Straight from The Heart

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Matisse Fox is a Medical Science student currently completing her honours thesis with the Molecular Cardiology Group of the Centenary Institute, University of Sydney.

My Honours thesis focuses on an inherited cardiomyopathy called Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy (ARVC). The prevalence of ARVC is estimated as 1 in 5000 and is one of the leading causes of arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death in the young, particularly athletes.

My project has 3 facets: analysing the clinical characteristics of our patients, pursuing gene discovery on genetically unexplained ARVC families and developing a stem cell line to explore the phenotype of disease. The most exciting, hands-on part of my work is the cellular aspect. We took blood from an affected patient and reprogrammed their cells to turn them into stem cells. We are able to turn those stem cells into any type we like such as bone, skin or heart cells. Once the stem cells are differentiated into cardiomyocytes, they beat like a heart in the dish. Before starting my project, I had never read a cardiac MRI or post mortem report, assessed the pathogenicity of a variant or used an electronic pipette. Now these are everyday tasks that form the foundation for larger and more stimulating investigations.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to learn from a diverse group that includes cardiologists, genetic counsellors, post-doctoral researchers, PhD and Masters students, and have found a mentor that I look up to both professionally and personally. Though we work long hours (the majority of which I’ve spent completely confused!), we can see the translation of our research into clinical practice when we tell a family which gene caused the sudden death of their 15 year old son, or when we can release a family from lifelong disease screening. These results for our patients make everything we do worthwhile.

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A Summer Researching Nanoparticles

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Lauren Minne is a Third Year Chemical Engineering/Science Student who recently completed a Summer scholarship with the school of Chemistry at the University of Sydney.

Over the summer of 2016-2017, I was involved in a supervised research project based around the synthesis of polymer nanoparticles, the like of which are currently being investigated for their use in drug delivery to tumours. This opportunity came in the form of a Summer Research Scholarship within Dr Markus Muellner’s Polymer Nanostructures group. My experience as a Summer Scholar was excellent, and offered fantastic insight into the world of scientific research.

Over the course of the project, I benefitted from academic support and guidance from my supervisor, as well as other PHD and Masters students within my research group, whilst also enjoying a level of independence in my daily lab work. I was included in decisions about the direction of the research I was undertaking, mostly in the form of constantly modified and refined experimental methods, responding to favourable (and unfavourable) results.

As a Summer Scholar, I had access to advanced analysis equipment, such as the HNMR and GPC (Gel Permeation Chromatography) technologies, allowing me to develop lab skills not generally utilised by second year chemistry students. I was also able to observe and interact with full-time researchers, and gained a better understanding of what a career in scientific research entails.

Overall, this project provided a fulfilling, productive and enjoyable way to spend a part of my summer vacation, and enabled my general lab skills and understanding of science to grow immensely.

When life doesn’t go according to plan

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Annabel Ellis is in her third year of a Bachelor of Science (Advanced) majoring in Biology and completed a Summer Research Scholarship at the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment during the Summer 2015/2016 holidays.

Ever since I was a child, I’ve dreamed of being a scientist. Being the curious person that I am, I love the question-inducing and problem-solving nature of science. I distinctly remember the moment my parents explained to me what a zoologist was. For a seven year old, studying animals sounded like a pretty cool job, so it was added to the list: doctor, veterinarian, teacher and zoologist. By ten, my heart was set on being a biologist.

‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’; the question asked of all school children, inspiring imagination and dreams. As we get older, it morphs into something different; something less inspiring and more stress-inducing.

‘What’s your five/ten year plan?’; the question asked of all interviewees. But what if life doesn’t follow your plan?My five year plan looked something like this:

  • Finish high school: check.
  • Get into my first preference university course: check.
  • Do volunteer fieldwork in my first year holidays: check.
  • Receive a summer research scholarship in my second year holidays: …

When I received my first rejection letter, I didn’t know what to think. I’ve always been so certain of where I wanted my career to go, that when faced with a closed door, I questioned my entire life’s plan. Those more experienced than me chuckled at my naïveté, there were plenty more rejections to come.

After three rejected applications, my persistence (or stubbornness) finally payed off and I was lucky enough to receive a summer research scholarship in microbiology. A mixture of excitement and fear followed me into my first few days, learning so much new information and skills. As I became more familiar with the experimental techniques and laboratory, work settled into a routine.

My project was in microbiology, so most of the time I was in the laboratory culturing bacteria from koalas. Unfortunately, bacteria aren’t quite as cute and interactive as one of Australia’s most iconic species. Some days I longed to be outside in the beautiful Australian bush, away from the tedium of bacteria. However, when I listened to my supervisor explain the applications they hope their research will achieve, I was struck by how important those tedious moments in the laboratory were. When you’re stuck in life’s intricacies, it can be hard to see the big picture.

I had the privilege to go to a koala hospital and see the amazing work the staff and volunteers do in rehabilitating sick and injured koalas. Looking into the faces of these beautiful animals, I knew that, regardless of whether life follows my plan, I am living my childhood dream.

 

The journey from Science to Medicine

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Maryam Eghtedari is a first year medical student at the University of Sydney. Maryam graduated from Bachelor of Science (Advanced) with majors in Anatomy and Neuroscience in 2016.

Studying at Sydney Science was full of invaluable academic and personal experiences. It feels as though it was very recently when I started my first year at university with subjects such as maths, physics, chemistry and biology. The first year of science at Sydney is mainly focused on making the transition to university studies and getting an idea about the scientific areas that students are interested in. There is a wide range of interesting subjects offered in second year, which makes choosing amongst them pleasantly difficult! I chose topics such as anatomy, biochemistry and physiology and a Talented Student Program (TSP) project in cardiology at the Charles Perkins Centre. I profoundly enjoy learning about the human anatomy and the complexity of our brain, and therefore completed a double major in neuroscience and anatomy in my third year, which included TSP projects at the Save Sight Institute and the Brain and Mind Centre.

Being a resident at The Women’s College during my university education has been a great privilege – I have benefited from a fantastic network of mentors and friends who have supported me in my academic and extracurricular activities. Getting involved in clubs and societies at university and college is a great way to learn about service and leadership in our community and has certainly helped me develop important skills, which are crucial for effective communication and teamwork on the wards in medicine.

My experiences in undergraduate years provided me with a great foundation to embark my medical career upon this year. It has been very challenging but also incredibly rewarding to be a medical student at Sydney University. We have five blocks during an academic calendar in year 1 and 2, each of which covers the clinical manifestations and pathophysiology of a different body system; for example the remaining blocks for the year are haematology and cardiology. I am grateful to have the opportunity to learn from expert clinicians and to speak with kind-hearted patients who generously donate their time for us to learn. It is also a highlight of the course to study alongside peers who come from all walks of life, and have backgrounds in various areas including arts, health policy, philosophy, law, music and research to name a few.

I am thrilled for the future of my degree – to study clinical medicine and to learn about ways that we can reduce the burden of diseases in our community. It has also been a pleasure to learn about the experiences and aspirations of my peers in the National Science Week blog this year. It is fascinating that we have all taken unique paths in our STEMM careers, which is a reflection of the breadth of opportunities available in science and the diversity of the future scientists of our country. I hope that through these blog series, we have played some small part in showcasing a portion of what this amazing discipline has to offer.

 

 

Get to know a future Chemical Engineer

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Sophie Driver (left) and Lauren Minne (right).

Sophie Driver Political, Economic and Social Science student interviews Lauren Minne, second year Chemical Engineering/Science student for our National Science Week Blog. Both Sophie and Lauren are residents at The Women’s College. 

Sophie: Why did you choose engineering as a degree?

Lauren: I quite liked chemistry in school, as well as maths, and felt that this degree combined them nicely. I also felt that chemical engineering, combined with science, would allow me to work in a few different industries, so I wouldn’t be limited once I graduated.

Sophie: What is a normal day like in your degree?

Lauren: I have uni 4 days a week, for a total of around 20 hours, so my days generally start at 8 am with a lecture. After this I have a combination of lectures, tutorials and practicals, with a lunch break in the middle of the day.

Sophie: Did you do maths and science in high school? Is there a lot of maths and physics in engineering?

Lauren: I studied maths and chemistry in school, but never took physics (ancient history looked more interesting to me!). The maths in chemical engineering has been pretty straight forward so far, but the physics components have been a bit of a challenge this semester.

Sophie: What is the best part of your degree?

Lauren: I really enjoy that I’ve been able to get to know some of the other people in my course, as all chemical engineers have to do several core subjects. I also find the content of the degree quite interesting, and really appreciate that I haven’t had to write an essay since high school! The way my subjects are taught, with lectures to introduce the content, and then tutorials to consolidate the concepts suits me well, although I still find the large lecture sizes less effective compared to the small classes in high school.

Sophie: What’s the most challenging part of your degree?

Lauren: The high amount of contact hours mean subjects are quite dense and fast paced. Four hour practicals can feel quite lengthy on a Friday afternoon! I have found the increased group work this year a bit of a challenge, but also appreciate that this is preparing me for the way work is conducted in industry (or so I’m told!).

Sophie: What field would you like to work in when you finish uni? What is your dream career?

Lauren: I’m still pretty open as to which field I’d like to work in, but at the moment I’m quite interested in the pharmaceutical industry.

Sophie: What internship opportunities are available for chemical engineering students?

Lauren: Most internships are available at the end of third year. Chemical engineering also offers the MIPPS (Major Industrial Project Placement Scholarship) program, where students spend the first semester of their fourth year working in the industry. For students studying a combined degree with science, there’s also the Summer Research Scholarship program, which I’m hoping to partake in at the end of the year.

Sophie: How have you found the transition from first year to second year?

Lauren: The content of first year chemical engineering subjects was quite general as there was a mix of civil, mechanical and biomedical engineering students, as well as first year science students. Second year subjects include more group work tasks, with the content being more challenging and unique to chemical engineering students.

