Category Archives: Health

Do our foetal experiences help to do a PhD?

I stumbled across this talk by science writer Annie Murphy Paul on the intriguing field of foetal origins research. According to the scientific research, one’s learning begins while in the womb;  information about the environment of a pregnant mother is transmitted to the foetus, primarily through the digestive process and the senses, so that the foetus can develop the right qualities to survive in the outside world. (Unfortunately, the foetus doesn’t know that the mother’s environment is subject to change.)

I have been thinking  about the origin of phd topics and how they are influenced by the environment of the PhD student. There may be no connection but this talk made me wonder whether the skills required to do a PhD or experience that led to a PhD topic are the result in part or indirectly of any foetal learning.

It is interesting that Paul’s book on foetal origin research was written while she herself was pregnant. Did her experience as an expectant mother make her look more favourably on doing the research?  

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Reblog: PhD – A journey to where?

By Bernie Divall

Pigeon hole

Bernie had to get out the pigeon-hole she was put in as a child

If life really is about the journey, then I should be very happy. Last night I went to my eldest daughter’s parents’ evening, and was (yet again) overcome with joy at the realisation that she really is a proper all-rounder in her abilities. She excels at music, literacy, history, languages, science, art… Really, the only thing holding her back is a lack of confidence in maths, but I feel sure we can all live with that. And her grandfather is a mathematician, so help is at hand.

I’m immensely proud of the way we’ve brought our children up in terms of their education. We’ve always told them that working hard in the subjects they don’t find so easy is really important, and ultimately massively rewarding. For myself, this has been a direct reaction to my own upbringing, in which I ‘became’ a musician at around the age of 11, and was pigeon-holed accordingly throughout my secondary school education. I excelled at arts and languages, and giggled my way helplessly through the sciences. I remember my mum telling me that I wouldn’t be any good at sciences, because she wasn’t. So I stuck rigidly to being good at what I knew, and never explored other options. I do remember having a bit of a fascination with human biology, but never tried at the subject because it was challenging. My dad said that if I was going to fail anything, I should get a ‘U’ – this stands for ‘unclassified’, and meant the exam result would not appear on my ‘O’ level certificate (yes, I am that old. Older than GCSEs). So I got ‘A’s and ‘B’s in everything except Biology. In which I got a ‘U’. So indeed, it never appeared anywhere.

Off I went to music college on a scholarship, and I had fun in my pigeon-hole for a while, until I began to realise that it might not be enough for me to spend 8 hours of the day playing the bassoon. There was definitely more to life than what I felt was like stroking my own ego for the rest of my life. And at some point after that, several years later in fact, I found my way into midwifery. In which, as well as large amounts of psychology and sociology, I studied elements of human biology for three years. And far from being rubbish at it, I discovered that it was interesting – fascinating, even – and I could do it! I expect this was because I was now at a point in my life where I actually WANTED to learn such things as the circulatory system. After all, I’d be a pretty rubbish midwife if I didn’t know that.

Then, when I was doing my Research Masters, I had to deal with statistics. Maths had been my other big fear at school (despite, or perhaps because of, having a mathematician parent), and I was convinced that statistics (one of the Masters modules) would be utter hell. Again, I was wrong – it was actually quite fun, manipulating numbers until they did what I wanted them to.

And here I am now, doing a PhD. Who would have thought I could travel from the life of a classically trained bassoonist to the kind of thinking and writing I do now? My husband sometimes points out what a journey this has been, and I do feel a bit amazed at times. When I was 14, or 16, or even 18, I would never have considered ending up here. I probably wouldn’t have even known what a PhD was!

So I’m glad for the journey I’ve had the chance to make. Because my children can see that making a career choice at one point in your existence doesn’t restrict you to a lifetime of living that career. And I can see clearly why it’s such a good thing to encourage them to work at and get enjoyment from all the subjects available to them. I don’t regret my journey to this PhD life, and indeed I think that for me, it has been a necessary sequence of events to get me here. But I’m definitely a big believer in not being limited or restricted. Not in childhood, and not in adulthood either.

So I wonder where the journey will take me next? I’ve always had a hankering to be a hairdresser, but I think I’ll leave that one alone. What I’d really like to be is a writer. The thing is, I’m left wondering which path I need to take to get there? Decisions I’m making now will have a big impact on my ability to get to where I’d like to be. But then again, as I’ve learned along the way, there’s no such thing as a dead end.

This post first appeared under the title “Tell me again – how did I get here?” on PhD Life, a blog about the PhD student experience run by PhD students at Warwick University. Bernie Divall is currently in the second year of her doctoral studies, having left the crazy world of the NHS to become a midwife researching midwives. She’s funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and NHS East Midlands, so is on a tight schedule to finish in the three-year PhD sprint – the NHS may have absolutely no money left by her fourth year! Bernie is loving the PhD experience, although she has a tendency to get lost in a pit of ‘think’ at times.

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Researching for Knowledge

By Bhavnaa S.

Eureka?

It did not strike me like lightening. It was a culmination of several personal events which then led me to choosing to work on this topic for my narrative review during my Masters. I completed my M.Sc in Health Psychology this August (2011) and some of my varied topics of interest were hormonal imbalances, psychoneuroimmunology and post-operative cardiac healthcare. Among the several coursework we were to complete, one of them was to write a narrative review where we could review our own topic of interest instead of being provided with set options. Without much thought I decided to write about thyroid health, i.e. factors affecting quality of life among patients with thyroid disorders. I soon realized that I was quite passionate about the topic and wanted to know more. Simultaneously, I also knew that I wanted to do my PhD, but was not sure what to specialize in. My mind kept going back to this topic and soon enough was fixated on doing my PhD on thyroid health.

