Nina Rzechorzek completed her Nuffield Research Placement in 2000 in the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She is currently a Wellcome Trust Clinical Fellow, completing an integrated training Fellowship for Veterinarians back at the University of Edinburgh.
What was your project about?
The project focused on a chronic inflammatory disorder of the lower airways in horses known as recurrent airway obstruction (RAO). Equine RAO is one of the most common respiratory conditions of horses and is important because it compromises welfare and limits performance. Similar to human asthma, RAO is exacerbated by exposure to environmental allergens and results in laboured breathing or ‘heaves’. The clinical signs are reversible with treatment that dilates the airways and by environmental dust control, however over time, recurrent inflammatory episodes can lead to permanent remodelling of the lung tissue.
At the time of the study, several mechanistic aspects of the disease were poorly understood, in particular the nature of the inflammatory response in the airways at the molecular level. Our objective was to explore the profile of inflammatory signals (‘cytokines’) produced in the airways of horses with RAO and compare this to horses without the disease. For this we used a technique called bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) which involves instilling fluid into the airways and retrieving it. The fluid then contains a variety of proteins and inflammatory cells, the proportions of which can help diagnose inflammatory airway disorders. After processing the fluid we performed routine analysis of gene expression for a panel of cytokines using the polymerase chase reaction (PCR). The project gave me valuable insight into the diagnosis and management of RAO, an understanding of experimental design, and training in laboratory methods that could be applied to answer questions of clinical importance. It was in effect my first taste of clinical academia.
What was the highlight/best bit of your placement?
The people; their dedication to use science to improve patient welfare and their generosity to share their time and knowledge with a school pupil who knew very little about research (and even less about horses!). They truly took me under their wings and I felt part of the team. My supervisor, Scott Pirie, taught me an extraordinary amount over a very short period – including how to cope with a steep learning curve. He also introduced me to other clinicians, researchers and technicians in the department, each with a different skill set, and each very willing to enhance my learning experience. Looking back, I am amazed at the things they let me try my hand at, but it certainly helped build my confidence. What also stood out was the care and respect shown for the patients and other animals involved in research – this was so important to see right at the start of my career. Working within the equine hospital, I had the chance to assist with a variety of other clinical cases – notably horses with dysautonomia or ‘grass sickness’, a progressive and largely fatal neurodegenerative disease that affects the ‘fight or flight’ arm of the nervous system. Seeing the demise of these patients without fully understanding why was life-changing – somehow I would end up in the world of neuroscience. After a few weeks at the Dick Vet I knew that I wanted to be both a research scientist and a clinician; I wanted to make a lasting contribution that would have an impact on human and animal patients. Needless to say, there was something very special about the place, which is why I came back.
What was your least favourite part of the placement?
I cannot think of a single moment that didn’t inspire me – in some ways it made going back to school quite difficult. Knowing Edinburgh weather, there were probably times when I wished the sun was shining more, but to be honest I have learnt to appreciate the beauty of the grey skies as well as the blue.
What is your current role?
I am currently a Wellcome Trust Clinical Fellow, completing an integrated training Fellowship for Veterinarians at the University of Edinburgh. The Fellowship comprises 6 years of funding - half for a PhD, and the other half for a specialist clinical residency programme. I completed my doctorate in 2015, based within the Chandran lab at the Centres for Clinical Brain Sciences and Regenerative Medicine. My thesis explored cooling-induced neuroprotection in human stem cell-derived neurons – a fast-paced area of research that aims to model brain disorders and discover new treatments for them ‘in a dish’. The Edinburgh Neuroscience hub also offered a fascinating insight into a whole spectrum of human neurodegenerative disorders, and interaction with the patients affected by them. Now in the second phase of the programme, I am training in veterinary Neurology and Neurosurgery under the supervision of Dr Marioni-Henry at R(D)SVS. My role incorporates teaching of undergraduate students and engaging with the public about our clinical and research activities. I continue to pursue both clinical and basic research, focused predominantly on cryobiology and regenerative neurology. The vibrant research base at Edinburgh goes from strength to strength, making it possible to work across campuses and within many Centres of research excellence – for instance, the Roslin Institute (where Dolly the sheep emerged) has since become the research arm of R(D)SVS. This means we can tackle questions from different perspectives and at multiple levels; from molecules and cells, to human and animal patients.
