhD would be to get a feel of the lab and supervisor beforehand if possible. If you can, go and meet with the principal investigator , go for an informal chat, go and see the labs, and see if they have all the equipment and funding you might want or need.
Nicoletta - It needs commitment and it can be stressful but it’s worth it. It’s good because you keep challenging yourself all the time and you have to keep up to date on what everyone else is doing. You need to be motivated because you don’t get paid much and you still have to work at weekends. But you get to work with clinicians and that’s quite unique as you don’t get to do that with many other places in Europe. Here you get clinicians working alongside pure scientists and you can learn from each other.
Kunyuan - Talk to postdocs because they are in a really interesting position – they’ve already done their PhD so can talk about their experience and at the same time they are still working up the ladder, so they are a very good source of advice.
Lauren - Go for it! The skills that you learn are so transferable, and if you enjoy learning and education, a PhD is perfect.
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