Sophie: If you weren’t doing an engineering degree, what would you study?

Lauren: I would probably have chosen a psychology, marketing or history degree.

Sophie: And finally, what would you say are the most important things to remember as an engineering student?

Lauren: Stay on top of your lectures, ask for help if you’re not understanding something, and eventually, hard work will always be rewarded. Also, Bernoulli’s equation is pretty important, but hopefully you’ll get that on a formula sheet!

Mental as Anything

 

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Emma Castle is a second year Bachelor of Science student and an aspiring Neuroscientist.

When you feel sick you go to a doctor, right? But what do you do when are feeling ‘mentally unwell’? With the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008) estimating 45% of Australians will experience a mental health condition in their life time and only 35% of those suffering access treatment. This issue was recently brought to my attention after friends of mine began to share photos of themselves and information about the high suicide rates in men under 45 with #ITSOKAYTOTALK. I really believe this is a great initiative to encourage dialogue between people about mental health, as often people are too scared to talk about it. In my life I have had exposure to a variety of mental illnesses and how it affects people in so many different ways. Mental health should be considered as important as physical health and conditions such as depression and anxiety should be viewed in a similar light as any other physical health condition.

It is often difficult for people talk about their mental health, many feel judged as a result of the stigma associated with mental disorders. This comes around because of many misconceptions about mental illness so here are some common mental health myths or so called facts I would like to debunk

  1. Mental illnesses are incurable.

This is totally wrong, just like the common cold you can be cured. The treatments associated with mental illness may be different and take longer than a course of antibiotics but it does not mean they are incurable.

  1. People with mental illnesses can ‘snap out of it’.

Again totally wrong, this perception is often a view about individuals with depression. Depression is not a personal weakness or a character flaw, it is a condition caused by many different factors such as genetic, biological, social and environmental.

  1. Taking anti-depressants is a cop-out.

No way! Many of these illnesses are caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, by taking these drugs it can fix this imbalance and help to manage their condition.

  1. I can do nothing to help someone suffering from mental illness.

Absolutely wrong! The best thing for someone suffering from a mental illness is to have a strong support network. Talk to them, let them know you are there to listen and support them!

I’m not Neil Armstrong but I hope it this is a step in the right direction in order to one day make a giant leap in combatting mental illness stigma. I would like to encourage you to keep an eye on your friends and family. For further information about mental health check out the following links.

Beyond Blue

https://www.beyondblue.org.au/

University of Sydney Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)

http://sydney.edu.au/current_students/counselling/

Headspace

http://www.headspace.org.au

The Black Dog Institute

www.blackdoginstitute.org.au

Gender Centre

http://www.gendercentre.org.au

Imandari Counselling

http://www.imanadari.com

References:

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 2007. Cat. no. (4326.0) Canberra: ABS.

Government of Western Australia: Mental Health Commission: http://www.mentalhealth.wa.gov.au/mental_illness_and_health/Myths_mental_illness.aspx

 

 

 

Can exercise tracker devices help increase physical activity?

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Lucy Corbett is in the fifth year of her B Science/ B Education at the University of Sydney and is completing her honours in Education. Lucy’s thesis aims to explore the potential motivational impact wearable activity trackers have on adolescent’s motivation for physical activity.

Fitbit, Garmin, Misfit, Jawbone. Recently there has been a proliferation of physical activity trackers marketed for commercial use. Television advertising campaigns for these devices, such as Fitbit’s “Find your fit”, and widespread availability of these devices signify the integration of activity trackers into the mainstream consumer market.

Physical activity trackers offer an interactive analysis of health measures such as steps, caloric expenditure and active minutes. Physical activity monitoring is important beyond the benefits to an individual user. Data and motivational properties can be used in the development of company or school policies and programs to increase an individual’s physical activity levels and reduce the problem of non-communicable diseases. Wearable activity trackers such as Fitbits have the potential to create widespread practical application due to their low cost and ease of use. Despite these benefits, there is currently limited research focused on these devices and whether they influence an individual’s motivation for physical activity or if they are simply another gimmick in the “fitness fashion trend” that is taking over the world? The aim of my thesis is to determine the effect physical activity trackers have on the motivation of adolescent girls for physical activity.

Physical inactivity is a major problem in today’s society and is now identified as the fourth leading cause of mortality worldwide. Inactivity is a major contributor to the increasing prevalence of obesity, cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, type II diabetes and cancer. Inactivity levels are rising with major correlations to the rise of non-communicable diseases and the general health of the population. Positive physical activity behaviour developed in childhood correlates with higher levels of physical activity in adulthood. Therefore, it is important for young people to maintain a healthy level of physical activity in school years. Currently, within Australia, approximately only 60% of adolescents achieve the recommended amount of activity. As individuals progress from adolescence into adulthood, the level and intensity of activity decreases with age. As a nation we need to become more physically active. If wearable activity trackers effectively increase motivation and can be used in activity programs or for the development of broader social policies, they will be. We just need to determine whether they work as a motivational tool.