“Come back to wonder and passion when things get tough. It’ll see you through.”
Ms Natalie McKirdy is a PhD candidate at the Queensland Eye Institute.
Tell us a little about yourself, i.e. how did you become interested in science?
The first time I can recall the word “science” being used to describe an action – something to DO rather than just a subject at school – was in Year 3 or 4. The local university had a science van and they visited our school to show us a whole range of ideas; cooking cocktail frankfurts by reflecting and concentrating heat from the sun, powering a radio with a solar panel, freezing a banana with liquid nitrogen and shattering it into pieces by dropping it on the ground, and a bunch of other things too… I just remember the music and food related items the clearest (no coincidence that they are my other passions!).
It was the first time I saw chemicals represented as ball and stick diagrams showing how a chemical formula related to its structure. The strange language of “H-two-Oh” and “C-Oh-two” I had heard my older siblings discuss suddenly made perfect sense. I still remember so clearly how it felt when the connection between name and structure clicked into place in my brain.
I remember being blown away that you could study this stuff at a university level, and that you could get a job figuring out the answers to big problems facing the world. It was the first time I realised that my passion for curiosity, asking questions, and seeking understanding had a name – “science”. That’s when I knew – as an eight or nine year old – science would feature heavily in my future.
What has been your path to your PhD?
Initially, I was med-school bound. I wanted to be an ophthalmologist. I have always been fascinated by eyes – ever since I started wearing glasses at the age of 3 and learned that there was so much more to the eye than what we see reflected in the mirror. I did an undergraduate degree in Medical Science at QUT because it was a great grounding in pathology (handy for an aspiring doctor!) plus it was the only pathology degree accredited by the AIMS (Australian Institute of Medical Scientists) and led straight into a clearly defined job (in case I didn’t pursue med school).
After undergrad, I wanted to try research but didn’t want to commit too many years to it – just in case I didn’t like it – so I went to the Honours information session at QUT and found a project I was really interested in at the Queensland Eye Institute. I worked on the cornea; the clear section of the eye, at the front, that allows light to pass through and be detected by the retina. When cells lining the inside of the cornea die or stop working, the usually clear window fills with fluid and turns cloudy, making the person blind. In one year, I created a thin film of silk protein from a wild species of silkworm and got corneal cells to attach to it far better than the previous films that had been investigated. This project is still ongoing at QEI, with the overall aim of replacing the cells that die or stop working properly in corneal dystrophies.
After 5 years of non-stop university, I decided I wanted to earn a living, save some money, and see the world. I worked as a Laboratory Technician in clinical trials, and was later promoted to Acting Laboratory Manager. When I came back from overseas, I worked as a Research Assistant, but ultimately knew there was a PhD in me. I approached one of my Honours supervisors (Professor Damien Harkin) at QEI with some ideas for a project and now, 3 years later, I’m just a few months off submitting my PhD thesis on silk scaffolds for retinal regeneration in age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
What drives you and what do you enjoy about your current position?
I am definitely driven by a patient-focus. The whole point of getting to sink your teeth into one part of a problem, and focus on all aspects of it for at least three years, is to deliver a tangible outcome. In my case, that is to contribute to the knowledge and understanding of AMD and devise a new way to treat it. There are so many people depending on medical research – 288 million people are predicted to have AMD by 2040! Let alone all the other conditions affecting our health – so it is a very rewarding, challenging, satisfying, varied, and extremely exciting job.
What is the professional achievement you are the most proud of?
I am most proud of my science communication work. I have taken opportunities to speak about my research at university, state, and national levels through the 3 Minute Thesis competition, FameLab competition, and a TEDx talk – the footage from which, is now available internationally thanks to the wonders of the internet! The science van experience I mentioned earlier was very much reliant upon the privilege I had in being a metro kid. Australia has vast expanses of rural, regional, and remote zoning, where young kids don’t have access to that kind of experience. I am proud to be a Wonder of Science Young Science Ambassador, visiting such areas to increase equality of the educational experience. You never know where the next Lovelace or Tesla may be, waiting for that spark to ignite their curiosity – waiting for someone to reassure them that science is for everyone.
What has been the most important advice you were ever given?
Gosh! It’s really hard to answer this. I’ve picked up a lot of advice over the years… I think I have to say: pay no mind to those who would celebrate your fall (aka: Haters gonna hate. Potatoes gonna potate). There are lots of different personalities in the world. You may come across someone who doesn’t like you for whatever reason, or worse, might even outright bully or belittle you. If you stand tall, insecure people may try to cut you down to make themselves feel bigger. Sometimes you can avoid them, but quite often you can’t. I suggest you offer them the opportunity to find common ground and leave it at that. There’s no need to be mean back to them, but you also don’t need to spend your precious energy vying for their approval or wondering what you did to deserve that kind of treatment. Your awesomeness will be much better spent getting on with life, and you’ll leave them in your wake – trust me 😉
What would you like to tell your PhD self?
You may not always enjoy this PhD, but you will always be fascinated by it. Come back to that wonder and passion when things get tough. It’ll see you through.
If you were not working in science, what would you do?
I love creative pursuits; I play a few musical instruments, crochet, sew, draw, and love to sketch out designs for elaborate dresses… so my alter-ego is probably a formal and bridal fashion designer. Also, my sister and I love to cook and have the wild dream of opening a café together to cater to all the different dietary needs in our family. We even have a business name picked out and everything! – just in case we ever win the lottery and can make it a reality.