The British Heart Foundation (BHF) Centres of Research Excellence (CoRE) were established in 2008 in four UK locations, one of which is the Centre for Cardiovascular Science at Edinburgh's Queen's Medical Research Institute. Part of the initiative is a PhD programme designed to attract students from the physical sciences. EUSci spoke to Kirsten Rose and Rachel Verdon, who entered the programme in 2009, about their experience.
Q: What is the BHF CoRE PhD programme?
KR: The programme tries to bring people from different backgrounds to study biology. I did a chemistry degree (RV: and I did a chemical engineering degree). It's a 'one plus three' year course, meaning that initially we did a Masters course which allowed us to do three different projects across different sectors. I did a project that spanned biology and chemistry. That led us on to doing PhDs.
Q: What made you apply?
KR: I studied at Imperial College, one of the other BHF CoREs. I had a friend a couple of years above me who initially studied chemistry and went onto the CoRE programme, and it was talking to her and listening to her experiences that sparked my interest in applying.
RV: An email actually. I did have some cross-over with biology, which were the parts I found most interesting. I thought I was stuck going down the chemical engineering path, so when I heard about a course that would take students from different backgrounds, I thought this was a great opportunity.
Q: What have you found most difficult?
KR: It has been quite challenging knowing where to start and what to learn. It's not so much the science in the lab that's difficult, because you always have to be shown how to do new things, and once you've been shown it's just a case of practising. It's the background behind why you're doing the science that's sometimes a bit more difficult to get your head around.
RV: I agree. I found at the start that I struggled with a lot of the tutorials, just because we were going straight into these papers in really specific areas. But the first project I did was a bioinformatics one with Donald Dunbar, which was really perfect for me, because I feel more at home with computer programs, and which has been a part of the other projects I've done since. So, challenging at first, but it seems to have worked out quite well.
Q: What's been your favourite aspect of the experience?
RV: The project I just did, I really loved. This used zebrafish, and finding out how much you could learn just from one organism was something I just couldn't appreciate before–so much information from something so different from humans.
KR: For me, my favourite bit is feeling like I now have a PhD tailored exactly to me, and to what I want to do. I really did want to do something that spanned chemistry and biology, so they got me in touch with one of the professors over in the chemistry building, Professor Mark Bradley. For a lot of PhDs you apply for a supervisor, at a university, for a title [of the PhD]. I feel I've had the opportunity to come up with a title for myself, and that's the best thing.
Q: Do you feel that your previous experience has transferred well?
KR: Definitely for me because I'm working in a chemistry lab and putting all the things I learned in my chemistry degree into play. But I also have a [supervising] professor from biology, so it's not just a chemistry project.
RV: At first I couldn't tell, and it felt like I was learning everything from scratch, but in the most recent project I did, some of the imaging stuff felt quite familiar to me. The PhD I'm going to be doing with Dr Sari Pennings is actually designed by us both, combining her background in epigenetics, but making use of my background in engineering, which is a lot to do with fluid flow, which I studied for close to four years.
Q: Would you recommend this to other students thinking about entering the programme?
RV: It's a unique opportunity. I managed to do this in a year, and start a PhD in something that I had almost no knowledge of before. I've really enjoyed it, and would recommend it to anyone who's interested, even if they think they wouldn't be able to do it.
KR: I knew nothing about biology at all before I started at the centre, so they've literally taken me from scratch, and designed a programme around my needs, so I would recommend it to anyone who doesn't want to be pigeonholed into physical science, and wants to take a look at what's out there.