Dr Vicky MacRae on bone formation and calcified arteries
Similarities and differences of bone formation and calcified arteries, and the importance of a happy work environment.
In this interview, Science Communication Intern Maggie Szymanska talked with Dr Vicky MacRae about her work in bone formation and studying why and how blood vessels become calcified, and how this knowledge might contribute to developing new treatments.
Could you tell me about your research in a nutshell?
I study calcification, which is the build up of calcium in parts of the body. One aspect of this is looking at how bones grow, develop and harden. Another aspect is looking at the calcification that you can get in soft tissues like blood vessels or parts of the heart.
These two processes share many similarities, as many of the processes that occur when bones form also happen when blood vessels calcify. However, there are also some very distinct differences. What I am really interested in is understanding the mechanism of these two different processes.
How can your work be applied in the “real world”?
There is no existing treatment for when your blood vessels become calcified. There is no therapy yet, so hopefully by understanding these pathways more, we can encourage new research on potential treatments.
At the moment, the approach to calcification of parts of the heart is to replace it with prosthetics. Similarly, the primary approach to battle calcification of arteries is surgery. In an ideal world, we would understand the mechanisms more to further contribute to advancing the discovery of new drugs to treat the calcification.
How did you become interested in this field?
I’ve always been very interested in muscle biology, which my PhD focused on. After that, my postdoctoral research focused on understanding how the bone functions and develops, which I really enjoyed working on.
Following that, there was an opportunity for me to apply for funding for a fellowship to develop my own independent area. I decided to take the knowledge that I had from working on bones and combine that with vascular biology. That is how I ended up working on what I do now.
What are the challenges of working as a scientist?
Challenges as a scientist… there are many small things! When things don’t work the first time it is all about adapting your experimental method and troubleshooting. This is always a challenge but it is also very satisfying when it works.
Do you have a favourite project from your time here?
I really enjoyed working on a project where we managed to show a potential link between testosterone (the male hormone) and calcification of blood vessels. We found that the effects of testosterone were potentially driving calcification of blood vessels, explaining why men might be at higher risk of heart disease.
The research showed that testosterone acting on the wall of blood vessels can cause the tissue to thicken and harden. The whole project was extremely interesting, and we were able to see the effects in both an in-vitro* system and by using an animal model.
What do you really enjoy about your job?
A part of this job that I really love is working with my group, the students and the postdoctoral researchers. Seeing the students go from the beginning to the end of their studies, developing themselves and becoming part of the group, is very rewarding. I think that’s a really lovely part of this job. The researchers and the team work so well together. Seeing a student or a postdoctoral researcher achieve success, publish papers or give presentations, gain new skills and advance to the next stage of their career is amazing. A happy work environment is so important. At the end of the day, you are at work for at least 35 hours a week!
Why did you decide to become a scientist?
My honours project* at university, which was actually based at the previous Roslin Institute building, was what made me want to continue into research. I had always liked biology at school and I found my honours project focusing on chicken muscle really fascinating. I decided to continue down that route, I had really enjoyed the research and I liked the experience of doing a project. I knew I wanted to do more of that.
And finally, if you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?
That’s a difficult one. Maybe a lawyer, or working in the voluntary sector, or medicine. I also find politics very interesting… There are too many options!
*in-vitro: the technique of performing an experiment outside of a living organism i.e. in cell culture
*honours project: final year project of an undergraduate degree
Adapted version by Marie Poirot, for the full version of this interview please visit https://www.ed.ac.uk/roslin/news-events/meet-our-scientists/dr-vicky-macrae