Interviews with Scientists: Catriona Cunningham
Catriona is a final year PhD student on the EPSRC & MRC Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Regenerative Medicine programme at the University of Manchester. She is originally from Falkirk in Scotland and previously graduated from the University of Aberdeen with an MBChB in Medicine and an intercalated BSc (Hons) in Neuroscience. In her spare time, she enjoys scouting, crafts and playing board games.
We spoke to Catriona all about her work for this latest post in our Interviews with Scientists series.
Great to speak to you, Catriona! Let's start by finding out more about your PhD...
I’m investigating the effects of a mesenchymal stem cell therapy on post-stroke inflammation and recovery. Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) have been widely shown to promote recovery in preclinical models of stroke. While the main mechanism of action was thought to be cell replacement, this has now been shown to not be the case and focus has shifted towards the paracrine actions of the cells. MSCs secrete a wide range of chemokines, cytokines and growth factors, collectively termed the secretome. The secretome has been shown to promote repair through several mechanisms including decreasing inflammation, preventing cell apoptosis and by promoting endogenous repair mechanisms such as neurogenesis and angiogenesis. So far in my project, I have shown that priming MSCs with a pro-inflammatory stimulus (interleukin-1) drives the secretome towards a more anti-inflammatory and pro-trophic phenotype. More recently, I’ve shown that if you inject conditioned medium from primed cells into a mouse model of ischaemic stroke, it has a neuroprotective effect leading to reduced lesion sizes and improved recovery.
What made you want to pursue a career in your particular field?
My background is a little bit different from most other life science PhDs. I always loved science and wanted to help people, so I decided to study medicine. As the degree became more clinical and I gained a better understanding of what being a doctor would be like, I began to enjoy it less. During medical school I developed a fascination with neurology and understanding how the brain works so decided I wanted to do my intercalated BSc in neuroscience. I took a year out from medical school and went into the final year of the neuroscience degree programme in Aberdeen. It was an incredibly steep learning curve, but I had a phenomenal year and realised I was more passionate about science than medicine. So, when I graduated from my medical degree in 2014, I went immediately into my PhD and haven’t looked back since.
What advice would you give to someone just starting their PhD?
I think it’s really important to take ownership and drive the direction of your project. Suggest what experiments you want to do and what you want to focus on. Your PhD is the first step to becoming an independent researcher and you have to defend your work at the end of it.
What are you enjoying most about your PhD?
I’ve really enjoyed how much freedom my supervisor has given me. It’s been rewarding when ideas and experiments I’ve proposed have worked. I feel privileged to be part of such a supportive lab and love working with a great group of people.
Tell us a bit more about what you’re working on at the moment...
Right now, I’m mostly doing histology on the tissues from my stroke study to identify potential mechanisms of action of the MSC conditioned medium treatment.
What does a typical day in the lab look like for you?
I don’t really have a typical day, and the variety is one of the things I love most about science. This week I’ve been doing immunohistochemistry on my stroke brains and writing my thesis introduction during the longer incubation times. Last week, I spent most of my time at my desk planning my next study and working on a grant.
If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing?
I’d be a junior doctor on my way to becoming a neurologist or psychiatrist.
Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing?
I absolutely love being a cub scout leader. Planning and running camps, trips and our weekly pack meetings keeps me pretty busy. I also enjoy crafts, running and playing board games with friends.
What is it about your field of research that gets you most excited?
Where to begin? Regenerative medicine is still a relatively new field of research so there’s so much happening. The first stem cell therapy given marketing approval in Europe in 2014 and it’s exciting to think how many we could see reaching the clinic in the next few years.
What do you think are the biggest challenges currently facing life scientists and their work?
Within academia it’s definitely the job shortages and lack of job security. I know a number of absolutely fantastic early career researchers whom have been applying for fellowships and getting rejections.
Which scientists working today do you most admire, and why?
I’ve always admired scientists who’ve managed to translate basic science into clinical therapies because it’s something I aspire to do as well. One of them is Professor Peter Coffey, director of the London Project to Cure Blindness. His lab has developed a cell therapy for age-related macular degeneration that is currently in clinical trial. I saw him present earlier this year and it’s super exciting.
What’s your favourite science joke?
Ah! The element of surprise.
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
It’s way too difficult to choose one. In the field of regenerative medicine, it’s definitely induced pluripotent stem cell technology. Total game changer!
Thank you so much Catriona for a brilliant interview! We’re looking forward to hearing how your research progresses, and we wish you the best of luck.
Follow Catriona on Twitter @RegenMedCat
Check out Catriona’s blog, Science Cat, at www.sciencecat.co.uk
Find out more about her research and lab team here