What it’s like being a research assistant in a world-class lab

From research assistant to Professor, every member of a research team has an important role to play. Lucy Trelfa tells us what it’s like to leap from University into a world-class cardiovascular research lab, and what she’s learned along the way.

Dad’s heart condition

I’ve always been drawn to the human body and how it works. That’s why I chose to study Medical Sciences at University — I wanted to learn more.

It was during this time that my Dad was diagnosed with supraventricular tachycardia, or SVT for short. SVT is a fast heart rhythm caused by extra electrical pathways above the ventricles.

It was making my Dad feel dizzy and faint, even when he was sitting at his desk at work. Since then, he’s undergone ablation treatment and takes regular medication to try and regulate his heart rhythms. Nevertheless, he continues to have a normal, active lifestyle.

Because of my Dad’s diagnosis, I became eager to zone in on the heart in my studies.

After I graduated, I knew cardiovascular research was where I wanted to be. I’ve now been a research assistant at the BHF Centre of Research Excellence in Oxford for two years, working as part of BHF Professor Keith Channon’s research group.

Professor Keith Channon.

I primarily work alongside Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Dr Gillian Douglas, but also across the whole group of 11 members.

No day is the same

As a research assistant, I play a part in lots of different research projects all at different stages, so my daily jobs differ as each project evolves and expands.

Sometimes I’m looking into new experimental techniques, analysing data at the end of an experiment, or dealing with the logistical issues of running multiple experiments at once. Being able to contribute to a wide range of exciting, cutting-edge cardiovascular research is the best part.

It’s also the best way to grow as a scientist.

Two years down the line, I’ve investigated whether the development of atherosclerotic plaques can be reversed, looked at the effects of molecules called reactive oxygen species on blood pressure, and explored how blood vessels adapt when oxygen levels are low.

Inspiring minds

All of these studies are fuelled by the brain power of some of the most intelligent minds in the country — something I didn’t fully appreciate until I found myself sitting in my first lab meeting. We hold a weekly meeting where a lab member presents their work in progress to the rest of the group. Here, they show hot-off-the-press findings and discuss any problems thrown up along the way.

During my first lab meeting, I found myself submerged into a level of cardiac science that was difficult to keep up with — these scientists really know their stuff!

But after two years of practice, I’m now much more fluent in cardiac science - and I’m learning more every day.

The genes behind plaques

The research project that stands out the most to me is the study I was working on during my first year. We were looking at a particular gene that might be involved in controlling the size of atherosclerotic plaques. Plaques are the buildup of fat within the wall of an artery, also called coronary heart disease, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

Experimentally, this translated into spending a lot of time at a piece of lab equipment called a cryostat.

A cryostat is a machine used to cut frozen tissue samples into sections only a few micrometres thick, which can then be looked at under the microscope.

Staining plaque with colour

To help us tell different cells apart, we use dyes that stain some cells but not others. After staining the atherosclerotic plaque slides, I was able to produce some really beautiful pictures.

I took photos of the stained samples using a microscope fitted with a camera, and analysed differences in the sizes of plaques and what was contained within them.

The root of the aorta, stained in red. This is a common site for plaque build up.

After spending hours cutting, staining, photographing and analysing 120 samples, it’s easy to see why I became attached to this project! The work is still ongoing, and we’re excited to see what we find.

Every member of a research team has a role to play, and knowing that I’m contributing to the fight against heart and circulatory disease is incredibly rewarding.

Coronary heart disease shockingly remains the leading cause of death worldwide. Find out more about how BHF researchers are working to change this.

Lucy Trelfa, Research Assistant at the University of Oxford

[Edited by Christie Norris, Research Engagement Officer]