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Women in Science Victor Chang Institute

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"My top 3 tips for PhD students - have patience, network, and trust the data" 

Since completing her PhD, Dr Jeanette Villanueva's career has gone from strength to strength. Now she's received an Innovation Award to continue her ground-breaking research in heart transplantation. 

Congratulations! You recently received the Inaugural Nanda/Monks Innovation Award for Cardiovascular Research. How will this assist your research projects?

 Thank you! I feel incredibly honoured to receive this inaugural award and the timing could not have been more perfect.  I work in heart transplant research and my current project is focused on testing an anti-diabetic drug (empagliflozin, a sodium-glucose transport inhibitor) in the heart preservation solution which is typically used during donor heart retrievals. Our pre-clinical work has shown this drug can significantly improve heart function in a model of donor heart preservation, and we have recently published these findings in the Journal of Heart and Lung Transplantation.  I have developed a model where we can further test the benefits of this drug on donor heart function. I will be able to use the Nanda/Monks Innovation Award to fund heart function and imaging studies using the PET-MRI machine within the Innovation Centre at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute. It’s all very exciting work for our lab. 

How could your research make a difference in healthcare and to transplant patients?

The overall aim of my research is identify drugs/pharmacological agents that can be incorporated into the preservation solutions used during donor heart retrieval to improve their function after transplant, or be able to extend the amount of time the donor heart can spend in transit between the donor and recipient hospitals. Many donor hearts can't be used because of extended periods of time between retrieval and potential transplant which can be detrimental to donor heart function. The use of the heart-in-a-box technology (pioneered by the Transplantation Lab at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute) has helped to overcome this issue to some extent however we hope our research will help to further improve donor heart function. If we can increase the number of hearts that can be transplanted, recipient wait list times can be reduced, and we can reduce the number of patients that ‘miss out’ on a donor heart. 

Why did you decide to do a PhD? 

I have always been fascinated by science and how the human body works, especially the immune system. After completing an immunology honours research project at UNSW, I stayed on to work for a couple of years as a research assistant. I knew that a PhD was always an option and something that I kept thinking about doing.  My parents have always been very strong advocates for furthering your education if the opportunity presented itself. An opportunity came up for a PhD at the Garvan Institute in the Transplantation Immunology Lab and I knew I would regret it if I didn’t pursue it. I loved the research environment, the challenge of working independently on a project, learning new technical skills, and having the opportunity to travel and present my work to researchers at national and international conferences. 

What were some of the challenges you faced whilst doing your PhD?

Sometimes experiments just will not work, troubleshooting seems to be never ending, plus long hours in the lab can make it feel like the PhD will never end. A PhD is a solid commitment, and what would usually take 3.5-4 years took me just over 6 years because my son Daniel was born about 2 years into my PhD. I was very lucky to have the support of my husband, my parents and my in-laws who helped give me the time to continue my studies. In particularly my parents kept encouraging me to never give up. Despite taking me a bit longer, and some experimental challenges along the way, it was definitely worth it. 

What are your top three tips for anyone wanting to do a PhD?

 Patience is key – sometimes experiments won’t work and that’s okay. Keep at it, and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you truly are stuck.

The data is the data – just because your results are not what you were expecting, or the results don’t give you the best graph, it’s still good data. All data can help to tell your overall story.

Network – whether you’re at a conference, a seminar, a trade display, or within the institute, try to expand your network. You never know who could be a future collaborator, mentor, or boss! 

How do you make it work with a young family and a demanding career? 

I’m very fortunate to be in a position where I have family that can support me and a flexible workplace. Some days are not exactly 9-5 and there will be days when I make it home just as the kids are going to bed. I’ve also learnt that if I bring work home, it is okay if I don’t manage to get around to it that evening. It will still be there tomorrow for me to finish.  

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

I would still like to be working in transplantation research at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute and hopefully be on track to leading a research group, with a couple of high impact research papers to my name. 

Read more about Dr Villanueva's research 

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