Researcher Spotlight: Katie Hildersley

Published: 23 April 2018

This week, Jenni McIntyre puts Katie Hildersley under the Spotlight...

Katie Hildersley with apurple sheepThis week Jennifer McIntyre caught up with Katie Hildersley, to ask her a few questions about her PhD. Katie is a 1st year PhD student studying a specialised type of chemosensory cell in the abomasum of sheep. She is working at both the University of Glasgow and the Moredun Research Institute.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
For my undergraduate degree I studied Veterinary Biosciences at the University of Glasgow, graduating just last year. My interests had always been in veterinary medicine, but following a summer project with Dr Jane Robinson between my third and fourth year, I realised that research was the route I wanted to pursue. Jane was a fantastic project supervisor, who took the time to encourage me to explore which subjects I was most interested in, and, due to my interest in the immune system and parasitic infections, Jane pointed me in the direction of my current advisors; Dr Collette Britton and Professor Eileen Devaney. I began working with Collette and Eileen for my Honours project on ovine Tuft cells, in collaboration with Dr Tom McNeilly, my advisor at the Moredun Research Institute, and I am excited to be able to continue the work through this PhD.

What is the focus of your research and why is it important?
My PhD focus is to identify the presence and function of Tuft cells in the ovine abomasal epithelium. Tuft cells are a rare and unique cell type within the epithelial layer of mucosal surfaces. These cells have been found to play a key role in the initiation of the Type 2 T-helper immune response to gastrointestinal (GIT) parasitic infections in mice. GIT parasitic infections are of major concern in production animals, due to increasing resistance to the anthelmintic drugs used to treat them. My project aims to find out more about these cells and their potential role in tackling GIT parasitic infections in sheep. I hope that by learning more about Tuft cells, and how they interact with, and survey, the GIT environment, that we may gain a better understanding of how the immune system recognises and responds to the presence of a GIT parasitic infection.

What has been the most positive aspect so far?
One of the very positive aspects of my PhD so far has been the ability to continue the work I started during my undergraduate degree. I found learning about Tuft cells fascinating and really enjoyed beginning a study of them for my honours project, and so it has been very satisfying to be able to start this PhD and continue the work from where I had left off.

As much as it makes me very nervous, I have also really enjoyed the opportunity to attend conferences and present my work. I have attended the AVTRW and BSP conferences so far, and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to listen to other projects, as well as presenting my own work. It’s a great way to find out what else is going on outside of your institute and beyond your own university.

What has been the most challenging aspect so far?
The aspect I have found most challenging so far, apart from learning new lab techniques, has been having the confidence in myself to take on a PhD straight out of my undergraduate degree. I felt that to start a PhD I would need a lot more experience, and at least have completed a Masters – and have found imposter syndrome to be very real! My experience so far, however, has been extremely positive and I have found the support of my advisors and everyone else around me at the Moredun Research Institute and the University of Glasgow to be very encouraging - and patient with my never-ending questions! I’ve learnt that it is important to remember that a PhD is all about learning about a new topic, and training to gain new skills, and to realise that you are not expected to know how to do everything from day one!

What advice would you give to anyone doing or considering a PhD?
If you are considering applying for a PhD, make sure you put yourself out there and go and speak to people whose work you’re interested in directly. I found from my experience that it’s not only your academic achievements that are important for future advisors to take notice, but also your enthusiasm for the work. Reach out to potential advisors whose work interests you where possible, and meet with them if you can to discuss potential projects and show them your enthusiasm!

Tell us about your plans for the future
I am excited to keep learning more about Tuft cells and explore the role they play within mucosal immunology. I am only at the very beginning of my PhD journey, but have already gained confidence in new techniques that I have learned, and am looking forward to continuing to expand my skills.

Don’t miss Katie’s talk “Examining the presence and function of tuft cells in ovine abomasum tissue following parasitic nematode infection” at the PhD Seminar Series on Friday 27th April at 4pm in LT2 of the Graham Kerr Building.

First published: 23 April 2018