#phdstory | Octavia Borecka
What do you do your PhD in and what is your main research topic?
My project is about vitamin D production in skin through UVB radiation and why the elderly tend to have lower vitamin D levels. The main study available on this topic is fairly a old paper published in the 80s with limitations and inconsistencies in its methodology (MacLaughlin and Holick, 1985). For example, they used skin from amputated legs, which we can assume is not really representative of an average healthy person’s skin. So, my aim is to shed more light on this topic through well-designed and controlled experiments. We will be taking small skin biopsies from a specific area of the body, the lower back/upper buttock, as it is a part of the body which does not get much sun exposure, therefore not affecting our results. We will then measure levels 7-dehydrocholesterol (7-DHC), which is a precursor of Vitamin D, and compare two data sets (young vs old age group).
Is yours a new approach, then?
I am developing an assay, more than an approach. I use HPLC (High Pressure Liquid Chromatography) and MS (Mass Spectroscopy) to do this. I am using skin samples, processing them in a specific way and then running them through the HPLC-MS system to determine the quantity of 7-DHC. However, to do this, I initially need skin samples from healthy volunteers. So I will be carrying our clinical research study where I will be able to collect skin biopsies. This involves writing and designing the study and obtaining ethical approvals. So in my PhD, I am involved both in lab research and the clinical aspects, which I think is a unique combination.
Do you collaborate with other research groups?
Yes, we do. I have two main supervisors. Prof. Ann Webb is based in the University of Manchester. She is a physicist specialising in solar radiation, but also a dean of graduate education. Prof. Lesley Rhodes is based in Salford Royal Foundation Trust Hospital. She is a dermatologist, but is also heavily involved in skin research. We also collaborate with another research group from University of East Anglia, and I often work in a lab based near Liverpool. It is good to see and be part of nice collaborative environment between different research groups and universities.
What motivated you to enter this field?
Oh, gosh, this is such a complex question! There are so many factors and I can talk about my motivations for a long time. Sometimes it is easy to forget about what brought me here, as routine and day-to-day life gets in the way, but it is good to remind myself once in a while.
I think there was a moment when I was 25 that I said to myself: I’m going to be 30 soon. I have a background in pharmacology, drug discovery and some dermatology/skin knowledge [Which I obtained during my internship at university spin-out Curapel and later at my job in medical devices company.]. Let’s use these skills and learn more about skin. I find it fascinating how light affects our skin and that up to 80% of aging is caused by light (Flament et al., 2013). Theoretically, if you lived in a dark room and never got exposed to UV light, you would look 30 forever! Though you might have problems with bones due to lack of Vitamin D. My PhD research is a fascinating topic full of contradictions.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
It would be nice to do something that can help people. Make people aware that sun can be bad in large doses and leads to skin cancer (mostly melanoma), and that artificial tanning beds are very dangerous (banned in some countries such as Brazil or Australia). Most of those beds don’t even emit UVB radiation, which is needed in small doses to produce Vitamin D, but UVA which only ages skin and brings no benefits. One session in tanning bed increases your chances of skin cancer by 20%! (Skin Cancer Foundation, 2012).
Yes, you may look tanned today, but your collagen is being damaged after excessive UV exposure leading to premature skin ageing (wrinkles, skin elasticity, etc.). It is a quite interesting social concept, as here in Europe everyone wants to be tanned, while in Asia, everyone wants to be fair. It is unfortunately the influence of marketing which aims to create artificial demand for skin tanning or lightening products. It would be great if this was finally challenged and more people would care about health rather than what is ‘the mainstream’.
What is your dream society?
I think my dream society would be a place where everyone has some and is able to use critical thinking skills, especially before making decisions that affect all of us. Looking at the world today I notice that a lot of people base their knowledge on what they are told by one newspaper or one TV station instead of questioning it and trying to get to the facts rather than opinions.
I believe that understanding the world we live in is a duty for us, as thinking conscious beings. Otherwise we are only creatures, like any other animal, that live only for the sake of it and not bring anything good to the society or human civilisation as a whole.
My dream society is a place where people understand the world around them, they are kind, tolerant and non-selfish.
What motivates you to get up in the morning?
I personally like to achieve aims, whether they are small or big. I cannot carry on very well without an aim. For example, tonight I am going to cook ‘this and that’. It is a small aim of course, but I like to wake up and know I have something to do. The long term aim is obviously to finish my PhD and then get a job in a research industry. So, that’s it, having aims motivates me to get up in the morning. Not at all times (laughter), but the majority of the time.
What would you tell your past and future self?
This is a very hard question! You know, my mom told me once something really great and I keep thinking about it whenever I start to regret the past. She said that there is no point regretting things we have done in the past. As in that moment, with all the facts and information we had, we have made the best decision we could for ourselves. We are (mostly) logical beings; therefore we always make the best choice we can at the time. That is a great advice I am very grateful for. For the future, I do not know. We will see what the future brings.
“When I have asked Octavia what is her dreams society, it was like listening to myself: a world where everyone uses critical thinking and where everyone understand the worlds around us, with respect and tolerance.”