Irish Student Orla Hennessy gets her heart set on research as a 2014 Amgen Scholar

Both Orla Hennessy’s parents were successful medical doctors, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to follow in their footsteps — especially her father’s. As an interventional cardiologist, he was often gone on 24-hour calls.

Still, when Hennessy finished high school early and at 16 was faced with a decision about what studies to pursue, she chose medicine.

“When I took a step back, I realized that going into medicine didn’t mean that I had to do my dad’s job,” says Hennessy, a native of Ennis, Ireland and now in her third year as a student at the National University of Ireland in Galway (NUIG). To her, studying to be a doctor would open doors to not only medicine, but also to careers in industry, public health and policy, or medical journalism.

Clinical research was one possibility, but Hennessy needed hands-on research experience to know whether she could see herself becoming a physician scientist.

At NUIG, Hennessy got her first opportunity to try research in diabetes and dermatology for a summer. “That summer opened me up to a whole new side of medicine that I’d never really considered before,” she says. “I loved the idea that as a researcher, something I created, developed or discovered could have a huge impact on people’s lives for years to come, perhaps even after I’m long gone.”

That’s why she applied to the 2014 Europe Amgen Scholars Program at the University of Cambridge — and worked, of all places, in a cardiology research lab.

The work Hennessy did at Cambridge was completely different from what she had done at NUIG. With Martin Bennett’s group in Cambridge’s Department of Medicine’s Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, Hennessy analyzed images of atherosclerotic plaques taken with new kind of intravascular ultrasound.

More specifically, Hennessy used software programs to measure the density of the plaques to gauge how much stress they were putting on coronary arteries. She compared her results with gold standard measurements that are derived from postmortem heart tissue. “The idea is that if we can predict plaque rupture to a high enough degree, then we’ll be able to screen for heart attacks,” she says. Her project is part of the group’s larger goal to look for any association between the structural stress of plaques and future cardiac events.

Hennessy’s day-to-day experience as an Amgen Scholar, though at a computer and not in a wet lab, was intense and involved. She had to know the complex science behind the measurements, because the more she understood of the pathology and the technology, the more she could interpret the images on the screen, she says. She got the crucial experience interacting with people at different levels of their research careers, appraising the literature, and learning how to present her data.

“It really opened up my eyes to the diversity of experiences you can have even within research,” Hennessy says. “It was just so different from what I had done last summer.” In the fall following her participation in the Program, she has already presented her work to audiences that included clinicians; the Program helped prepare her and build her confidence for such presentations, she says.

Hennessy chose medicine for the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of individuals, and the Amgen Scholars Program opened Hennessy’s eyes to the potential research has to benefit people. She will most certainly pursue a PhD now, she says. “My idea is that, if I did something research-based, I wouldn’t just be making a difference in that instant, I would be making a difference for the future as well,” she says.