When Vlad Jarkov joined the CSCT he was not all that sure he would stick around for very long. A few months later, the enthusiasm and talent in some of the people around him had seeped in, so he decided to stay and keep exploring his newfound passion: piezoelectric materials.

Working with Dr Hamideh Khanbareh and funded by alumni philanthropists Raoul and Catherine Hughes, Vlad is as multifaceted as they come. Researcher by day, keen kickboxer by night, he tells us all about research, books, veganism, mantras and more.

What attracted you to the CSCT?

I very much struggled throughout my BSc in Chemistry, for both personal and academic reasons. I found the course to be both, in areas, captivatingly interesting and arduously difficult. I now think, looking back to those days, that my heart laid more in material science and research in general than it did in pure chemistry.

What really kept me going during that time was the practical work done on the course and my summers working in the labs of Dr Andrew Johnson and Dr Dan Pantos. Both of them are wonderful people who I admire greatly, and who I am very grateful to for letting me feed the aspect of chemistry (and research) I was really passionate about, which is mostly its problem-solving element. Having an issue and using both my existing knowledge and new concepts learnt specifically to solve it is something that really spurs my interest.

Considering this, it’s easy to see why the masters of research (MRes) with the CSCT got me so excited. The multidisciplinary, collaborative and innovative research they were undertaking was nothing but a dream and something I couldn’t see myself not applying for.

Originally, I joined the CSCT to do the MRes in Chemical Sustainable Technologies only (the Centre used to offer an integrated programme with an option to continue to do a PhD). Still, I kept the possibility of doing a PhD in mind. Inspired by my first MRes project and my supervisor’s passion, towards the end of my MRes I decided to continue studying at the Centre. Luckily, I managed to find private funding and was able to stay.

Outside of my feelings towards the actual course, sustainability and the environment should be at the forefront of scientific progress no matter the field. I could not imagine working at a centre whose ethos was not underlined by, at least in part, sustainability — especially with the context of possible environmental disaster in our future.

In short, the CSCT ticked all my boxes.

Why did you choose to work on developing materials?

Honestly, it wasn’t much of a choice — no word of a lie. The second we got pitched all the projects, I power-walked (because the possibility of tripping over while running in my excitement was too high) to Dr Khanbareh office and asked her all the questions racing through my head about these fantastic piezoelectric devices. It was a passion I never knew I had. The project was too interesting to pass up. I honestly feel like the project chose me — I was compelled by the deep-seated material scientist in my soul.

Can you tell us about your research?

I am primarily focused on the production of materials that can stimulate the central nervous system (CNS) and help its healing.

Briefly, the CNS consists of your brain and spinal cord. It is the control hub of the body — it processes anything captured by your senses and it interprets these signals. The peripheral nervous system (PNS) is the ‘relay’ of the control hub, and it's formed by all the connections that allow these signals to travel back and forth.

The human CNS has a catastrophic flaw: unlike other tissues (skin, liver until the age of 25), the tissue in the CNS lacks the ability to regenerate itself after sustaining damage. The consequences of this are detrimental to us humans, as this is essentially severing the connection between you (your brain) and the fleshy meat robot you are piloting. Diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and muscular dystrophy are examples of this loss of connection.

So far, attempts to help the CNS tissue regenerate have mostly been:

  • Passive scaffolds, where the nerve cells are supported for proliferation. Although these are a positive first step in tackling CNS regeneration, recent insights show that electrical stimulation of neurons can improve neuron regeneration, providing an exciting new method of ‘active regeneration’ (point below).
  • Active or smart scaffolds, which can conduct electricity and seek to exploit the regenerative potential of electrical stimulation. The problem with these is that they need to be connected to an external power source and wiring, which increases the risk of infection or rejection if they were to be implanted to humans.
  • Systems made with piezoelectric materials, which can convert mechanical strain (e.g. movement) into electrical current. This makes these systems power-autonomous, so not only do they allow introducing healthy neurons into damaged tissue areas, but also the active stimulation of these tissues using local electrical potentials. Although a promising choice, its downside is that these systems would have to be either extracted from the body or left inside it – and neither option is ideal as it could obstruct full regeneration of the tissue.

