Helping people through research
A passion for science and health led PhD candidate Paul Lee to investigate a rare neurological disorder called Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is an incurable neurodegenerative disease that causes progressive muscle weakness and is ultimately fatal within 2-4 years from onset of symptoms. Paul tells us about his journey that led him to pursuing a PhD at UTS.
The best time for research is when you have the inkling for it because later on down the track, you wouldn’t have the drive and opportunity that you would have at this moment.
My story starts in Korea. I was born to missionary parents, and when I was around five or six, they decided to move to Australia to start a church here in Sydney. We’ve been here ever since. I grew up in Sydney’s inner-west and the surrounding suburbs.
Ever since I can remember, I wanted a career in health. I enjoyed science and biology, and the functions of the human body. That curiosity developed even more, and once I finished school, I started exploring how I could apply that passion in my career.
Naturally, I thought medicine would be the right path to follow. It is an area with so much scope for discovery. We know so little about the human body, and I could help people, which is a bonus! This led to my decision to pursue medical science - to discover how the body worked and its processes. I found the degree interesting, especially the field of neuroscience. Thus, I continued with my studies, doing an additional honours year in stroke rehabilitation, which prepared me well for higher-level research.
I used my experience in medical science as a platform to get into medicine. Upon undertaking the admissions process and the intensive study that went with it, I spent a lot of time reflecting on whether I did want to be a doctor. Despite the path towards becoming a doctor being so rewarding, it was so arduous and lengthy. I thus, sought out friends who were already doctors and discussed my ambitions. They told me “being a doctor isn’t necessarily just a job, it’s a lifestyle”. The best career advice I received was “pursue an area that you enjoy; then it will be fulfilling.”
In the end, when I progressed to the medicine interviews, I didn’t proceed to the next rounds. In hindsight, I think the panel knew that my heart was not in it.
My inability to enter into medicine gave me time to step back and reflect on what I could do with what I truly enjoyed and the skills and knowledge I had. I sought more advice from people close to me. A lot of them recommended physiotherapy because it is very hands-on, has a problem-solving aspect to it, and you learn about the human body, which is what I enjoy. I took their advice and looked into it and realised that it was something that was right for me. I graduated a few years later from Macquarie University with a Doctor of Physiotherapy.
The opportunity to come to UTS was through a research colleague and good friend of mine. He was working under Dr Michael Lee. I had my initial meeting with Michael, and he gave me a good idea of what research entailed. My interest in the human body and neuroscience cemented my decision to work alongside Michael.
My PhD research aims to investigate the pathogenesis of ALS. ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease affecting the central nervous system. The nerve cells that control your muscles (motor neurones) deteriorate progressively and cause weakness in limb muscles as well as muscles that control your speech and swallowing. It eventually affects the diaphragm and leads to respiratory failure, which is the most common cause of death.
The best career advice I received was “pursue an area that you enjoy; then it will be fulfilling."
There is currently no curative treatment for ALS and this is largely because the underlying pathogenesis of motor neuron degeneration remains unknown. Furthermore, we know very little about the factors that drive disease progression. My research will investigate physiological changes in the brain using sophisticated non-invasive brain stimulation techniques and novel neuroimaging. We hope to identify disease-specific “biomarkers” that could potentially track disease activity and progression.
My goal at the end of my studies (which is another three and a half to four years away!) would be just to find something about this disease that is not yet known. However, I have learnt that a PhD isn’t just about making ground breaking discovery, but also to learn about the research process. My PhD will equipped me with the necessary set of skills to pursue research in any field I wish in the future. Once I’ve completed my PhD, I plan to balance both my academic and clinical career, so I can work both in the clinical field and also get experience in lecturing and tutoring.
The best advice I can give to students considering doing a PhD is to think about why you’d want to do it in the first place. I would highly recommend doing an honours year to get a taste of what research is like and if being an academic is something you potentially want to become, then you should do it. I would also tell them what Michael told me, “the best time for research is when you have the inkling for it because later on down the track, you wouldn’t have the drive and opportunity that you would have at this moment.”
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