Press Release

From undergraduate rejection to ‘PhD Student of the Year’ candidate

Published on 17 May 2021

A University of Dundee postgrad is in the running to be crowned PhD Student of the Year following a dramatic 12 months that have seen her work on potential treatments for Covid-19 as well as being named as one of the best young scientists in her field.

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Holly Keir

A University of Dundee postgrad is in the running to be crowned PhD Student of the Year following a dramatic 12 months that have seen her work on potential treatments for Covid-19 as well as being named as one of the best young scientists in her field.

The success enjoyed by Holly Keir is all the more remarkable given that it comes a decade after she made eight unsuccessful applications to universities before being accepted to study at Dundee.

Holly has now received the nomination in the Postgrad Awards 2021. The winner, to be announced on Monday 7 June, will receive a £500 cash prize as a reward for the hard work, dedication, and commitment they have demonstrated as an exemplary postgraduate student.

Holly, based at the University’s School of Medicine, has already received the British Thoracic Society’s Early Career Investigator Award for 2021 in recognition of her research into the severe inflammatory lung condition, bronchiectasis.

Holly led studies that showed for the first time that an excessive type of immune response called neutrophil extracellular trap formation (NETs) was present in bronchiectasis and that this is linked to worsening symptoms. She also showed that antibiotic treatment can reduce NET levels in lungs, leading to improved outcomes for patients.

Holly’s work on NETs was a key factor in setting up STOP-COVID, a major UK-wide clinical trial of a drug it is hoped may help to prevent the worst ravages of the disease by blocking NETs. She is co-lead of the lab team examining how the drug, Brensocatib, affects the immune system in patients with Covid-19.

She said, “I am delighted and honoured to have been shortlisted for this award. I’m very grateful to my supervisor, Professor James Chalmers, for the nomination. It is wonderful to have your work recognised in this way.

“It has been intense working on STOP-COVID as well as carrying out my PhD work, but it has been an invaluable experience professionally and I am glad to have been able to play some part in the battle against Covid.

“The immune system normally tries to clear infections such as viruses or bacteria from the lungs without damaging the lung tissue around them. Our research has shown how this goes wrong in lung conditions. When this happens, white blood cells called neutrophils explode, forming NETs that damage the lungs.

“Working out how the immune system goes wrong is the key to unlocking new treatments, both for chronic lung conditions and perhaps also for Covid-19. Previous trials of Brensocatib have shown it has the potential to treat the debilitating cycle of inflammation, infection, and damage in lung disease.”

Holly (27) graduated from Dundee in 2016 with a degree in Biological Sciences, before working as a technician and then starting a PhD the following year in the laboratory of Professor Chalmers, one of the UK’s foremost lung experts. Her earlier rejections have helped spur Holly on to academic excellence, and her achievements have been covered across the Scottish media, including the latest episode of ‘Our Lives with Michelle McManus’ on BBC Radio Scotland.

The Postgrad Awards were launched by FindAUniversity.com in 2019 to honour and reward excellence in postgraduate teaching and supervision, learning and research.

More than 270 nominations of an extremely high standard were received in 2021, and Holly is one of eight postgrads from prestigious UK universities nominated in the PhD Student of the Year category.

Enquiries

Grant Hill

Press Officer

+44 (0)1382 384768

G.Hill@dundee.ac.uk