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Winning the AJ Clark Studentship: a leap of faith and finding my passion

Published: 02 Mar 2018
Category: Young pharmacologists, Prizes, awards and grants
By Matilda Kennard

It’s safe to say that I didn’t get into pharmacology the traditional way.

After my A-Levels, having failed to get into medicine, I spent a year working in a residential home and consequently decided to study BSc Adult Nursing at King’s College London (KCL). I really enjoyed this degree but unfortunately, after 18 months, I had to leave due to health problems.

I was worried about what I was going to do next but took a huge leap of faith and decided to study BSc Pharmacology back at KCL, starting in September 2015. During my nursing course I always wanted to know more about the mechanisms of the diseases I observed and drugs that I administered, so I suppose I can trace my passion for pharmacology right back to this.

I found the first few months of my pharmacology course extremely difficult, having not studied core science for three years. I spent the first six weeks working non-stop to catch up and reach the same level as everyone else but in the end this certainly paid off.

Applying for the AJ Clark Studentship

I first became interested in studying for a PhD in my second year when I was tasked with planning and undertaking my own laboratory project. During this year I became particularly interested in diabetes and asked Dr Aileen King (who would go on to be one of my supervisors for the AJ Clark Studentship) whether I could undertake a summer placement in her laboratory.

I was lucky enough to be awarded the Wellcome Trust Vacation Scholarship and spent 10 weeks undertaking research to help characterise a new mouse model of diabetes. I absolutely loved this summer experience and so went back to Dr King to ask about potential PhD opportunities.

Alongside Dr Manasi Nandi, an expert in telemetry, we spent many weeks developing and submitting a PhD project to be considered for the AJ Clark Studentship.

I had my AJ Clark interview at the Society’s offices in January. I came out of the interview feeling that it had gone fairly well – but I was genuinely astounded when I heard back from the Society, offering me the Studentship.

My PhD project

The project I will be undertaking using my AJ Clark funding involves using telemetry, a new method for continuous blood glucose monitoring.

Currently, one of the biggest problems with standard, single blood glucose measurement is that it doesn’t capture 24-hour variability and requires significant animal handling. For example, preliminary research suggests that blood glucose continually fluctuates, particularly in diabetic mice, with handling potentially skewing results by itself increasing glucose concentration. We hope that continuous blood glucose telemetry will allow better characterisation of current diabetic models to determine the best time points for drug intervention.

I strongly believe that telemetry could improve both science and animal welfare and can’t wait to start this project.

Looking to the future

I’m open minded about my long-term career aims, but I do know that this PhD will open many doors for me. For example, it will make it possible, if I want to, to stay in academia and progress to become a principal investigator one day.

I am also very passionate about promoting science, encouraging more women into STEM careers and speaking openly about animal research, so I am looking forward to becoming more involved in the Society and its outreach activities.

My advice to potential AJ Clark Studentship applicants

1. Get as much research experience as you can.

Undertaking laboratory practicals during your degree is always beneficial, even if they don’t always work out the way you hope. During my summer project I spent many (sometimes frustrating!) weeks optimising techniques due to technical issues which gave me a far more realistic outlook on scientific research. The work I undertook contributed to a published abstract, which would also have strengthened my application.

Do summer or extramural year placements if you can; this demonstrates commitment to research and allows you to work more closely with lecturers who may then offer you PhD projects.

2. Get as involved as possible with project planning.

This is really important to ensure that you fully understand the details of the project in preparation for interview – you will be grilled so you need to know your stuff!

3. Get as much interview practice as possible and try to relax.

I had a number of mock interviews which were hugely valuable in helping me to produce concise answers under pressure. I never expected to receive the Studentship and went into my interview thinking that it would simply be good practice for the future. But my guess is that being able to talk calmly but passionately about my project did a lot to help my chances of success.

If you are thinking of applying for the AJ Clark Studentship, then my final piece of advice is simply to go for it! I took a huge leap of faith even starting a pharmacology degree and if you had told me six years ago when I didn’t get into medicine that I would be doing this PhD with this prestigious funding, I would never have believed you.

I feel hugely honoured to have been chosen for the 2018 AJ Clark Studentship and hope that my experience and advice gives you the determination to give it a go and apply for 2019.

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