On International Women’s Day (IWD), 8 March, people everywhere celebrate women’s achievements and together strive to #BreakTheBias – the theme of IWD 2022. At Torrens University Australia, we collaborate in the spirit the IWD commitment to make ‘a world that is diverse, equitable and inclusive’. We want all women to feel confident to speak out and be listened to, and this is the message Dr. Amy Li offers you, our postgraduate students.
The first time Dr. Amy Li held a human heart changed the direction of her studies and her life.
Dr. Amy Li is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre of Healthy Futures (CHEF) and the Higher Degree Research Coordinator for Health, Torrens University Australia
‘When the transplant surgeon handed the heart to me, I was in awe. The heart was still moving. It was like it was still alive. I went from total disbelief to the realisation of wow, now this is something special.’
Amy realised that the first research project she undertook in neuroscience was not right for her and she found the courage to take a different path. At that moment in the hospital, she decided to make the beating heart the subject of her studies. Her research focus turned towards understanding how genetic mutations passed down in families cause heart muscle diseases. Her postgraduate studies began at the University of Sydney, and she trained in specialist techniques at the Health Centre at the University of North Texas, and at the University of California, San Francisco, before settling down at the University of Vermont for her independent post-doctoral research training. Now, with more than a decade of training in the field of cardiovascular physiology and muscle biophysics, Dr. Li is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre of Healthy Futures (CHEF) at Torrens University Australia. As well, she sits on the executive board of the Sydney Heart Bank, an internationally collaborative human heart tissue biobank.
Health research into real-world issues
At the Centre of Healthy Futures, Amy and the postgraduate students are in regular contact with other researchers internationally and within the Torrens University network around Australia, as they work to address serious health issues.
‘I’m working with postgraduate research students in collaboration with the Centre’s director, Craig McLachlan. Our research explores the various aspects of heart disease and understanding the ageing human heart. For example, we work with a Nepalese group to investigate the impacts of hypertension on the health of the Nepalese population. Nepal’s diet is relatively high in salt and that can contribute to high blood pressure. As a result, many of these people tend to develop hypertension, which increases the risk of developing comorbidities such as heart disease and diabetes. So, we are looking at population-based public health measures for that issue.’
Improving the health of pregnant women
Amy and her student are also involved in genetics-based research that could have a major beneficial impact on the health of pregnant women.
‘My pet project is looking at a form of heart failure that directly affects some women of childbearing age. It's a form of heart muscle disease that develops in some women near the end of their pregnancy or immediately after childbirth. For some unknown biological reason, these women rapidly develop severe heart failure because of pregnancy within the course of months. To put this into context, similar forms of heart muscle disease that affect the general population often take years to decades before becoming severe heart failure.
‘In the last decade or two, we have really started to pay attention to this disease in clinics and highlighted it as a research area. Since women who rapidly developed heart failure present clinically similar to the other heart muscle diseases, they are often diagnosed as such. But actually it's very distinct and occurs at a specific time in a woman’s life. So now we call it peripartum cardiomyopathy (-partum, the act of giving birth; cardio-, of the heart; -myopathy, disease of the muscle). At this point in time, we do not have specific screening tools for diagnosis and no specific treatments towards this disease. Over the last three to four years, we and the international research community have put a concerted effort into trying to understand how it comes about and then come up with therapeutics to treat it.’
As Amy describes these projects, you can clearly see how she applies the expertise gained through her PhD studies to solving real-world problems. In particular, improving women’s health is a priority for Amy.
Support from your mentors for successful research
While her work brings her great satisfaction, Amy understands the pressures that come with studying for a PhD. She acknowledges that women, perhaps more than men, have to balance the time and emotional demands of their doctoral studies with the mental load of managing the home and, for many, caring for children. Mentors can help to reach this balance.
‘A good mentor,’ Amy says, ‘will actually just talk to you about you and not just the project. I'm not going to box anyone in, but a woman mentor can relate to the emotional and mental demands of everyday life. In undertaking research, whether it be a Masters or PhD, you go through highs and lows. At times, experiments that worked before simply just don’t work the next time around. Having someone there who understands this and supports you through it, not just through the science but also the emotional rollercoaster that accompanies it, is really important. Someone who can teach you to come up with a game plan to overcome any issues that may arise in your career is invaluable. The solution is very specific to that problem at that moment in time, but the tools you gain from planning together will remain with you for life.’
Dr. Li’s advice to PhD students
‘Don't be afraid to ask questions,’ is Amy’s advice to PhD students.
‘I think that's the mantra of research. Do not be afraid to ask questions since research is a tool to allow you to find answers for them. You're not going to find all the answers, but you will contribute to finding them. And that in itself is very satisfying. The most important thing is to let yourself be curious and don't be afraid to be wrong. As my research mentor hammered into me when I had wild ideas – “You may be right!” This means, “We don’t know the answer so you should go and find out.” ‘One of the things you tend to see particularly with women students early in their careers is that they're afraid to speak up, ask their questions and voice their thoughts, even though they have really interesting ideas. But you know what, in academic circles we want you to do just that. Your ideas are just as valid and valuable as someone who has been in research for the last 50 years. So be brave, be bold and most importantly, be yourself and speak up.’
For a role model of a brave woman and dedicated academic, think once more about Amy and the heart and the first step she took towards the start of her research career…
‘So I went to the hospital with my mentor, in middle of the night, no idea what on earth I was doing. And we walked upstairs to the surgical room, we had to gown up in surgical gowns and we walked into the room with the patient lying there with their chest open. And the surgeon picked the heart up and gave it to me …’