Dr Priya Kalia (PK) is a Research Associate in the department of Biomaterials, Biomimetics & Biophotonics at King’s College London. Her research is about repairing and regenerating damaged and diseased bones and joints, helping the injured and elderly enjoy higher quality and pain-free lives. Come along to our London Soapbox Science (SS) event on the 29th of June to hear Priya speak about “Putting Humpty Dumpty together again” You can also follow Priya on twitter @DrPriyakalia
SS: Hi Priya, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. We very much look forward to seeing you soon on our soapbox! To start with, could you tell us how you got to your current position?
PK: During my first degree in Molecular Genetics and Molecular Biology at the University of Toronto, Canada, I was lucky to find a summer studentship in Genetics at Imperial College in London. The project was interesting and I was trained in a variety of lab techniques. I realised that I really like the thinking of the scientists and surgeon I worked with, and really enjoyed carrying out lab work while listening to the radio! London was an amazing place to be then, and still is now. During that summer, I also discovered the field of tissue engineering, which was a growing field in London. I went back to finish my degree in Canada, then returned to do a PhD in Bone Tissue Engineering at UCL, followed by postdoctoral work at the University of Cambridge and a travelling fellowship to Columbia University in New York City, before coming to work at King’s College London’s Dental Institute.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
PK: My father worked as an electrochemical engineer, and got me started with home experiments from a young age. He would take me to the library to find science books and videos for younger people, and would try to explain his own research to me. As I moved to the Canadian of A-levels and above, his research started to make more sense, however my own strengths lay in Biology, and I enjoyed Genetics and Molecular Biology. I decided that Medical Research would have lots of interesting opportunities and have eventual translational to patients. I have always been interested in the idea that scientists and engineers can create the tools and treatments which doctors and surgeons then administer to their patients.
SS: So, what would you say is the most fascinating aspect of your research?
PK: Bone is a fascinating tissue. It is a composite of both a ceramic material, called hydroxyapatite (a calcium phosphate ceramic) and a soft material called collagen, which is produced by cells during development and repair. How this process occurs, and how the collagen becomes this ‘mineralised’ structure that can support our weight, is absolutely amazing. The fact that bones can act as calcium stores for the whole body, as well as respond to loading makes them a sensitive and essential part of our bodies. When bones are compromised, quality of life can be terribly affected. However, although musculoskeletal disease and injuries have affected many of us, and those we know, it is still a poorly understood and funded area of research.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
PK: I am very interested in the public engagement aspect of science. The majority of my friends and family are not scientists, so I often have to explain my research to a lay audience. Many people are interested in my research, the type of work we do, and the lab techniques and equipment we use. Telling a friend that I spent an entire day in a basement, with no windows, thrilled by visualising my samples under an electron microscope, or feeding my cells (“my babies”), thrills my friends. I have also previously volunteered for a hospital radio station, and had a short stint in Healthcare PR, so I have other experience with communicating to different audiences.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? fear? thrill? anticipation?
SS: You have a magic wand, you can change one thing about the scientific culture right now – what would it be?
PK: More funding and resources for career support at an earlier stage in academia, so that PhD students and postdocs are aware of all the opportunities around them, aside from postdocing and academia. I think that at this level, all scientists need to be equally empowered to pursue the career that will satisfy their career goals, including those opportunities in industry, abroad, and outside of the lab. Postdocs need constant support with realistic career planning, and sometimes this needs to be sourced from outside of their department. The Postdoctoral Society at the University of Cambridge should be a model organisation for all other UK universities. It has really empowered and mobilised the postdocs at that University, giving them regular career support, networking opportunities, and funding opportunities at the postdoc level.
SS: You probably accumulated a lot of knowledge about what helps (and what doesn’t) when pursuing a career in academia. What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
PK: Speak to and shadow academics at various levels in their career, including postdoc, lecturer and professor. Network, inside and inside your department and university. Ask about the responsibilities, benefits and hurdles in an academic career. Do you yourself enjoy lab work, writing and publishing papers, and giving talks at conferences? Try and visualise your life 10 years post-PhD in academia, and whether you have the passion, ambition and dedication required for an academic career. Would you be content with fixed-term contracts during your postdoctoral training? Would academia realistically provide the work-life balance you desire, as well as the intellectual stimulation, opportunities and challenges you need? It’s better to ask these difficult questions now, than wait 3 years until the end of your PhD swiftly arrives!