7 Sep 2017

CCS PhD student profile: Emily King on mitochondria and diabetes

Emily King at the 2017 CCS 3MT heats
by Matt Jane

Emily King is a PhD student in the Molecular Metabolism and Ageing Laboratory at the Baker Institute. She is supervised by Dr Brian Drew, Dr Anna Calkin and Dr Darren Henstridge. Emily completed a Bachelor of Microbiology and Biochemistry at the University of Sydney and moved to Melbourne to undertake her PhD in Philosophy, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Emily has previously worked as a Medical Representative for Invida Pharmaceutical Holdings and as a Research Assistant at the Heart Research Institute.


What is your research about?

I want to better understand type 2 diabetes at the cellular level so that we can improve its management. Type 2 diabetes is still a leading risk factor for heart attack and strokes and it affects a significant number of Australians.

My research investigates tiny little components within muscle that we know are damaged in people with type 2 diabetes. I want to know when and how this damage comes about. I would love to prove that it’s a factor before diabetes develops and use this information to guide treatment or prevention strategies.

There's an expanding field of understanding around how these tiny components, which are called mitochondria, are regulated and how we can keep them healthy. Therefore, my project is becoming two-fold. It's understanding how mitochondria are involved in the development of type 2 diabetes but mitochondrial biology in mammals is still not well understood. This means I’m also trying to better understand how mitochondria are regulated and new techniques we can use to measure that.

I'm using genetically engineered cell and animal models. Two of my models will aim to damage mitochondrial health and see whether that can lead to the development of key factors in diabetes such as insulin resistance. Another model will hopefully improve the function of mitochondria to see if that can potentially rescue or treat a mouse that has insulin resistance.


Have you always been interested in this area? What made you choose to do this for your PhD?

I struggled to make a decision on which path I’d take in high school. I studied modern history, French and art but then I also studied maths and science. I got to year 11 and had to pick which way I was going to go. I chose science.

I finished my undergrad and then did my honours degree. After that, I became a medical sales representative for a pharmaceutical company for a year and a half. Partly because I wasn’t sold on research as a career. I wanted to see if my skills were better suited to another area where I was dealing with people on a more regular basis. In the end, it wasn’t really for me. However, I picked up a lot of good skills that I’ve been able to apply to a career in science.

After I finished working at the pharmaceutical company, I really wanted to live and work overseas. I was tossing up between a few different countries but settled on Italy because the language and people are beautiful. I’d also never been there before and thought it would be a great challenge.

I think that year off and going to Italy was getting back in touch with that artistic side of me that I’d had to leave behind in some respect. I think I’m starting to find and get really excited that there are scientists that do art, there are scientists that do photography, there are scientists that make educational videos. I think you can combine both science and art and it’ll be really interesting to see where that leads me.

I somewhat fell into the area of studying diabetes. I was always really involved in studying infectious diseases throughout university. After my break, I came back and ended up moving into the area of cardiovascular disease and diabetes research. I became really interested in mitochondria. It’s an unexpected path because the subjects that were related to that at university, I hated. But once I started to better understand mitochondria and how they are linked to so many diseases, that’s when I really got interested. With the skills I can get from my project, I can apply those to research in so many different areas. I’ll be able to use them in cancer research, neurodegenerative disease research and in diabetes research to just name a few.


Who is your supervisor and what’s your favourite thing about them?

My primary supervisor is Dr Brian Drew, who heads Molecular Metabolism and Ageing. I have two other supervisors. Dr Anna Calkin who heads Lipid Metabolism and Cardiometabolic Disease and Dr Darren Henstridge who has recently been named a group leader for Molecular Metabolism and Ageing.

It’s really nice having 3 supervisors and it’s nice to have a mix of male and female as well. I specifically shopped for good supervisors as I’ve had a mixture of experiences throughout my scientific career. I was a research assistant for two years and I recognised how important it is to be in a good environment.

I met with Brian the year before I started my PhD. We had a really honest chat about what I need and the way that I work and we just clicked.

Because I would be moving from Sydney to Melbourne to start the PhD, it was really important to find supportive supervisors. They’re supportive in terms of the science but also emotionally. I’ve been really grateful that I have supervisors I can go to for any reason.


Have you had any light bulb moments whilst studying?

Scientifically, it’s difficult. You go into your PhD with a certain idea of what will happen and it sounds very simple, but there are so many different intricacies within that so your project changes directions so many times. Although I need to focus on my original question to a certain degree, I have realised I need to be very open to the fact that it can change direction. I’m learning to try not to resist it but rather to embrace it because that’s the way the science is taking me.

Personally, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to try to get to certain points at certain times in the PhD program and I think that can be detrimental to your research and your wellbeing. A light bulb moment I had was realising I need to try to let go of the guilt and the expectation and just try to let it be.