What path did you take after finishing your NRP and how has that led you to where you are today?
After A-levels I moved back to Edinburgh to complete a BSc in Physiology. During vacations I grabbed opportunities for working with animals and for research training, from sound recording spotted bowerbirds in the Australian outback, to leading a team on the world’s largest controlled-ascent medical research expedition to extreme altitude in Bolivia (Apex 2, www.apex-altitude.com). Being part of this expedition was hugely rewarding; it was high-geared training in time management, clinical trials, fundraising and logistics. The altitude research was headed by a group of talented Edinburgh medics, each of whom are becoming leaders in their own research fields and inspire me to forge ahead with clinical academia. An Honours project at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Research in Comparative Respiratory Medicine, looking at gene therapy-based manipulation of innate immunity in the sheep lung, was another opportunity to build research skills and work with an incredible team of scientists. These early years in Edinburgh culminated in several awards including The Ellis Prize in Physiology, The Physiology Society Prize and a World Leadership Forum Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) Student of the Year Award (Biology/Biotechnology). Finding my feet, I applied for veterinary medicine and in 2005 I started the degree course at Cambridge. Embarking on the vet course as a post-graduate came with its own challenges, but overall I really valued the grounding I had had in basic science and critical thinking, which helped me make the most of the vet school experience. By then however my bank balance was suffering - fortunately the collegiate supervision scheme meant that I could fund my tuition whilst teaching others – arguably the best way to learn things properly! I have many fond memories of vet school, including a trip to South Africa for a course on game capture pharmacology and undertaking further work into equine inflammatory airway disease for my elective research project, which earned the Pfizer Animal Health Prize.
Upon qualifying, I ‘cut my teeth’ in first-opinion practice in Warwickshire, dealing with a variety of companion animals. The practice was directed by three Edinburgh graduates and was an incredibly supportive training ground. It was hard to leave such a rewarding job, but when the opportunity came to apply for a Wellcome Trust Fellowship I felt compelled to make that leap. Whether it be by fate or by design, one interview has opened the door into a world of ‘cross-translational’ neuroscience, where coordinated efforts between medics, vets and non-clinical scientists will accelerate discovery for the benefit of all. As it happens, this is nothing new; pioneering veterinarians in the 18th century were human physician-scientists that essentially ‘branched out’ into other species.
Did you stay in touch with your supervisor?
I am delighted to say yes! Scott (now Professor) Pirie and many of the other people I worked with at R(D)SVS are still here 16 years on - I think that says something about the Dick Vet…The neurology residency is predominantly based within the Hospital for Small Animals – which reflects our case load, however we do also see large animal neurology cases and I still bug Scott and his colleagues across the road when we have interesting cases to discuss or collaborations to forge.
What would your advice be to young people thinking about a career in STEM?
The vast array of careers now available in STEM means that there is literally something for everyone, so take the time to consider all the options. When I was at school, scientific and clinical careers were considered as separate entities and the domain of the most academically gifted students – I confess that I had doubts about my ability to follow either, simply because I found arts subjects so much easier to grasp. But I knew where my passions lay, so I ploughed my efforts into science. That said, the opportunities I had at school (and since) to develop my creative side have definitely enhanced my research training and it is clear to me now how important art is to science and vice versa. The bottom line is, you don’t need to throw away your artistic talents to embrace STEM – in fact, please bring those talents with you – STEM needs them! I believe the only tools you really need to follow a career in STEM are (1) a desire to explore (2) dedication/diligence and (3) imagination. Other things that are crucially important (but come best with practice) include working well in a team, good time management/organisational skills, excellent communication skills, the ability to approach a problem from multiple angles and designing a research question that is FINER (feasible, interesting, novel, ethical, relevant).
Having or seeking out good mentorship early on is essential – mentors are people with the experience and foresight to help guide your decision making. One of my earliest mentors was the enlightened biology teacher I had at school who really drove me to apply for the NRP. Mr Smale sadly passed away with cancer at just 36, but the impact he made on me and my peers was a lasting one. I have had many great mentors since, but none of them have donned a panda suit in quite the way that Mr Smale did.
Finally, I recommend doing one thing each day that pushes you out of your comfort zone – whether this is talking to someone more senior to yourself, trying a new technique/approach, presenting ideas to your peers or just having a go at something completely different – this will stretch your boundaries and build your confidence, bit by bit.