Kirsten Ebanks: Dart Scholar Update

Kirsten is a 2014 William A. Dart Memorial University Scholar and a graduate from Northeastern University with a Bachelor of Science in Behavioural Neuroscience. During her undergraduate study, she completed two six-month internships at Harvard Medical and XTuit, a cancer research facility. Kirsten recently completed her Masters of Research degree in Brain Sciences at University College London and is now pursuing her PhD at the UCL Institute of Neurology in the Clinical and Movement Neuroscience Department. Read on to learn more about Kirsten, her experience as a Dart Scholar and as a PhD student.

Tell us about your experience completing your Masters of Research degree in Brain Sciences at University College London.

The Masters of Research in Brain Sciences was a one-year program involving course work aimed at building research skills and eight months of full time research which was by far my favourite part. The extended research time really allowed me to become immersed in the project and see what it was like to be a researcher. My day-to-day routine generally involved planning and conducting experiments.

You recently started your PhD at the UCL Institute of Neurology in the Clinical and Movement Neuroscience Department where your PhD research project is Vesicular Mechanisms in Parkinson’s Disease. Tell us about this programme and your experience.

I am really enjoying the project and things are off to a great start. The project focuses on looking at how malfunctions in the vesicular pathway may be contributing to the pathogenesis of Parkinson's Disease. To better understand this, I will be looking at the roles of relevant proteins and their levels of expression in human tissue and cultured cells. Looking at the proteins in postmortem human tissue helps me better understand how they play a role in the human disease while looking at them in live cells gives me an idea of how these pathways work mechanistically. However, this is just the start and the whole project will take three years to complete. 

I am not sure what opportunities will arise over the course of this PhD but I am looking forward to continuing a career in research once I have completed my degree. I hope this experience will give me many great ideas for research to pursue in the future and, ultimately, I hope to bring these skills back to Cayman.

Speaking of giving back to Cayman, when the Dart Scholars were in London on the 2019 Dart Scholar enrichment trip, you toured them through your lab which they all really enjoyed. Tell us about your experience as a Dart Scholar and why it was important for you to help this group of younger scholars.

Being a Dart Scholar opened so many doors for me. It allowed me room to explore my interests and find a field that both interested me and would give me the opportunity to make a positive contribution to the future of Cayman. I really hoped to give the new Dart Scholars a chance to see one of the many paths they could take in the STEM field. It is such a vast field that it can be difficult to decide which path to take. Having experienced this myself, I wanted to give them the opportunity to see where STEM has taken me.

Tell us about your experience participating in the Minds Inspired Work-X programme, working with InRegen, one of Dart’s biotech investment companies.

During the summer of 2018, I worked with InRegen where I had a chance to see the more clinical side of research. The project itself was in stage II clinical trials so the role what much more analytical compared to my previous experiences. It did, however, show me how the research and problem solving skills I use in the lab can be translated to other areas in the field. My supervisors during the experience also gave me some of the best career advice I've ever gotten which really helped me to decide that I wanted to pursue a PhD in my current field.

I also spent a previous summer working in the HR department at Dart which was also an amazing experience. Everyone was incredible and helped me to build my organisational and interpersonal skills, which certainly comes in handy now!

How was being a Dart Scholar beneficial throughout your years in university?

The constant support of the Dart team really helped me through difficult times at University. They did so much more than help finance my studies, they provided me with mentors and experiences that helped me build my character along with my resume. They were always so willing to put me in touch with someone who could give me advice or answer a question - and I had so many questions!

It really meant so much to me to have that support and community even while I was studying so far away from home.

You maintained a consistent A average throughout your University program, do you have any advice for other students who are just beginning their studies?

University can be very stressful, and if you are anything like me, you can put a lot of pressure on yourself. The advice that I'd give is don't try to do everything all the time. Try everything so that you have an opportunity to find out what you are interested in but ultimately choose where to invest your time wisely.

I would also suggest taking some time to decompress. I actually ended up picking up an art minor during my undergraduate degree because I found it helped me to de-stress and focus better on my studies. Find a hobby, play a sport or join an interest group. Having some balance is essential to being mentally healthy while you study and it can be really hard at times when you are in a competitive program. I found that it was much easier to keep up my GPA when I wasn't over stressed or over extending myself.