Hi, my name is Kathryn McGurk and I am a cardiovascular genetics researcher – I study DNA changes that lead to heart attacks and strokes. My PhD is with the Division of Cardiovascular Sciences here at UoM, funded by the Medical Research Council.
How I got here
At secondary school I loved Biology and Chemistry, and after working as a medical receptionist, I knew I wanted to be in healthcare. I studied Natural Sciences for my undergraduate degree at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland – a general sciences course which allows you to specialise in the last two years in a science of your choice. I joined thinking I would become a chemist, but fell in love with DNA studies and therefore specialised in genetics. My final year project was trying to find out what animal an unknown 8,000 year old piece of bone can from, using DNA analyses (it was a sheep!). After this project and work experience reading DNA for a breast cancer testing kit, I knew I wanted to do a PhD in genetics and aid in cures for disease.
For my Ph.D., I use mass spectrometry to measure fats in blood. A mass spectrometer is a machine that can measure substances at really low concentration in blood. These fats are not like cholesterol, as they can kill cells, change the size of blood vessels, and cause pain. I am trying to find out if the levels of these fats in families with high blood pressure are passed down from parents to children through DNA. I will also find if their concentrations in blood are linked to DNA – if they are increased or decreased with changes in DNA. Changes in DNA change proteins which are formed from DNA. If a DNA change makes a protein which cannot produce a fat anymore, the fat might be at low levels in the blood of people with this DNA change, which could be good or bad for heart attack and stroke risk. I hope that by identifying fats which are important in cardiovascular disease genetics, they can be used to make new tests and treatments for heart attacks and strokes.
A typical month for me involves extracting fats from blood samples in the lab and running these on the mass spectrometer. I then go through the data the mass spectrometer produces and work out the concentrations of each fat in each family member. After some important data checks, I can use computer software to see if these fats are passed down through families and if DNA has a role in their levels in blood. I love how many different activities my work involves; lab work, mass spectrometry, and computer programming. Alongside research there is a lot of fun activities that I can get involved in – I am a student representative to help students with any troubles they have and I am a widening participation fellow, so I get the opportunity to teach A-levels students research skills and produce science workshops for students thinking about university. A PhD allows a lot of travel; I trained twice in Cambridge last year and I was given the opportunity to travel to Cape Town, South Africa this year to meet students there and learn more about genetics. With this Ph.D. I can stay in a university setting in the hopes of setting up my own lab someday, become a teacher, or work with industrial labs to help drugs being developed.
Read: An obvious choice, but a great scientific read: http://www.nature.com/
Search: The Google of medical research: www.pubmed.com
Watch: David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8aFcHFu8QM
More: Women in Science Blog: https://womenareboring.wordpress.com/