Spotlight on a QUOD Colleague: Dr Maria Kaisar

by Susan Patchett

This time we will be getting to know Dr Maria Kaisar who is a scientist leading valuable research to identify biomarkers to better assess the quality of deceased donor organs.  She explained that biomarkers can be proteins or genes that can be measured during organ donation to indicate the risk of poor function or even failure after transplantation.  Her work also investigates biological processes that may be altered during organ donation and impact on effective organ function.  She says that the more that can be learned about the changes in biological mechanisms, the closer we come to designing new therapies to repair organs and make transplants last longer.

Dr Kaisar says she feels privileged to have been part of the QUOD team since its creation in 2012.  She recalls the strong collaborative spirit of the clinical teams (NORs, SNODs), academic partners and scientists across a host of institutions including NHSBT and transplant centres who all contributed to the development of the QUOD project.  She has watched QUOD evolve into the platform it has become today and takes great pleasure in seeing QUOD samples supporting so much exciting research both nationally and internationally.

Maria has also been working on the COMPARE Trial that showed that the addition of oxygen during hypothermic machine perfusion of older DCD kidneys improved transplant outcomes.  COMPARE is a component of the Consortium for Organ Preservation in Europe (COPE).

Every day is different for Maria as she spends her time in meetings, designing new experiments, analysing data and drafting grant applications and papers.  She splits her time between her lab at the NHSBT Filton Blood Centre in Bristol, where she has built a small team, and at the University of Oxford working alongside colleagues in the QUOD/Ploeg Research lab at the Oxford Blood Centre. She also holds responsibilities as Vice-Chair of ESOT’s (European Society of Transplantation) Basic Science committee. Working with colleagues from across the United Kingdom and further afield in the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, France and Belgium has provided valuable friendships that extend beyond scientific interest.

Maria is a passionate advocate of the Women in Science initiative and diversity in science.  She says ‘We must rethink scientific careers to support career progression of scientists to senior leadership roles whilst caring for families – COVID has taught us that we can be productive in many ways and incorporate flexibility achieving a healthy work life balance. We also should aim to be more ethnically diverse as we can only gain valuable insights and perspectives’. The most significant obstacle faced by scientists today, she says, is the lack of long term, secure funding.  COVID has shown that investment in science is essential to meet the changing medical challenges we are faced with. 

Dr Kaisar’s journey in science began with her interest in biology at school, though she was also keen on philosophy, ‘very Greek!’ she laughs.  With a BSc in Chemistry from the University of Athens, she took up a one-year internship that became a six-year research role at Imperial College School of Medicine. After taking some time out to start a family, she returned to work for NHSBT and developed a strong interest in organ transplantation that led to joining Professor Ploeg’s group and completing a DPhil at the University of Oxford.

When Maria isn’t pondering science she loves holidays with her family, picnics, long walks and cooking.  She also loves live music and going to concerts and gigs which she hope to be able to do again soon.

Spotlight on a QUOD Colleague: Dr Hannah McGivern

by Susan Patchett

As part of our new series of spotlights on QUOD colleagues, I caught up with QUOD’s Tissue Handling Technician, Dr Hannah McGivern this afternoon.

Hannah takes receipt of and processes donor tissue samples; that is to say biopsies from both deceased and living donor organs, sent to us by QUOD hospitals up and down the country.  These samples are then stored in the biobank ready for researchers to apply for access to.

Hannah finds her work rewarding and relished the opportunity to learn the raft of new skills in soft tissue processing. She says that she feels privileged to collect samples in theatre for the Oxford Transplant Biobank (OTB), and to play a small part in this important moment in the lives of living donors and recipients. 

2020 has, of course, been a difficult year and the sudden and dramatic impact of the pandemic has been felt by everyone.  Hannah has also been working alongside QUOD colleagues to process plasma samples from individuals who have recovered from COVID-19 for the Convalescent Plasma Programme and for the new COVID BioArchive (COBA).  The pressure has been high in terms of the sheer volume of samples; the record was 300 samples processed in just one day!  Hannah feels honoured to be contributing to work that has the potential to have an important impact on the world; and on the future of biological science; ‘This is what every scientist dreams of.’  You can read more about COBA in our latest newsletter.

Hannah began working with us just over a year ago, during the final stages of her PhD at Cranfield University.  Her studies focussed on the structure and mechanical properties of the human skeleton.  She looked, in particular, at the ribs and clavicle and how their condition changes as we get older. Her work showed that our mechanical strength peaks in our mid-thirties before deteriorating.

Hannah’s interest in science began at the tender age of seven when her grandfather, an engineer in the Royal Air Force, described yeast as ‘little animals’.  At around eleven, her love of science was set in concrete when, at school, she came across a crime scene investigation kit which taught pupils the basic principles of forensic science, including how to take fingerprints. With her appetite whetted, she went on to study for a BSc in Archaeology with Forensic Science at the University of Exeter, followed by an MSc in Forensic Osteology at Bournemouth.

She has participated in archaeological digs as far afield as the USA and Iceland.  At Cranfield, she assisted with the cataloguing of human remains from a dig, colloquially dubbed Rat Island (Burrow Island), a tiny peninsula that juts into Portsmouth Harbour.  It is thought that the skeletons found there could be prisoners from the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  It was revealed that one may have undergone surgical experimentation, post-mortem, as the top of their skull had been removed.  The dig featured on ‘Digging for Britain’ a production for the BBC presented by Professor Alice Roberts.  Hannah is fascinated about what can be learned about the past from skeletal remains.  If you’d like to know more about this project click here.

Hannah is passionate about outreach work and contributes wholeheartedly to public engagement for QUOD.  In addition, she was selected to participate in Soapbox Science, an interactive outreach event to promote the work of female scientists. She is also a volunteer STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) Ambassador going into schools to raise awareness of the careers available to women.  Having grown up in an area of the country  where the uptake of higher education is lower than much of the country, she strives to change preconceptions about female scientists and inspire young women to embark on careers they may not have deemed possible.  She is an avid supporter of the ‘Women in Science’ initiative and points out that QUOD, being staffed predominantly by women, is a perfect example.  You can read her blog by clicking here.

Though it is not all work, work, work for Hannah; she has a passion for literature and film, was an avid fan of Top Gear growing up and when she can, enjoys Latin and ballroom dancing.