Heather Fitzke (LIDo PhD Student - 2015 cohort)

Prof.Qasim Aziz , The Wingate Institute for Neurogastroenterology, Queen Mary, Unicverity of London
Dr. Daniel Stuckey, Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging , University College London


I originally studied Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester and was fascinated by the different cultural explanations for health and disease around the world. I spent the next 8 years volunteering for various charities while working as a research assistant for a medical imaging group at UCL. This is where I had my first taste of clinical research and began to take a serious interest in the Life Sciences. I continued work at UCL and volunteer with the British Red Cross and completed a part-time MSc in Epidemiology in 2014. Although challenging, these formative years convinced me that working between organisations and with different groups is immensely valuable. I appreciated how my ideas and practice in each role was challenged by the others and presented new ways of working together.

The London Interdisciplinary Doctoral (LIDo) Programme

It was nearly impossible to find a PhD programme that would recognise the skills I had gained outside of academia and allow me to pursue project that wasn’t directly related to what I had studied in the past. The structure of the LIDo Programme provided the framework to learn essential lab and computational skills I needed, complemented by the Bio Industry module and networking events. Exposure to how an entrepreneurial attitude can add to the business of research encouraged me to consider a whole range of options for my Professional Internship for PhD Students (PIPS) that I never would have thought of before.

(…and my PhD Project)

When it came to selecting my PhD project, although the topic was important, first and foremost was the supervisory team. Their support and enthusiasm during my rotation gave me the confidence to suggest different approaches to the original research question. They also suggested I apply for an International Brain Research Organisation (IBRO) InEurope Short Stay Grant, which provided funding for me to spend time at a collaborator’s lab in Belgium where I could further develop my knowledge in the field of neurogastroenterology.

My project is focused on the interoceptive signals involved in the homeostatic control of food intake; between the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and the central nervous system. GI function and (feeding) behaviour are regulated by multiple parallel pathways, including via the bloodstream and autonomic nervous system. My aim is to investigate the effects of different macronutrients on gastrointestinal motility and blood flow using a nutrient-challenge cross-over design and dynamic magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Baseline characteristics and the timing and pattern of changes in autonomic tone and circulating gastrointestinal peptides - signalling hunger (e.g. ghrelin) and satiety (e.g. cholecystokinin, CCK and glucagon-like peptide-1, GLP-1) - will be measured pre- and post-prandially. The elucidation of these mechanisms has relevance for obesity and functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGID), both conditions involving the disruption of gut-brain signalling.

While I’ve enjoyed the freedom of the LIDo programme, it has presented challenges especially during the transition from the first to second year. The change of outlook from being totally open-minded during the rotations to focusing on my specific project took some time. I underestimated how challenging it would be to learn the techniques and familiarise myself with the literature from several new fields. I still believe that the benefits gained from escaping the silos of research are immeasurable and look forward combining what I’ve learned over the next couple of years.