StrengthWhy do we love stories so much? Could it be because of that powerful space it creates where our personal experiences  connects with someone else? We love stories in The Hub and in today’s article, Dr Yewande Pearse shares her triumps and challenges enroute to the qualification called a PhD! Amara got to learn about Yewande through her campaign and was (and remains) inspired by her journey. Enjoy!

APH: Please can you share your academic and professional background?

YP: I completed my BSc in Human Sciences at King’s College London in 2006. I then returned to King’s in 2009 to complete a Masters in Neuroscience with a Distinction. After my Masters, I worked as a Research Assistant for two years before taking up a PhD studentship at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience. I have just completed my PhD in Neuroscience, which aimed to explore the potential for gene therapy in multiple forms of Batten Disease, a childhood brain disorder.

In layman’s terms, can you share what your research study/area is about?

Batten Disease is a group of inherited disorders that cause profound neurodegeneration and predominantly affect children. The symptoms are progressively debilitating and include blindness, seizures, intellectual decline and disability, dementia, loss of speech and motor impairment, with many children eventually becoming wheelchair-bound. Currently, there are no effective treatments available for any form of Batten Disease. My research is about finding innovative ways to treat this group of diseases with a focus on gene therapy.

So what is your PhD story? When did you realise that you wanted to undertake a PhD and how did you get into one? Why did you choose your topic?

After finishing my masters in Neuroscience, further study was the last thing on my mind. I certainly did not want to go straight into a PhD without really knowing what area of research motivated me enough to dedicated three long years of blood, sweat and tears to and I had little experience of what the lab work would actually entail day to day.

However, while my masters was incredibly challenging, I felt a huge sense of achievement for what I had accomplished and was eager to gain more practical experience so I applied for a job at a leading lab in the field of Huntington’s Disease research, working on a stem cell project. I learnt a lot in two years but eventually felt that it was time for another challenge and decided that I wanted to do a PhD – preferably abroad.

In academia, as with most fields, networking is key. Therefore, as well as applying for PhDs online, I also contacted an old lecturer who taught on my masters programme. I remember his lectures on a rare and fatal group of childhood brain disorder’s and his passion really stayed with me.

What I liked about his work was that there was a direct link between the work he was doing in the lab and the children and families who were affected by the disease. I also remembered him giving a lecture on his own academic journey, including the years he spent working abroad (including the US) and was interested to find out how he secured these opportunities.  Before I knew it, I was in his office having a casual chat. He told me that doing a Postdoc in the US was in many ways better than doing a PhD in the US and that if I was interested in doing a postdoc in the US, a good strategy would be to undertake my PhD in a lab that had collaborators in the US.

Serendipitously, it turned out that he had just secured funding for a PhD studentship in his own lab. By the time I left, I was sure I wanted to apply for it and so I did. I got an interview and remember sitting outside the room where I would have to give a five minute presentation using just my words, a flipchart and a marker to convince three esteemed researchers that they should select me. It was one of the scariest interviews I have ever had but at the same time, the most rewarding because it brought something out in me that I didn’t have the confidence at the time to realise I had. I remember the answers flowing and being received with enthusiastic nodding and approving “exactly’s”, “yes, very good’s” and “absolutely’s”. I got the PhD and started about a month later.

Read MoreSo you want to do a PhD? – Busting the myths

What has your PhD journey been like? Your exact picture? Any unexpected lessons learnt?

Overall, I am and will always be glad that I did a PhD. However, at times, I seriously questioned whether or not I had made the right decision. There were great parts such as the relationships I made, the ownership I felt over my project, the freedom to work to my own schedule, travelling to conferences abroad and learning through doing. However, the best things about it were sometimes also the worst. For example, your PhD is your PhD so yes, you have ownership over it and can work to your own schedule. But, if you don’t do the work, the work doesn’t get done. That means that at times, you might find yourself working until midnight to get an experiment finished on time, working weekends because of the timing of an experiment, etc. There is no one to take over when you’re tired, run down or when you would rather be doing something with your friends. Also, learning through doing is one of the best ways to grow intellectually but usually involves a lot of trial and error. Most science doesn’t work the first time, meaning that being in the lab can be a very frustrating experience. Although when things finally work, there is no greater feeling of accomplishment.

My PhD started off with a lot of enthusiasm for the idea of what I would be doing but because I had some experience working in a lab, I was also prepared for the sort of practical work I would be doing and so I hit the ground running. In the first year, I spent a lot of time thinking about my project, carrying out preliminary experiments and ‘setting up’ long term experiments. I also identified areas of the original PhD proposal I wanted to change or expand and got to know my collaborators. Mostly it was fun and fresh. I made friends, went to two conferences including one family conference where I actually met lots of Batten Disease families and most importantly got to know my supervisor.

The second year was one of the hardest as months in the lab had not given me the data I expected and my motivation and enthusiasm was beginning to dwindle. Things had not worked and I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere. By the third year, I had become good at problem solving and trouble shooting and felt like I really knew what I needed to do. I was responsible for supervising students and my meetings with my supervisor began to change, feeling more like they were led by me. The third year was when it became harder to maintain a work/life balance. I was completely consumed by my project but the good news is that it was paying off! I was getting somewhere. I didn’t have the data yet but I knew I would get it.

