Bonkers! How else could you describe a heart doctor in the middle of ground-breaking PhD research into de-mystifying the intricate fibres of our heart muscle who takes up triathlon as a distraction from desk work? Meet Dr Laura-Ann McGill, or LA as she's fondly known. She's a gifted doctor (I know this first hand - she's an ex-colleague of mine) who juggles pioneering medical work with national level sport and a hectic social life. Just back from a vodka-fuelled wedding in Poland, she sat down with me at The Hospital Club, London to talk career, sexism in the workplace (yawn, yes it still exists, but it's waning) sport, life and style. Buckle up - this Glaswegian lass has smarts, style and charm in spades. Oh and we're also post-photoshoot at Imperial College, so snaps (sorry!) to our photographer Nancy for the pics, clothes by me, styled by LA. Enjoy the ride!
When asked 'Why Medicine', LA, in her typical no nonsense style, explains that by a process of elimination (she's allergic to most animals, so that ruled out becoming a Vet and desk work was way too sedentary) she settled on what she loves most - people, academia and being run off her feet. Her nervous energy and love of meeting people every day and getting feedback from patients (she's firmly focussed on curative medicine, steering clear of medicine that is merely disease modifying but doesn't offer patients a cure) makes her that rare mix of smart, caring and tireless that makes for a brilliant doctor.
Why Cardiology in particular? LA explains that after initially ruling it out (due to its heavily male dominated and seemingly inaccessible nature) she returned to it on the advice of a mentor, 'a Dundonian chap, who saw that I was made for cardiology. He helped me get my CV together and that was that, in 2007'. Now increasingly populated by women, LA recommends Cardiology as a diverse and rewarding speciality.
Wind forward to 2015 and LA is writing up critical findings from her research conducted at The Royal Brompton Hospital, London that will help us understand how and why the muscle fibres within the heart lengthen and shorten in multiple directions as the heart muscle contracts and relaxes. This may be the key to understanding why certain individuals suffer from Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy - which can cause sudden death at a young age. LA explains that we need to understand how the heart muscle cells, or myocytes, change in shape and position during heart muscle contraction and relaxation and she has been investigating this using Diffusion Tensor Imaging, which incidentally creates gorgeous images in addition to the important anatomical and physiological information they provide (cue my brain gear change from scientific to creative - imagine programming the MUSE image below into digital knitwear!) For anyone familiar with MUSE's album The 2nd Law, remember the cover? It is a Diffusion Tensor Image:
**See the video for Muse - The 2nd Law: Unsustainable here, featuring a CT brain scan looped over neurological synapse graphics. (LA saw MUSE live and the show incorporated Diffusion Tensor imaging. She pointed me to this knowing I'm passionate about fusing science and the arts. **
The research LA is doing investigates why the myocytes are smooth and regular in normal heart muscle (see A and D below) but in disarray in patients with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy B,C,E,F) and how the heart can be imaged to detect the condition and prevent sudden death.
Image Credit: American Heart Association
Asked what grabs her most about her current research LA is enthusiastic about the recruitment process and constant (and un-rushed) contact she has with her patients, rather than the usual 10 minute express NHS clinic appointment that leaves little time to reassure patients and answer their concerns. Research has led her to question her (in depth) knowledge of her speciality and never be afraid to challenge the norm, despite what's generally accepted. She learns more every day about the intricacies and presentation of cardiac illness. This stance strikes me as refreshing when I consider my Cardiologist colleagues, for some of whom admitting they don't have all the answers would not come so comfortably. I wonder if that's what makes LA special too. She is always searching for a better outcome and seeking complete truth rather than resting on limitations of existing research and generally accepted norms.
At this point, reflecting on LA's workload and commitment to research I have to ask, 'why did you get Triathlon while doing your PhD?' Boredom at being desk-bound is the response. She talks me through her journey from seeing the Triathlon event on telly during the Olympics, finding out that Imperial College (where her PhD is being conducted) had a triathlon club and a brush with a streamer-laden bike-rider in her first triathlon event to eventually asking a fellow competitor where they got their fancy (GB) triathlon wetsuit, neatly leading up to her way surpassing her expectations and achieving GB level timing in several competitive triathlons and subsequent qualification for European and World Championship events. She was a sporty teen and a keen athlete but I nonetheless find it incredible that LA stops off at the Serpentine on her way to work to do her swimming training and cycles hundreds of kilometres per week. All the while we've had fun nights out after our photoshoot for the SS15 collection and the odd house party and after work drink, so she holds down a social life and time for family, who are her greatest influence and inspiration. She gives particular credit to her mum and dad, reminiscing about her mum's hysterically joyous reaction when she emerged from the water in her first triathlon and then popped up at all the best vantage points along the way.
Diverting to the subject of style after my rosy-cheeked response to compliments on my label (LA: I love looking at your pieces, wondering if I can identify the anatomical structures within them. The pieces are just beautiful - they fit well, they're feminine and interesting and the patterns are really eye-grabbing. BR: *blushes profusely* Thanks) we talk lycra. It's LA's weakness. Asked what piece of clothing defines her personal styles she replies 'Five years ago - skinny jeans. Now its probably lycra. Just lycra. My favourite phrase is "I had no idea I needed this". She's achieved platinum customer status at Wiggle and has a love/hate relationship with online shopping (loving the always available online shopping experience and delivery to the door - the drawback being how easy it is to spend! )