“Just keep swimming”—the road to a PhD

This week, mum of twins and clinical immunologist Georgina Bird graduates with her PhD—an achievement she says would never have been possible without the people backing her, and the women who inspire her.

Georgina Bird

“A lot of the time when I was struggling to keep on this road, I would look to other women, and I would see how they continued to succeed, and I would take inspiration from them.

“But I’ve also been incredibly lucky. I have a husband who supports my dreams 110%, a family who have been able to step in and help out, and an established network through the University who championed me and kept me focused on my success.”

Georgina was born and raised in Wellington, but when she finished high school, she says she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life.

“I knew that I didn’t want to go to university yet—because I didn’t know what I wanted to do!”

She spent time travelling and working, dabbling in both floristry and the mining industry in the United Kingdom and Australia, later returning to New Zealand after deciding it was time to go to university.

She enrolled for a Bachelor of Biomedical Science and would go on to do her Master’s in clinical immunology before taking on her PhD, supervised by Professors Peter Larsen, Anne La Flamme, and Scott Harding. She now works as a Research Fellow at Medical Research Institute of New Zealand

“I’ve been at Te Herenga Waka eight years now, and it’s been a fantastic place to study. I’ve always enjoyed my lectures and building a network here with other students and lecturers—it’s been great.

“There have been some spectacular women supporting me. Anne La Flamme, Kathryn Hally, and Katharina Robichon, they’ve all been amazing and pivotal in my success.

Georgina never ended up taking any time off during her pregnancy—mostly because her babies decided to come two months earlier than anticipated at 32 weeks, “so we spent a bit of time in NICU”, she says.

Just a few weeks after her children were out of NICU, the country went into lockdown.

“It was a scary time to have a little family, but was nice for me and my family in many ways—it meant that we were all together for a lot longer than we would’ve been otherwise.”

Eight months later, Georgina was back at it.

Her thesis aimed to characterise B cells, a type of white blood cell, in acute coronary syndrome—heart attacks and heart disease.

She says that B cells modulate and interact with other immune cells to make decisions in your immune response, and so play an important part in the body’s immune response to in heart disease and following a heart attack.

“After a heart attack, people have very different immune responses—some patients go on to be absolutely fine, but others go on to have extreme responses that cause long-term damage, the challenge is there are many immune cells involved and we don’t know how they all behave.”

Through her PhD, Georgina examined the role that B cells could play in this response—examining the cells taken from both human tissue and successfully developing an in vitro model using human cells donated by “amazing” patients.

Georgina says she first came into the project as part of her Master’s and was immediately attracted to the work.

“B cells are fascinating. There’s so much work to be done in this space and huge research scope which could lead to important findings for patients. Any information we can glean and contribute to a wide conversation around immune responses is going to have significant implications.”

But it wasn’t an easy journey.

“Just keep swimming was my motto. You show up each day, and you do whatever you can, and you just keep going. And then one day you’ve done it.

“Particularly for me my PhD presented many challenges, juggling motherhood at the same time, there was so much at play that I don’t think we often register as a society. Although I’d say all the parents out there do!

“You’re sleep deprived, trying to figure out how to be a mum and how to be present for your children. But at the same time, you’re trying to accomplish this dream you had for yourself and hold some part of yourself still. I think there can be so much guilt associated with it.

“In those first few years there’s this merging of you as a person and you as a mother—and that’s difficult.”

It’s a road that Georgina says can get easier though, if the field welcomes more voices—and more mothers—into its fold.

“The more voices there are in a room saying, ‘This is important, and we need to find a way to make this work,’ the more chances there are that people are going to listen and appreciate and understand.

“If we collectively can champion those voices we have not heard before, we can make the way forward easier for those who come after us.”

Georgina says that this championing of other voices will have far-flung positive effects on the research that is developed as well.

“Science is all about imagination, tackling the big questions, and coming at things from a different perspective—nothing great was ever discovered by somebody who was doing something the same way as everyone else.

“Being a mother brings a whole new perspective to your research—and we need those ideas. We need them because that’s how we solve all these problems we find ourselves facing.”

But she recognises that as well as being a difficult journey, it’s an intimate journey—and a decision she likens to her own choice to not go to university straight away.

“Whether it’s going to university or having children or both, you’ve got to do it when you’re in the right place. I could never tell someone if they should or not, because I know how hard it is.

“But at the same time, I will always encourage people to do it and support them no matter their decision. To take that call and help people realise that it is possible. We’re surrounded by people who will say you can do this, let’s do this—let’s find a way for you.”