From myotherapist to neuro regeneration researcher: the climb of Celia Vandestadt

03 May,2016

From myotherapist to neuro regeneration researcher: the climb of Celia Vandestadt

First year PhD student, Celia Vandestadt, has had an eventful few months at ARMI. “During that time, I’ve been on radio, shook hands with the Prime Minister and spent time with the most extraordinary group of young leaders.” 

But that shouldn’t take anything away from the achievement of being awarded an inaugural Westpac Scholarship to do her PhD at ARMI, along with 16 other post graduate students.

Apart from supporting the cost of her PhD studies, the scholarship program introduces Celia to a mix of high profile and high impact people that she would probably never otherwise have met. But at the very heart of all that has happened over the past few months, Celia is a scientist who is keen to get her PhD underway.

Celia’s road to undertaking her PhD at ARMI has been one with many twists and turns, beginning after graduating high school when she became a myotherapist. 

As a myotherapist, Celia Vandestadt was impatient.  Certainly not with the patients she was treating for muscle pain – she thoroughly enjoyed the clinical role she was performing – but for the slow and incomplete progression of research into the cellular and molecular cause of muscle pain and for her complete lack of ability to make a change to the limited fundamental understanding.  Celia was not content with simply treating patients – she wanted to be involved in developing the therapies not just delivering them.   This is what brought her out of the clinic and into the labs at ARMI.

“The human body is absolutely fascinating, so it’s not surprising that I ended up working on it and am now researching it. When a patient used to ask me why they were experiencing the intense muscle pain and specifically how the treatment worked, I felt I could not adequately explain it to them. It was so frustrating because as much as the treatment was helpful, there was little fundamental understanding of the process. This really did eat away at me as I think I’m naturally quite curious and while I was happy that my treatment worked, it was still unsatisfying because I couldn’t really answer why,” said Celia.

“Even though I was in the work force, I was still keen on learning, so I went to a conference that focused on fascia (connective tissue) research in Amsterdam and was deeply inspired by the researchers sharing their work and collaborating on projects. I recognised that this was where the answers lay – where the knowledge and treatments arose from.  This was where I wanted to be. I came home from the conference, left my job and went back to studying science. I told myself that it was time to start focusing on core challenges that change the shape of knowledge and treatments and not just on getting a job after my studies.” 

She then went onto say, “my science expedition then brought me to ARMI, where I took on my Honours year studying neuro-regeneration in the zebrafish. It was intense (overwhelming) and rewarding at the same time but after finishing my Honours, I was still not convinced that I should start a PhD.  My boss, Dr Jan Kaslin, was so helpful in this transition period and let me continue on as a research assistant in his lab for a year. I took this time to discover my own place in science. After a year of soul searching, I decided that I really wanted to do a PhD. I looked around for other projects but the spinal cord regeneration work in Jan’s lab really fascinated me and I stayed on with his team at ARMI for my PhD.”

So what exactly is Celia’s PhD project on?

“I’ve gotten better at explaining my research project over time,” smiled Celia, “particularly following the Westpac Scholarship induction where I had to explain it quite a few times. When someone’s spinal cord is severely damaged after an accident, such as a car crash, the person will most likely end up paralysed. But when you mimic this injury in an animal like the zebrafish, the fish are able to move again after a few days. This process absolutely fascinates me, I mean, how does the fish do it? How does it repair itself? In my PhD I am studying one aspect of regeneration, which is how the inflammatory response that follows spinal cord injury plays a role in orchestrating the repair of tissue in the zebrafish. Hopefully, my research will to translate to improved therapeutic outcomes,” said Celia.

Celia believes that by doing her PhD at ARMI and within the Kalsin Lab that she will be able to make the scientific contribution that will launch her research career. ‘The Westpac Scholarship also allows Celia to explore her interests outside of the lab in a more meaningful way. 

“I’m passionate about cross-cultural collaborations and instilling young scientists with skills to help them succeed in our industry into the future. To address this I will be working with a team of fellow scholars to initiate an international student network.”

Celia’s partnership Westpac offers her wonderful opportunities to collaborate with people who can make her dream a reality. 

“Upon finishing my PhD, I would like to know that through my achievements and experience with the Westpac scholarship, and my time at ARMI, that I have the capacity to go anywhere and apply my knowledge and experience to a range of things.”

Celia’s attention has also been caught by gender equality in the STEM workforce.

“Previously, I did not give the topic of women in STEM much thought because I didn’t believe this would still be an issue when my time for leadership came. I had thought that the issue was largely resolved.”

However, that changed when she read a report that calculated the age she would be when Australia achieves gender equality in the workforce.

“I typed my details in, hit Enter and wow! It said that I would be 115 years old before Australia sees gender equality in the workforce. That demonstrated for me that pushing gender equality, particularly for women in STEM needs to be actively pursued now more than ever,” said Celia. 

Having just started her PhD and now having access to a national innovation dialogue facilitated by the Westpac scholarship, Celia has become more aware of the many aspects of science  and its impact on the economy as well as the importance of STEM related careers in the next generation Australians. 

“The future for Australia is clearly in STEM. As an emerging knowledge nation, Australia is starting to recognise the enormous value of STEM, not just in the pure sciences, but as a foundation for building a sustainable economy, improving the health, wealth, food and quality of the environment in which we live.”

A STEM foundation is a wonderful springboard for Celia to become a great ambassador of science in Australia. It will be very exciting to learn what she achieves in the future. 

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