Tuesday Feature Episode 35: Holly Shiels

This week we’re featuring Dr Holly Shiels – a senior lecturer in cardiac physiology. Without any further introduction, let’s get right into it.


Please explain your research for the general public in around 10 sentences or less

Survival of nearly all vertebrate animals depends on maintained cardiac function. Environmental changes, such as temperature and oxygen fluctuations, can dramatically affect the ability of the heart to maintain normal function. To this end, we explore strategies of cardiac adaptation that permit maintenance of heart function in ectotherms living in fluctuating environments. We try to understand this across levels of biological organisation and in a range of species including tuna, trout, turtle, caiman, zebrafish, catfish, varanid lizard, rat and hamster and even human!

What benefit does your research give to the people reading this blog?

Recently we have been working on the effect of oil spill pollutants on the hearts of fish.  This is important for understanding the implications of environmental disasters on aquatic species. Fish have a number of uses for humans – from food, sport and hobbies to thriving ecosystems which help sustain the environment here on Earth.

How did you first become interested in your research area?

During my PhD I had my first chance to work on large pelagic fish like tuna and swordfish.  These animals move through thermoclines and hypoxic zones in the ocean and their heart beats throughout.  I found this fascinating and am still trying to understand how they do it today!

Did you have any science heroes growing up? Who inspired you to do science?

Growing up in Canada there was a TV program called ‘The Nature of Things’  it was hosted by an Environmental Science Professor at the University of British Columbia called David Suzuki.  I liked it because it presented nature and the impact humans were having on it.  This was a novel approach for nature documentaries in the 70s and it made me think that I had a responsibility to understand mechanisms of environmental adaption.

How has working here in Manchester helped you?

Manchester is a large institution with excellent facilities that attract world class scientists in nearly every discipline.  This is a great benefit as it means the questions I can ask in my research are nearly endless; there will always be the equipment and know-how to address interesting questions.

What do you do outside of work?

I enjoy time with my family and friends.


Tuesday Feature Episode 13: Mais Absi

Last week we looked at stroke and the brain so we thought it was only right to now check out the heart. This episode centres around Mais Absi, a British Heart Foundation Fellow here in the Faculty of Life Sciences. 

Could you please explain your research, for the layman, in ten sentences or less?

The focus of my research is vascular pharmacology. As you may know, blood vessel function and tone are regulated by the endothelium, which is the innermost part of the blood vessel, and smooth muscle cells which are the middle part of the blood vessel. Both endothelial and smooth muscle cells contribute to the contraction and dilatation of the blood Mais TF 2vessel and consequently blood flow. We also know that vascular disease is one of the main causes of death in the world – especially in Westernised countries. This actually raises the need to find urgent and effective treatment. One of the main features of vascular disease is endothelial and/or smooth muscle dysfunction which leads to a reduction in the endothelium-dependent vasodilatation or increase in smooth muscle constriction. There are other factors that contribute to the dysfunction of endothelial and smooth muscle cells such as changes in the expression and/or function of membrane ion channels as well as impaired intracellular calcium signaling pathways. My research therefore focuses on trying to understand the mechanisms of endothelial and smooth cells dysfunction, how they communicate with one another and, more importantly, how this is affected by various diseases with emphasis on cardiovascular disease.

How can your research benefit the people reading this blog?

Before I answer this, I believe that science is like a jigsaw puzzle and every scientific research is like a piece of this puzzle. The effort of every scientist, no matter how small, will contribute to building the whole picture together. So I won’t claim and I don’t think any scientist should, that I will find the cure for any particular disease. But I hope that the results of my research will contribute to the building of this whole picture.

For example, my current project on pulmonary hypertension is looking at smooth muscle cell dysfunction, with an emphasis on potassium channels. These are proteins in the cell membrane. I’m looking at how the modulation of these proteins might improve the function of the pulmonary arteries. So hopefully this will contribute to the improvement of symptoms and prognosis of pulmonary hypertension in patients.

How did you first get interested in your area of research?

I’ve always had strong interest in science since at very early age and my parents encouraged my interests. I had my BSc in pharmaceutical sciences from Aleppo University in Syria. During my undergraduate study, I found both pharmacology and human physiology quite amazing. They were my favourite subjects. I also found that working in the lab and experimenting fascinating. Basically, then taking the decision to a master’s degree and then a PhD was quite easy so I obtained my MSc and PhD from the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester. I chose cardiovascular sciences in particular because there a number of family members of mine who suffered from cardiovascular diseases.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

Not really. Since my early childhood and throughout school and University, I worked extremely hard – maintaining top student position. My parents believed in me and encouraged me to pursue my career in science. I am also a mother of two. Raising children alongside pursuing my career in science is not only really challenging it is also very motivational. Frankly, I’m proud of what I’ve become so far because I’ve been through a lot of hard work and obstacles, especially coming from a University that, unlike Manchester, doesn’t have the funding to support excellence in scientific research. I do agree that there are no heroes in science because science is inspirational in itself.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

Manchester is a very big, cosmopolitan city which has great equality and diversity at heart. I’ve lived here for more than a decade and have found working at the University of Manchester excellent for both study and work.  There are also very good research facilities here.

What do you do outside of work?

Outside my work I could spend hours with my husband and children cooking, especially for my family and friends. I also like walking with my children and I like mushroom hunting in the mountains, especially in the Alps.

A big thank you for the a great interview Mais! We hope that one day you get to put a piece of the puzzle in the jigsaw in cardiac health! This was episode 13 of the Feature, if you want to look back at some of the best bits, watch the video below: