Connected Conversations | Jessica Sharkey, Annabel Sorby-Adams & Bianca Guglietti

Best friends, Jessica Sharkey, Annabel Sorby-Adams and Bianca Guglietti met during their PhD studies. Now, with their studies winding up, they’re travelling down very different paths but the bond they’ve forged is as strong as ever.

Image of Jessica, Annabel and Bianca

Please tell us a little bit about yourselves.

We are final-year PhD candidates studying neuroscience and we submitted our theses a few months ago. We met during our PhD programs and have remained inseparable ever since; however, our inspirations to follow a career in neuroscience differ significantly! 

Jess: I had a bit of a full circle moment -- from being inspired by Associate Professor Renee Turner's lectures on neurotrauma, to now being her PhD student (and friend!), which is really cool. I’ve always loved the human body, especially the brain. I needed to know more, which ultimately led me down the rabbit hole that is a PhD.

Annabel: I always wanted to study medicine postgraduate; however, after suffering a minor stroke in the first year of my health sciences degree, I became fascinated by neurological diseases, in particular stroke. In pursuit of understanding what had happened to me, my love of science was ignited. Neuroscience amazes me and feeds my curiosity for answers that you ordinarily wouldn’t discover through other career paths. 

Bianca: I was all about humanities at the beginning of my university journey. I initially completed a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences, studying everything from anthropology to politics, until I started working at a doctor’s surgery. Here is where I became fascinated with the human body. I enrolled in a Bachelor of Health Sciences, and, after being inspired by Professor Corinna van Heuvel, I decided to specialise in neuroscience.

What do you love most about studying at the University of Adelaide?

Having been at the University collectively for over 30 years (a minimum of nine years each), the uni clearly can’t get rid of us! From studying in the beautiful Barr Smith Reading Room, practising in state-of-the-art facilities like Adelaide Health Simulation and Ray Last Laboratories, to attending numerous events on campus, the University has so much to offer. 

What would you say to your 18-year-old selves, commencing their time at university?

Jess: Don’t care so much about what other people are doing and their plans for the future, because your path will reveal itself in time. Get comfortable, because you might not know it now, but you will be here for the next ten years!

Annabel: Pursue your ambitions and never, ever settle. Things that you never expected to happen in your wildest dreams will challenge you and set your career up for the rest of your life. 

Bianca: It’s not necessarily about doing the job you love, it’s about finding a job that allows you to live the life you love.

What are you working on now?

Jess: During my PhD, I developed a novel pre-clinical model of traumatic brain injury (TBI), which investigates the primary cause of morbidity and mortality following TBI–damage to axons. I love the opportunities I’ve had through choosing this particular research project, as they’ve allowed me to develop a skillset I could only have dreamed of. I hope this model sets the precedent for future research and the development of translatable treatments for TBI, which we currently have nothing for!

Annabel: Throughout my PhD, I had been investigating stroke and the complications that develop as a consequence. Excitingly, I worked on developing a new treatment called the NK1-antagonist that targets the mechanisms leading to post-stroke brain swelling and associated rise in pressure–the leading killer of people in the first week following stroke. Results from my PhD have facilitated the drug being moved into Phase II clinical trials in Australia, the UK and USA. It excites me that one day, as a medical doctor, I may be able to use the drug I helped develop in the patients I treat!

Bianca: My PhD focused on both pharmacological and non-pharmacological interventions for the treatment of cognitive impairment in Parkinson’s Disease (PD). My research has been varied, from the lab bench trialling a novel kinase inhibitor to target neuroinflammation in PD, to assisting in the development of games for cognitive training in PD patients. I’m excited to contribute to the knowledge of these often overlooked symptoms of PD which have the potential to greatly improve the lives of people living with the disease.

Why would you encourage someone to pursue a career in health?

If the COVID-19 pandemic is anything to go by, we need people in health now more than ever. Understanding your own body is absolutely fascinating, let alone the ability to translate that into helping others, be that as a medical scientist developing new treatments, or in allied health working on the frontlines. The difference you can make through a career in health is rewarding, future-proof and cool as heck!

How do you relax or switch off? 

Jess and Bianca: Annabel doesn’t switch off, but we try and inspire her with our expert ability to compartmentalise work and free time. However, over the coming weeks, there won’t be much opportunity to relax as we gear up for theses submissions. Otherwise, our respite at the moment can range from going to the gym, bingeing on Netflix, or just taking any opportunity to sleep when we can!

What are your hopes for 2021?

Jess: Starting my dream job and earning money! I moved to Melbourne for a postdoctoral position in January where I’m running a cutting-edge clinical trial investigating brain oxygenation in acute brain injured patients under my mentor Dr Barry Dixon, an ICU specialist at St Vincent’s Hospital. 

Annabel: To continue pursuing my dream of becoming a medical doctor! Also, given I hope to pursue a career as a clinician scientist, I am kicking off my scientific career this year at the University of Cambridge, where I will be commencing a postdoctorate in the School of Clinical Medicine and Addenbrooke’s Hospital. There, I will continue my stroke research in the development of a new therapeutic target for reperfusion injury. I can’t wait!

Bianca: Throughout my PhD, I fell in love with teaching and I hope to stay in Adelaide to pursue my career in academia. In particular, I love all things health science and I hope to inspire other students the way I was in my undergraduate studies and work towards becoming an academic education specialist. Hopefully you’ll still see me around campus!

Name three things you won’t forget about the past year…

  • The importance of physical human interaction, particularly each other’s company 
  • Using mugs to hide the wine you’re drinking during late-night Zoom meetings
  • Planning Bianca’s wedding together and all the festivities that came with it, where Jess and Annabel were bridesmaids!
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