Read moreThe PhD Survival Guide

And then BOOM. Disaster struck – there was a major technical blow to my PhD project that was out of my control and no fault of my own. I was devastated. Shock came before denial and then depression.

I had to apply for a year’s extension and although what happened was not my fault, I had to do most of the work to rectify it. With my motivation destroyed, this was not easy to do. I felt that I had already done the hard work and to do it again was not fair. However, from somewhere, determination arose within me and I managed to power through doing some of the hardest work of my life. Soon, data was being generated and interesting results beginning to emerge. For the last 6 months of my PhD, I felt motivated again with the end in sight. Finally, I finished my last experiment in the lab and after a short break was ready for the final hurdle. Writing up.

Writing up in my fantasies sounded really fun – I would be like my freelance friends. Having time to go to yoga in the morning before making a hearty breakfast and reading the paper. Then I would cycle to a cosy little café or the British Library to write up my thesis while listening to music and occasionally taking the afternoon off to go and see an exhibition. For me, sadly, this was not the case.

Writing up my thesis completely consumed every second of every minute of every hour of every day. I spent every day in the university library. I would wake up, go to the library, come home, sleep then repeat. Some days would be productive, some days would be terrible and throw me into panic. I didn’t have time to see friends and having moved home to better concentrate on writing up, my mum and I became like passing ships in the night. I rarely had dinner at home, I would buy food and eat it on a bench outside on my own feeling guilty for taking more than 20 minutes. Of course. Everyone works differently, for me, my perfectionism and single mindedness meant that I found it hard to maintain a balance – I threw myself into it completely feeling that I would not finish on time if I did otherwise. On the the 22nd December 2015 I finally submitted a thesis that was almost 600 pages long and the rest is history as they say.

On reflection, I would say my PhD was not what I expected. When I started my PhD, I felt a bit like an imposter but by the time I finished, I felt like I had grown into it and was exactly what a PhD student is meant to be – this change is what surprised me. I learnt a lot. The biggest lesson is that sometimes, there will be no external gratification for your hard work and you must find fulfilment from within. One thing I loved about my masters was that your achievements were measurable and noted along the way. When I got a distinction for an essay I had worked hard on, I felt a sense of reward. But with a PhD, there is no ‘A*’ for getting an experiment to work. You have to find other ways to motivate yourself, knowing that the reward will not come until the very end. Similarly, when your PhD is not going well, it is quite an isolating experience, which can leave you feeling quite lonely. Again, you have to find ways to motivate yourself to carry on. This is an important life lesson because it teaches you to question why you want to do things. This is why I would encourage people to think carefully about their reasons for wanting to pursue a PhD. The ‘Dr’ title is a nice idea, but to get there, it will definitely not be enough.

Congratulations on completing your PhD! As a female from a BME background, you belong to two underrepresented groups in science research and academia overall. Any thoughts on this and suggestions on what can be done to encourage more young people to choose a career in science?

There was one other black female on my masters course and no other black females in the department where I completed my PhD. There was a black male PI (Principle Investigator, responsible for running a lab) but no black females above my position. This was no anomaly. In STE (Science, Technology, Economics) areas of academia, only 8.1% of professors working in STE subjects are from BME backgrounds according to the Equality in Higher Education Statistical Report, 2015.

Although I have not consciously allowed this to put me off a career in academia, what I have realised is that at every stage I have been more surprised than I should be that I have been able to progress. When I got a place on the Neuroscience masters I was surprised, when I got a job as a research assistant in a prestigious lab, I was surprised and when I got a PhD I asked in my head “are you sure!?!” My worry is that the lack of diversity puts some females from BME backgrounds off completely because when there is no one in a profession that looks like you, how do you see yourself as part of that profession? Even at this stage when BME people in academia are underrepresented, it is important that platforms like blogs etc. make the BME woman who are there seen within our community. It is not only that, but also a question of connecting. Networking is the best way to progress in any field. Through mentoring, sharing of information and even just support we can encourage more young people to choose a career in science if that is what they want. Indeed, they may not even know it is what they want as without the presence of role models, it may not seem like an option.

I remember attending a conference in the US and an African American Postdoc giving one of the best presentations of the whole conference. She was amazing. I remember how I felt watching her – proud and inspired. Imagine if we could see more BME women in science doing great things and how that might inspire others.

What are your next steps?

I have been offered a postdoc position at The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) working on stem cell research for the treatment of sanfilippo syndrome, which is due to start at the end of August. I am so excited to be continuing my work in the field. However, there is one obstacle. Although I will eventually be paid a salary, I do not have access to the funds needed for the initial costs of relocating and living expenses. Without savings, financial credit from a bank or sponsorship, costs such as a deposit for accommodation, the first month’s rent and general living expenses are very difficult to cover. Therefore I am reaching out for support by starting a GoFundMe campaign to help me raise the funds. As you will see, I have tried my best to raise the funds myself (working and selling things) but with time running out, I still have some way to go to raise the amount I need.

Yewande Pearse 2
Credit – Gynelle Leon

Thank you so much Yewande for sharing your story with us. If you read this article and are able to support Yewande achieve her dream, please do. Thank you!

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