You recently competed in the Three Minute Thesis competition. What were the difficulties and benefits of participating in this competition?

It’s probably the hardest and simultaneously most rewarding thing I’ve done in the last year and half of my PhD.

It’s a very personal experience. I was very unprepared for how nervous I would be getting up in front of people to speak for three minutes with no cues and having to perform it. I think because our research is something only we know about and we’re so invested in it, we sort of want that to come across and we want people to connect with it.

I found it really difficult to find a good balance between connecting with people and sharing the data. It's really difficult to communicate complex concepts in a way that still maintains the integrity of the science. Learning how to navigate that is a skill in itself.

The benefit of the competition is that you have to understand your research in a very different context. You’re trying to explain to people that know nothing about the area and come from a different background. So to try and find ways of connecting with every single person in the audience regardless of age or gender was very interesting. I spoke to lots of different friends, frequently non-scientist friends, about their understanding of diabetes. To get that alternative perspective was a really big benefit for me. Communicating our work to others actually helps us because I think you get so focused on what you’re doing and you kind of take it as assumed knowledge. When you start actually communicating it to people, it helps consolidate the concepts you have come to learn. It helps you actually realise how much you know about this area and it's quite rewarding in that way because sometimes you forget.

I’m quite passionate about having scientists communicate to the general public because I think that a lot gets lost in translation. We have so much excitement about what we do and I think that comes across when we communicate. As long as we can communicate in a way that means something to people and we’re excited about it then I think that could have really big implications for where science goes and how people think about it. The 3MT helped me learn how to start doing that.


What are your plans post-PhD?

I’m quite open. The reason I wanted to do a PhD is that I was enjoying science and I still am. I understand that there are a lot of challenges facing biomedical research so I guess it will depend on where the industry is at when I finish.

There are a lot of options available to PhD students, whether it be science communication or moving into industry or into teaching. I guess I'll have to wait and see.

I think it's fairly well accepted that if you want to be successful in academic research it’s beneficial to do a stint overseas.  If I’m aiming at staying in academia by the time I get to the end then it’s definitely something I would consider quite strongly.

I always thought labs in the United States were very strong in diabetes research but now that I’m moving more into metabolism, there’s some really strong research being done in Europe. So ideally somewhere in Europe would be great but we shall wait and see.


What do you like to do in your spare time? 

Although it might be difficult and it’s definitely something I have struggled with so far in my PhD, I think it’s really important to keep a good work-life balance.

About a year ago I started getting into rock-climbing. I began climbing indoors then after about six months I progressed to outdoors. Climbing is a really good incentive to get out of the city, go camping and have a break from your day-to-day PhD life. A couple of months ago I did my lead climbing assessment. So rather than climbing with a safety rope above you the whole time, you take your rope up with you and clip it in as you go. It requires more skill and a lot more consideration for safety.

It’s actually kind of interesting; I started climbing as a social thing as it is a great way to meet people. But it’s also quite a mental challenge, which is good to distract you from a whole range of PhD-related stress. And if the PhD is starting to get too much, climbing on a wall and falling like four metres can really put stuff into perspective.

I really enjoy staying active. I have a road bike, which I ride to work when the weather is good and I also play beach volleyball in the summer.

I’m also very keen on continuing to learn different languages. I’m slowly starting to learn Spanish and hope that I may get to use it in work or travel down the line.


Have you received any pearls of wisdom from your colleagues during your PhD?

A more senior PhD student recently helped me realise that I really need to adjust and manage my expectations of my PhD. She passed on some information from her mentor that “no-one has ever won a Nobel Prize for their PhD and no PhD project was ever designed to win.” It sounds obvious but I think a lot of us go in with really unrealistic expectations of what we can achieve in a short time. I think that curbing that expectation is crucial.


What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt whilst studying?

Being able to recognise that every PhD is different. Every student comes with different experiences, skills, and aspirations. It’s important to work out what you want out of the experience. Try to ignore what you think you should be doing and acknowledge the achievements of others around you but don’t let them get you down. Just focus on getting as much out of the experience as possible.


What advice do you have for others starting a PhD?

I think the atmosphere is incredibly important. Make sure you do your research and understand the supervisor and people who are working in the lab. If you get a chance, meet with your supervisor before deciding where you are going to go and also chat with people who work in the lab. Those discussions can be a really good indicator of what the culture is like in the lab.

I also personally highly recommend taking a break after the honours degree. Either in a completely different industry or at least being a research assistant for a little while to work out what you like and where your passions lie.
The more you become familiar with what areas you like and what you’re wanting to spend time on, the better.

I believe it’s quite a good idea to go into a lab that has other students. For a PhD student, it’s definitely a sort of navigational process and I think it would be very beneficial to have someone that’s a year of two ahead of you. There are many unexpected things you will come across and it would be really helpful to have someone that had recently struck those moments to help guide you through.



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