Natalie McKirdy

Natalie McKirdy

PhD Candidate

BAppSc (MedSc), BAppSc (Hons) (LifeSc)

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Natalie has worn glasses since she was just 3 years old and attributes her interest in eyes to the anatomy charts she saw displayed in her optometrist’s office. After a solid grounding in pathology of health and disease from her Medical Science undergraduate degree, Natalie commenced an Honours project. Led by her early interest in eyes, Natalie chose a vision-related project at the Queensland Eye Institute (QEI) and worked on a silk fibroin-based scaffold for transplantation of corneal endothelial cells. With much success she graduated with First Class Honours. This body of work is ongoing at QEI, and aims to treat blindness caused by endothelial cell insufficiency (Fuchs’ dystrophy and similar conditions) using healthy cells grown in vitro as a replacement source, rather than the current one donor cornea to one recipient ratio.

After two years of working in a clinical trials laboratory and assisting in feto-maternal medical research, Natalie followed her heart back to QEI (with a highly competitive Australian Postgraduate Award research scholarship in tow) to pursue her first love: ophthalmic research. Building on the skills she acquired in her Honours project, Natalie is now investigating the other part of silk (the outer coating, rather than the inner fibroin strands) with Associate Professors Nigel Barnett and Damien Harkin, and Professor Traian Chirila. Her PhD project is evaluating the outer coating of silk for its potentially neuroprotective and antioxidative benefits in retinal degenerative diseases such as macular degeneration and glaucoma.

On top of her PhD project obligations, Natalie is a Young Science Ambassador (YSA) for the Wonder of Science program. This role allows her to take her passion and inquiry-based learning and problem solving skills to rural Queensland schools, engaging students in hands-on STEM activities and mentoring the completion and presentation of an open ended challenge topic aligned to the National Science Curriculum. Natalie has seen firsthand how the Wonder of Science format develops the scientific literacy, critical thinking skills, teamwork, communication, and self confidence of not only the next generation of Australian scientists, but the future general public as STEM consumers, too. Effective science communication is essential for success in research and she hopes to continue her involvement with the program long after earning her PhD.