Wednesday 31 May 2023 1:43pm

Aliesha Kemp image
Medical student Aliesha Kemp has paused part way through her medical degree to take on a PhD in neuroscience.

Aliesha Kemp likes to keep busy. And pausing part-way through a medical degree to take on a PhD in neuroscience is one way she is fulfilling this need.

Kemp has taken two years out from studying for her Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBChB) to take on the PhD, and next year, while in her fourth year of medicine full time, she will continue her PhD part time.

“I love to be busy, and I really enjoy my PhD, I've described it to others as my passion project.”

Kemp is using neuro imaging to investigate anxiety and anxiety disorders to try and understand the brain mechanisms underlying anxiety.

Her research investigates how different areas of the brain communicate with one another, using data from healthy volunteers through to those with moderate to severe treatment-resistant anxiety disorders.

Her project is split into two studies, the first looking at 40 healthy volunteers and seeing how their trait anxiety impact on how regions of the brain connect.

The second is part of a larger ongoing study, recruiting individuals with moderate to severe treatment-resistant clinical anxiety disorders, with healthy controls, and looking at the differences between the two groups. The clinically anxious patients are also being treated with ketamine, a novel treatment option with promising results in other studies, to see how that impacts those connections.

She says she has a personal interest in anxiety.

“People that I know and the impact that it has on their lives is quite significant.”

She says anxiety is quite prevalent in Aotearoa New Zealand.

“One in four people in New Zealand, over their lifetime, will develop an anxiety disorder.

“We also see quite a poor response rate to current treatments available, hence I was quite excited to look at a novel treatment option as part of my research as well.”

She's really looking forward to getting her hands on the data at the end of the second part of her study.

Kemp grew up as a dancer and was always fascinated by the human body. She says she doesn't come from a family of health professionals, so doesn't have any kind of family knowledge, but she really likes how medicine is about understanding what's going wrong with the body and how it can be fixed.

“It's also working with people and hopefully making a positive impact on their lives.”

She came to Otago from Auckland to do First Year Health Sci, saying to herself that if she didn't get into medicine, she would study neuroscience and psychology instead.

“I love med, but I also wanted to take the time now, while I'm young, to explore different aspects of science, and getting some hard experience in research as well.”

It has been “quite cool” to learn about some of the techniques and technical skills associated with research, as well as coding which she had not done before, she says.

“Also, understanding the main theories of anxiety and how that might reflect what we're seeing.”

Kemp is one of this year's recipient of the Vic Davis Memorial Trust Postgraduate Scholarship, a scholarship for individuals to study at postgraduate level in the field of mental health.

She says the scholarship will help her over the next few years when she is back studying full time and unable to work part time – while studying in Ōtepoti she has been able to teach dance to both children and students, as well as tutoring at the University.

“The scholarship will definitely help with living costs for the remainder of my studies.”

She says she is really enjoying her research and values the support she has received from her supervisors and is grateful the University and the medical school have allowed her to undertake her PhD.

She and three others in her med school year cohort are undertaking additional study to their med degree.

“It's a demanding pathway and scholarships are very limited.”

While acknowledging it's difficult, she says it's also a very useful, as learning more about how research is conducted will be helpful with understanding how important research is in medicine.

- Kōrero by internal communications adviser, Koren Allpress

Back to top