MND Australia

Why top up scholarships are important for MND PhD students

Funding scientific research has often been a challenge. The meticulous approach and long lengths of time required for better understanding complex health conditions needs steady, comprehensive financial support. 

In the past, universities have been an important source of that financial support, for MND and other kinds of medical research, providing essential opportunities for scientists to apply for scholarships, grants and other sources of income to help with their study.

But with reports of the university sector losing at least 17,300 jobs in 2020 due to COVID-19 and being in budget deficit, there is great cause for concern when it comes to continued financial support for scientists conducting MND research now and in the future. As universities struggle, an already tough career path becomes more uncertain for those at the beginning of their research.

We spoke with Natalie Grima and Anna Ridgers, the 2021 recipients of the MNDRA PhD Top Up Scholarship grants, about their experience conducting research during the financial challenges of COVID-19, and what having more funding means to them for a career trying to stop MND. PhD top up scholarships are awarded as an incentive to outstanding PhD students and provide a yearly sum of money during their degree, in addition to their regular income.

We also asked Dr Parvathi Menon and Assoc. Prof. Rebekah Ahmed, past recipients of MNDRA PhD top-up scholarships, about their experiences and how it helped them continue their work in MND research.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Natalie Grima

I completed a Bachelor of Science (Advanced) majoring in Biochemistry and Immunology at The University of Sydney in 2016. In 2017, I completed my Honours year in the Children's Cancer Research Unit at Westmead Kids Research Institute where I examined how inherited genetic variants may cause cancer predisposition in children. 

In March 2018, I joined the Macquarie University Centre for Motor Neuron Disease Research, working as a research assistant for The Genetics and Genomics Team led by Professor Ian Blair and am now completing my PhD studies with the team.

Anna Ridgers

I am originally from Hobart and graduated with a bachelor of medicine, bachelor of surgery in 2012 from the University of Tasmania. I completed my basic physician training at the Royal Hobart Hospital before undertaking my advanced specialty training in respiratory and sleep medicine at the Austin Hospital in Victoria. 

During my time at Austin, I have worked with the Victorian Respiratory Support Service (VRSS) who provide a statewide service for approximately 1100 patients on home mechanical ventilation therapy. Many of the patients that I help to provide care for suffer from breathing failure due to motor neuron disease. During my time at Austin, I have developed an interest in ventilation research, particularly in developing and understanding of how ventilation therapy technology has rapidly changed over the past decade.

Presently, I am part of a research team from the Institute for Breathing and Sleep, Austin Health and University of Melbourne and am undertaking a graduate research degree. I also continue to work part-time as a respiratory and sleep specialist with Austin Health and the VRSS and continue to provide clinical care for patients afflicted with motor neuron disease.

What's your current research about?

Anna Ridgers

My project is called “Virtual Ventilation”.  Home ventilation with non-invasive ventilation (NIV) is used to support breathing in respiratory (breathing) failure due to muscle weakness in motor neuron disease. Patients require different ventilator settings to optimally support breathing and improve symptoms and survival.  Usually, these settings are based on daytime assessment, followed by subsequent overnight laboratory sleep study and face to face appointments.  This is important for successful NIV but can be burdensome for patients and their carers.

Newer generations of NIV record information that clinicians can review remotely with many ventilators now able to remotely upload data to cloud-based platforms.

My work aims to assess whether remotely recorded ventilator data could be used to optimise ventilator settings without having to rely upon a hospital sleep study.  This will allow us to better understand whether a home-based model of care for NIV setting titration would be appropriate for patients with motor neuron disease and other causes of breathing failure.

Natalie Grima

My current research aims to identify novel risk and protective factors influencing the development and variable progression of sporadic MND. Thousands of MND patient genomes will be searched for an understudied, complex genetic variant called short tandem repeat expansions, which have been linked to over 20 neurodegenerative diseases. 