Tree of Knowledge, painting by Lucas Cranach

Hunger for knowledge about thyroid disorders is leading Bhavnaa to do a PhD

Thyroid health: why?

A few years back, I was commonly noticing a trend wherein a few of my close ones diagnosed with hypothyroidism (lack of thyroid hormone in the body) were either being over or under-medicated by their doctors, had persisting symptoms in spite of normalized values displayed in the report, or were sensitive to the smallest changes of thyroid hormone. I decided to delve deeper and bought a few books on the topic for my own understanding. I soon realized that most doctors only relied on the values of the T4 levels (free thyroxine – unconverted thyroid hormone) or TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) levels. The basic premise here is that the unconverted thyroid hormone needs to convert into triodothyronine or T3 to be utilized by the body. If this conversion does not happen very effectively, the body gets starved of usable thyroid hormone. Yet very few endocrinologists ask for the values of converted thyroid levels or T3 levels, depending wholly on the values of the T4 and the TSH levels.

Sadly the symptoms associated with lack of thyroid hormone are quite nasty with one feeling excessively fatigued, having slurred speech, slower body responses, weight gain, fogginess of the mind, low concentration levels, and anxiety. The symptoms for excess thyroid hormone in the body or hyperthyroidism are restlessness, tachycardia, weight loss, etc. More than the physical strain, one feels psychologically weighed down with the appearance and sustenance of such symptoms. Some patients are also very sensitive to the slightest change in their thyroid hormone levels, even if it is subclinical.

After much of my own reading and research, I started asking more people (whom I knew were diagnosed with a thyroid disorder) about their symptoms, quality of life, dosage of medication prescribed and even analysed their reports. I started predicting the lab test results before the results of the blood tests were released, and even predicted the outcome of the doctor’s decision based on the person’s symptoms. Obviously I had neither authority nor qualification to suggest anything, so kept these predictions to myself or proudly said “I told you so!”

Similar experiences

My placement involved working at two prestigious hospitals in London in the cardiac department early this year (2011). During the process of working with and interviewing patients, there were some whom I thought would benefit from doing a thyroid test. I was easily able to identify patients with undiagnosed thyroid disorders which neither the doctors nor the nurses were able to gauge. Similarly, my grandmother who was recently hospitalized with cardiac heart failure had all the lab tests done. She had lost a lot of weight and her heart rate was generally on the higher side. After she was discharged and was allowed back home, I casually had a look at all her reports and noticed that she was sub-clinically hyperthyroid. I do know that elderly people are very sensitive to even the smallest amounts of hormonal changes and since it was a case of slightly excessive thyroid hormone in the body, symptoms like tachycardia and weight loss had manifested. Why hadn’t the doctor asked her to reduce her thyroid dosage that she was already taking? (She was hypothyroid and was on medication for several years). I suggested to others that this was worth a mention to the doctor during her routine appointment. It was done and the doctor realized he had overlooked it and reduced the dosage. Obviously this was not the core and sole reason of her being hospitalized or having heart failure but it could have been a contributing factor.

Many such similar experiences have led me to improve and perfect my knowledge on thyroid disorders. Also observing the poor quality of life a thyroid patient can have in spite of being put on medications has provided me the impetus to come up with ways to help improve it.

My passion for psychology

I’ve always been an instinctive person. I’d like to give it a non-scientific term such as ‘intuitive’. During my very early years (approx. age of 12), I became quite interested in palmistry, numerology and astrology. It was so automatic that I cannot remember what led me to becoming passionate about these subjects. Probably a drive to understand that there is something more powerful beyond us, guiding us or maybe I just wanted to challenge the inner sceptic in me.  Over time and after years of experience, I started to practice professionally. Although it’s more of a hobby, it’s something that’s become a part of me and has helped me understand human nature and motivations with clarity. Being an astrologer as well as having a psychology degree has proved to be a double-edged sword for me. I currently provide astrological consultations and write monthly predictions and compatibility for a magazine in Dubai.

On the academic front, I completed my B.Sc in Psychology after which I decided to switch tracks and hence applied for an M.Sc in Genetics (very random, I know). Out of the two year degree program, I completed one year during which I gained immensely but also realized that Psychology was what I still wanted to do. My interest in the mind-body connection was further strengthened by the knowledge gained during my initial and partially completed Master’s degree. I then applied and got accepted to the M.Sc in Health Psychology program which I completed in September 2011.

Most of my short-term placements and work experience have been in hospitals. Having had experience working in the speech therapy, physiotherapy, and cardiac care departments, I felt health psychology would be something I’d excel at.

Doing my PhD

I’m still formulating my topic. I also do know that many a times what is decided on earlier could evolve into something totally different.

To be able to contribute productively in an area that I’m passionate about is what doing a PhD means to me. Besides the fact that I’ve always enjoyed challenges, completing my doctorate degree would simply tell me that ‘It’s all been worth it’.

I’m still in the proposal phase and am hoping to send in my completed application by early 2012.

Bhavnaa S. completed an MSc in Health Psychology at a UK university and she is in the process of applying to do a PhD.

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