Doctor, Doctor?


PhD student Feidhlim Dervin talks to Conor O’Nolan about his life as a postgrad and how his work could lead to a better understanding of heart disease

What is the official title of your PhD?


Investigation into WNT signalling effectors in atherothrombosis.

Explain the official title in English please.

Atherosclerosis is a chronic inflammatory disease characterised by the accumulation of lipids, fibrous elements and immune cells in medium to large arteries. Initial damage to the artery wall results in the accumulation of such cells, which over time build up at the site of damage, leading to plaque formation. Plaque build-up in the arteries can occur over a period of decades, resulting in partial or complete occlusion of the vessel. Oxygen deprivation from cessation of blood flow to heart muscle, due to blood platelets clumping at the plaque site, results in localised cardiac cell death leading to what it called a myocardial infarction, or more commonly, a heart attack. This process is known as atherothrombosis.

Recent evidence has uncovered that WNT signalling may play an important role in the regulation of atherothrombosis. However, due to the complex interactions between WNT family members and their inhibitors their physiological and pathological roles are far from clear. By tracing this cellular network and understanding the functional role of the proteins involved in the platelet response, my studies aim to characterise the role of WNT’s in atherothrombosis to help develop an understanding of the disease and provide novel insights into the cause of the heart disease.

What undergraduate degree course did you do?

I completed a four year B.Sc. in Pharmacology right here in UCD. The course was packed with really interesting modules such as ‘CNS Pharmacology’ where I learnt about different drugs of abuse such as cocaine, heroin and marijuana, and their effects on the body. Other modules such as ‘Molecular Basis of Disease’ covered a diverse array of diseases such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis and cardiovascular disease, whilst also covering the likes of microbial pathogenesis and Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Final year modules such as ‘Emerging Therapies’ and ‘Finding New Pharmaceuticals’ provided an insight into case studies of effective and ineffective therapeutic targeting and industry-focused processes such as drug patents, production, marketing and distribution and the role of regulatory authorities in drug approval.

What made you choose to do a PhD?

My undergraduate final year project was also in the area of cardiovascular disease and was completed under the supervision of Dr. Orina Belton in UCD’s Conway Institute. My time spent in the lab was a very enjoyable experience and from that I knew I wanted to continue down the same path, so when the opportunity arose to undertake a Science Foundation Ireland funded PhD with another UCD Conway Institute team led by Dr. Patricia Maguire, there was no question as to what my choice would be.

At the time there was emerging evidence from Dr. Maguire’s and other labs that identified WNT as an important contributor to atherothrombosis. My PhD project builds on these exciting findings to understand the role of WNT in the vasculature in disease. Given the potential role of WNT as a secreted endogenous regulator of both inflammation and platelet activation, several elements of the WNT pathway may prove to be targets for the development of therapies directed at atherothrombosis, closely aligning with my background in studying pharmacology.

What is the best thing about research?

From my brief time in research to date, it is an ever-changing experience. It allows you to grow not just academically but personally. Every day is a new challenge; be it demonstrating to undergraduate students, working side-by-side in the lab with other PhD students and Postdoctoral research scientists, or attending courses and conferences with the world’s leading experts.

What is the worst thing about research?

The hours can be quite long and tedious depending on what type of experiment you are conducting. Rather than you deciding when to start and finish, your time has to revolve around when your experiment will work best, not when it suits. Therefore work can lead to late nights and early mornings.

There are also times when your experiments just won’t work out. This can go on for days, weeks and even months. These can be testing times, but you just have to keep trying or take a new approach and devise a new experimental strategy with which to prove your hypothesis.

How could your work make a difference to the world?

Atherosclerosis is a disease that develops over a period of three to four decades in one’s lifetime. My research will hopefully open up new opportunities to diagnose the severity of atherosclerosis and risk of atherothrombosis, and thereby lead to a quicker and more definitive diagnostic method. This may lead to a more effective strategy to therapeutic intervention and decrease morbidity and mortality rates across the globe.

How do you hope your PhD will affect your career prospects?

Completion of my PhD will provide me with leading knowledge on cutting-edge technologies in science and industry. My options will be wide and varying from continuing research at a postdoctoral level, to management consulting or working in industry such as pharma-based companies both here and abroad.