In parallel, I will examine multiple brain regions from sporadic MND patients to determine what molecular changes may cause or protect against development of the neurotoxic TDP-43 pathology. Findings from this work will provide new targets for MND diagnosis, research and treatment.

Why did you apply for a PhD top up scholarship?

Natalie Grima

I applied for a PhD top up scholarship to help support my living costs over the next 3 years while I work full time on my research. As an added bonus, I recognised the scholarship could raise awareness of my project in the Australian MND community, providing opportunity to communicate my research to a broader audience and establish collaborations with other MND researchers.  

Anna Ridgers

I was fortunate to receive a research scholarship with the Institute for Breathing and Sleep in late 2020. I applied for the additional top-up scholarship from the MNDRA to not allow me to focus on my research, attend research educational courses but also to present my work and findings at international conferences to the worldwide ventilation scientific community.

What does the scholarship mean for you, given we live in the age of COVID-19 and the associated challenges in the university sector?

Anna Ridgers

Receiving the scholarship from MNDRA has been an incredible honour.  In the COVID-19 era, competition for scholarships and research stipends is fierce, particularly due to the reduction in funds in the University sector.  I was particularly grateful that the MNDRA has chosen to sponsor my research, as motor neuron disease patients are a large cohort who are afflicted by breathing failure.  I hope in the future my research will contribute to advancements in healthcare for patients, enabling them to potentially access high quality care without the need to travel and attend a specialised hospital service in person.

Natalie Grima

COVID-19 has had a significant financial impact on the university sector, and this has led to researchers facing a new series of challenges in an already demanding field. It is amazing to see organisations like MND Australia and their donors continuing to provide essential support to Australian researchers, ensuring MND research continues to move forward. The scholarship reminds me of the importance of my research and inspires me to continually give it my utmost effort, even when experiments are not going to plan.

How does the scholarship enable you to conduct your research? What couldn't you do before?

Natalie Grima

The top up scholarship lessens the financial stress that can often accompany PhD studies and will enable me to focus my full attention on my research project. Receiving the scholarship has also given me a great boost of confidence as I enter my research journey.

Anna Ridgers

As noted above, this research scholarship has provided me with additional financial support that has allowed the conversion of my higher research degree from a masters degree to a PhD.  This will provide me with additional time to conduct a number of experiments to fully understand the role of ventilation recorded and stored data in clinical practice and how this may change care for patients with breathing failure.  

What do you enjoy doing outside of research?

Anna Ridgers

I have number of interests outside of medicine.  I am a keen baker of cakes and patisserie and really enjoy creating decorative celebration cakes for my friends and family.  I also enjoy a number of outdoor activities such as bushwalking, diving, sailing and skiing.  My new hobby from lockdown last year was embroidery work; but when I am able to do so, I am a keen photographer and enjoy both landscape and portrait photography.  

Natalie Grima

Outside of research I enjoy keeping active outdoors with friends, whether that be going for a swim at the beach or going for a scenic hike. I also love exploring new places and look forward to travelling internationally again but for the moment I’m enjoying seeing more of our own beautiful backyard and catching up on my ever-growing reading list.

Past recipients

Mirroring the words of our early career researchers, Dr Menon and Associate Professor Ahmed have also pointed to the collaborative benefits that arise from a PhD top up grant, and the great connections and opportunity for focus that this stipend provides. We asked these established researchers what the scholarship top-up meant for them, earlier in their career, and what advice they would give to those early career researches considering applying for a top up scholarship. 

"The top up allowed me to join a network of MND researchers and form collaborations with other MND researchers.  I am now a member of the MNDRA Research Committee. Do apply, it will provide you with strong connections to other MND researchers and open avenues for future research" - Associate Professor Rebekah Ahmed

"The PhD scholarship was vital to allow me to dedicate time away from clinical employment to learn research techniques that I continue to employ in my clinical academic career. The PhD scholarship helps you dedicate time to research while also improving your academic profile. It is a competitive award which needs good planning and preparation" - Dr Parvathi Menon