This week, our interview is with the highly distinguished Dr Fiona McBryde. This incredible Lecturer has more achievements than most, but best of all, she started her career right here at the University of Auckland! Her research is all about the brain and its role in regulation of blood pressure so read on, get inspired, and if you'd like to know more you can find her in Medsci 205, 311, and maybe as your postgraduate advisor.
What is your background? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a small town in Hawkes Bay, the daughter of an engineer and a maths teacher, so I guess it was always going to be a STEM career for me, although I did dabble with the idea of writing novels for quite some time.
What are your interests outside of university life?
The same year I started my PhD, I developed an interest in multisport and adventure racing (running, biking and kayaking through the wilderness for anything from 12 hours to 4-5 days non-stop). I have been lucky enough to race in countries all around the world over the years, although I have slowed down a bit more recently. Between science and training for races, I don’t have a lot of time to watch much telly, so I couldn’t even tell you who won Dancing with the Stars!
What was your education pathway?
I always loved science at school, and actually initially thought of doing veterinary science (perhaps I read too much James Herriot as a child!). However, I had a very inspiring Biology teacher in my last year of high school who actually had a research science background, who helped me understand what a scientist actually was. I realised that I wanted to be the one planning and doing research – and the University of Auckland had just started offering a ‘Biomedical Science’ degree that sounded like it ticked all the boxes.
Right from the beginning it was the Physiology courses that really caught my attention, and in 2nd year I did a summer studentship looking at the regulation of the cardiovascular system with Prof Simon Malpas –this experience completely sold me on the research pathway. I was hooked! I did another studentship in 3rd year, the Biomedical Honours year and went straight into a PhD all in the same laboratory.
After completing my PhD it was time to cut the apron strings, and I was very fortunate to be awarded a new junior fellowship from the Royal Society in the UK. This took me to the University of Bristol where I spent the next 5 years looking at how the brain controls blood pressure. In 2013 I returned to New Zealand with a Sir Charles Hercus Fellowship from the Health Research Council, which has given me 5 years funding to establish my own research lab here in the FMHS. In 2017 I became a Senior Lecturer here in the School of Medical Sciences.
What are you working on right now?
I have a couple of big projects going right now. First, I am looking at how the cardiovascular system responds to stroke. In 80% of patients there is a huge surge in blood pressure after stroke. Usually, a sudden increase in blood pressure is a bad thing for patients, but in stroke we don’t know whether this might help increase the supply of blood to the damaged area of the brain. We are working with animal models of stroke where we can make some pretty amazing, in-depth recordings of cardiovascular parameters. We are also working with clinicians at Auckland City Hospital to compare our results with data from human patients.
My second project has just started, and will look more closely at the relationship between blood pressure and blood flow to the brain in health and disease. Our brains are constantly ‘hungry’ with a huge demand for blood flow, oxygen and nutrients and it is a real challenge for the body to meet these needs. We are looking to re-write the textbook view on how the brain protects itself from low blood flow.
What drew you to your field of interest? Was there a particular moment you knew that this topic would be your focus?
My interest in cardiovascular physiology developed during my undergraduate years, and was shaped by my very positive early research experiences. Since my PhD my focus has shifted more and more towards how the brain may be an important controller of the cardiovascular system. To be honest, I have always just tended to follow my nose into whatever catches my interest at the time – it has felt like a natural progression. I think if you are genuinely fascinated by a topic (any topic), that enthusiasm shows through in your grant applications, presentations and writing.
What is a paper you have contributed to of which you're most proud?
During the 5 years I spend working in the UK, one of my main lines of research was into a new treatment for high blood pressure. My initial basic research paper was published in Nature Communications in 2013, and we followed this up in 2016 with a Nature Medicine paper, and we are now moving into trials in human patients which are looking promising. Very exciting!
If you could give your undergraduate self any advice, what would you tell them?
Follow your nose and do what you enjoy! If you think you might be interested in research, my best advice is to come and talk to your lecturer - we are always on the lookout for good students! On that note if your passion happens to be cardiovascular research then do drop me a line... : -)
Thank you so much to Dr McBryde for her time and efforts!