Postdoctoral Research Fellow, EPA Cephalosporin Junior Research Fellow at Linacre College, Oxford Stipendiary Lecturer at Merton College
Michaelmas Term 2020 Postdoc Profile: Meet Nikita Ved, who joined DPAG in May 2016 as a Postdoctoral Research Scientist in the Sparrow Group, before joining the Riley Lab in October 2020. Having shed light on the origin of congenital birth defects before applying her skills to improving function in the injured adult heart, she juggles her lab work with running flagship outreach events, science policy work and a major new think tank.
On training to be a research scientist: I've always been naturally interested in the nitty gritty of how and why things work, but it all started in the second year of my undergraduate degree in Neuroscience at Bristol. It was mostly a physiology degree with a neuro-slant, allowing me to do an extended project in cardiovascular biology, surprising myself in the process with how well I did! I then won an award by Pfizer and Wellcome Trust to do an in vivo skills course at KCL, which enabled me to get my Home Office licence early in my second year. This meant I could do a really nice in vivo project in my third year, which led to a paper and spurred me on to pursue a research career. My degree ultimately led to an interest in the intersection between diabetes, cardiovascular biology and neuroscience. I applied for a PhD to see if I could without a Masters, and I was very lucky to secure the first one I applied for, to study the diabetic retina, which involved collaboration across UCL, Bristol and Nottingham.
On how I got to DPAG: After submitting my thesis, I didn't know what I wanted to do for a long time. After applying for many jobs for 2-3 months and not hearing back, I landed an amazing temp job working in bioscience policy at The Royal Society, so I applied for a postdoc, a full-time policy job and Medicine, and managed to get all three! I ultimately chose the postdoc at Oxford because I had trained to be a research scientist. I actually originally interviewed for a postdoc in Prof Mommersteeg's lab and Duncan Sparrow was on the interview panel. He emailed me to say he was impressed and recommended I apply for a postdoc in his lab. However, it went to my junk mail, which I never check, but luckily I spotted it on the day of the deadline. I had just under 2 hours to rewrite my cover letter, adapt my CV and rush an application through! I interviewed with Duncan and got the job, and it seemed like everything aligned. He then told me about the Novo Nordisk Fellowship, so I applied and was fortunate to secure it 2 weeks into my postdoc.
On my research projects: With Duncan Sparrow and Frances Ashcroft I studied how pregestational diabetes could induce congenital birth defects with an emphasis on congenital heart defects for 4 years. This year, following the end of my contract, I secured a second 5-year funded MRC postdoc with Paul Riley, to work on a large body of work following on from Joaquim Vieira's last big paper. I am looking to determine how manipulation of the lymphatic vasculature in the heart impacts upon the immune response post heart attack, and so how to improve heart function. The pathways in developmental biology of the heart are very similar to the adult heart, so this new project uniquely and beautifully combines my experience as a vascular biologist during my PhD and as a cardiovascular scientist with Duncan. Plus, the collaborators on this new project are the some of the big guys I used to know in my past life as a vascular biologist, so it's nice to tap into the field again now I have the confidence as I've gotten older to reach out to them!
A typical day at work for me: I like to respond to emails and read papers in the morning; it primes my brain for the rest of the day. Then I'll usually come in, get any outstanding tasks at the animal house done on route, and bring in my samples to the lab to collect my data. In my new job, I'm learning a lot of new techniques and trialling experiments to reproduce data from Joaquim's paper. In my old job, in embryology everything was done in the morning, as the longer you leave it, the older the embryos become, so I would do dissections straight away for processing. As for my afternoons, it depends on the science of the day. My days are never the same. Once, I remember doing a £5000 experiment and there's nothing like the pressure and excitement you feel when you can't mess something up! Another day might be spent purely reading or on paperwork. Now during COVID, we can't spend much time in the office writing up, so I try and limit this to home. I'm actually still in Duncan's office as a result of restrictions, so I've been coming in a little later so as not to impact on the others who are in early for embryology. Not being able to move to the new office makes it a little harder to connect with my new colleagues, but luckily some of my closest friends work in DPAG, so being able to see them a few minutes here and there at work has helped me to keep my marbles during lockdown! The main thing that was difficult at first about working in a mid-COVID world is you have to be very organised: you can't just go to a lab bench and crack out an experiment now, you need to book every space you plan to be in. While there's less room for creativity because you can't act on an idea immediately, and I do tend to be quite spontaneous, the need to meticulously plan everything is quite a grown-up way of working, which is quite positive!
On my career highlight: During my PhD, our flagship conference was the British Microcirculation Society Meeting, and in my final year I won the prize for best oral presentation. All my colleagues, my PI and everyone I respect in my field was there, and it felt like a real acknowledgement of the 4 years I'd done. Winning the prize also meant I got to represent the Society at the World Congress of Microcirculation in Tokyo, where I won another prize!
A second highlight is getting my Novo Nordisk Fellowship; I was convinced I wasn't going to get it because the interview was really tough. I'll never forget it because I'd just had my viva 3 weeks beforehand, and I would have gladly done my viva 8 times over! The panel had all the big people like Keith Channon and Hugh Watkins and it was a parody of an interview: I was sweating, I kept spilling my water, my presentation didn't work and my mind went blank when they asked me an obvious question that I knew! It was amazing when Duncan gave me the good news and I nearly cried in front of my new boss in my second week of work!
What I find most challenging: My Fellowship came to an end over the summer, and funding was tight in the midst of COVID, so things weren't coming through that I applied for. I realised the main challenge for academia, and for postdocs especially, is that you have to be excellent at everything; it's not just about getting papers anymore, it's about being visible, doing public engagement, being present on Twitter, all these other things. While I'm doing some of those things, what dawned on me over the summer is how much of a challenge it is going from contract to contract and only having 3 or 4 years security at a time, or sometimes even just 1 or 2 years, that's the nature of the funding landscape. I was so lucky at the eleventh hour that the postdoc with Paul Riley came up and was such a good fit.
What I enjoy most about my job: I love that our job is so flexible. It's very independent and ad hoc with only a loose framework to follow; you do the work until it's done, follow the science and follow a hunch. And the best thing is when you follow a hunch and it works! You feel vindicated!
What I get up to outside my primary job: My main piece of outreach is Pint of Science, which brings scientists to pubs and cafes to share their research to the public. So much of our is work charity funded and the public should know where their money goes, and it's important to humanise the work we do and humanise the scientists. We've also had DPAG sponsored events, and several DPAG PIs take part, such as Ana Domingos, Samira Lakhal-Littleton and Deborah Goberdhan. It's also given me some interesting opportunities; last year we hosted astronaut Michael Foale, and off the back of that I was invited to a NASA leadership event on December 1st!
I also work a lot with The Physiological Society and attend most of their science policy events in the House of Commons. Last year, I was one of the runners-up in the STEM for Britain competition, so I got to present my work at the House of Commons, where I met the then Shadow Health Secretary John Ashworth and told him about my work in heart defects and gestational diabetes.
Finally, this year I helped set up the new India League, and we launched the first ever British Indian Census in July. We're now undergoing a name change, "1928 Institute", to be more inclusive and refer more broadly to the Indian sub-continent. I spend most of my evenings working on this; we've been running focus groups and interviews over the past few weeks to drill into the data from the Census, and we're now reaching out to academics to give their insight. We're aiming for the results to be done by the end of January, so watch this space!