Holly Keir is a postgraduate researcher in the School of Medicine. Holly has received the British Thoracic Society’s Early Career Investigator Award at this year organisation’s Winter Meeting. Her research focuses on bronchiectasis, a severe inflammatory lung condition.
What did you do before starting your research degree at Dundee?
I came to Dundee in 2012 to study an undergraduate degree in biological sciences. After graduating in 2016, I joined Professor James Chalmers’ lab in the School of Medicine as a research technician for 12 months before beginning my PhD in 2017.
What is the focus of your current research?
I study white blood cell function in patients with chronic lung disease. Neutrophils, a type of white blood cell, normally clear infection without damaging the surrounding lung tissue. In lung conditions such as COPD, bronchiectasis and COVID-19 my research has shown that this process is disrupted, leading to an excessive type of immune response called neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs), which damage the lungs. There are not any effective anti-inflammatory drugs for these lung conditions and so by studying what goes wrong in these cells we try to find treatments that can help. My research has shown that a commonly used antibiotic reduces harmful NETs and provide benefits to patients with bronchiectasis.
Over the past year we have moved this research into COVID-19 and I have been the co-lead of a lab team for STOP-COVID, a UK wide clinical trial of the drug, Brensocatib, investigating whether treatment reduces NETs in COVID-19.
What first got you interested in your research topic?
My interest in this research project grew during my year as a research technician. Although I had originally applied to the technician post in order to gain more lab experience, I quickly became interested in the role that inflammation plays in chronic lung disease. I love doing research that is close to patients and where you can see the practical applications of what you are doing. It has been amazing to see some of our research in the laboratory now leading to better treatments for patients in the clinic.
What has been the most positive aspect of your research degree so far?
Working with the enthusiastic and supportive team in the Chalmers Lab has been one of the best parts of my degree. The guidance and encouragement I’ve had from my supervisors, Professor James Chalmers and Dr Amelia Shoemark, has been fantastic. This environment has allowed me to develop new skills, contribute to study designs and collaborate with experts across the world.
What has been the most challenging aspect so far?
The most challenging aspect has certainly been finding time to work on my PhD over the last 12 months, while also working full-time on COVID related research. It has been a privilege to be involved in COVID research, but it is also challenging to try to finish a PhD degree during a global pandemic. I’m hoping that as case numbers continue to drop I will be able to complete my PhD later on this year.
How are you hoping your research will benefit others?
Chronic inflammation is an integral part of many lung diseases. Understanding how the immune system goes wrong is the key to unlocking new treatments, both for chronic lung diseases and potentially COVID-19.
What advice would you give to other postgraduate researchers?
Don’t feel you need to race to start a PhD programme, take time to find a topic you are really interested in. Postgraduate research can be intense and challenging at times, however working on a topic that you enjoy and find interesting will make it a great experience.