My goal, as ambitious as it may be, is to combine the strengths of these systems to give the CNS the best possible chance of healing itself. The idea would be to use the latter option, but building the systems on a biodegradable scaffold than can be degraded by our body.

Can you tell us more about your PhD funders?

Me and my supervisor Dr Khanbareh spent a big part of my MRes applying for my PhD funding. Originally, we applied for the Hughes Scholarship (RCH) and our project proposal got to the final stages of the selection process but did not quite make it. Later, we were told that Raoul and Catherine Hughes, who established the fund, found our work so interesting they decided to fund it anyway.

A month into my PhD they came down from America to meet me so I could tell them about my research. I was pleasantly surprised by their interest and engagement with the work when I presented it.

Raoul and Catherine are another two of these wonderful people who I am deeply grateful to for helping me on my journey.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a PhD student?

I honestly have a hundred pieces of advice and feel like I learn a new piece every day. One of the biggest ones, constantly reinforced by my supervisor Dr Khanbareh, is to learn to give yourself a break. The fantastic piece of machinery all PhDs have between their ears cannot be working 24/7. For me, mental health is the foundation upon which all other aspects of your life are built. If that foundation suffers, so will everything else.

Another important tip I get told and I tell other PhD students constantly, is to never be afraid to seek help. A PhD is not just for you to produce high-quality research, but to also develop your own skillset. At some point, you will come up against an obstacle you cannot conquer on your own, and you will, therefore, need the expertise of others. This does not make you a worse PhD, but quite the opposite — it will eventually make you a better, all-rounded scientist. Mentorship, whether they be your equal or senior, is invaluable and should never be underestimated.

General good advice that I got from Professor Mark. S. Reed’s book “The Productive Researcher” — a book I cannot stop recommending to every PhD I meet — is: in the face of adversity in any aspect of life, adherence to your higher values or drives is key. In the context of a PhD, what this means is: Why are you doing a PhD?

Having a strong, personal and value-driven answer to this question will help contextualise everything you do. I have a quote by Horace Mann on my left forearm that reads “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity”. What this means to me is that before I die I must have contributed to the construction of a better future for humanity. Obviously, you don’t have to tattoo your “mantra” on yourself, but having these anchors helps you ground yourself. Keep them in your mind's eye so when you feel lost you have them to bring you back down to your centre. For some, this could be pure scientific intrigue, money, fame, or ‘live and let live’ — but whatever it is, let it be true and hold it deeply.

Who inspires you?

First and foremost, my supervisors. As cliché as it sounds, they are all fantastic and I never leave a meeting with them anything but inspired and excited to achieve our next goals. Dr Hamideh Khanbareh, Professor Chris Bowen, Professor Janet Scott and Professor David Tosh are all fantastic, and I am extremely privileged to be working with them. I could not wish for a better team with a wider-ranging expertise to tackle such a huge project as CNS regeneration.

What took you by surprise about the PhD life?

The sense of comradery that comes from knowing that there is at least one other person in your position, dealing with the same struggles. This is especially prevalent when you come from a cohort of other PhDs, as you do at the CSCT.

Where do you see your career going?

I’m honestly not sure — I feel I am too early in my research to have any semblance of a plan. Irrespective of this, at the moment my goal is to accumulate as many skills and do as much research as I can to make sure I maximise my career options after my PhD.

You’re vegan and a keen environmentalist – are these lifestyle choices fuelled by sustainability?

I am vegan for almost purely environmental reasons. The welfare of animals and health aspects are important, and there are highly positive benefits to this lifestyle. Still, to me, these are secondary to the fact that veganism is the very least I can do as an environmentally conscious individual to help minimise the contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. I hope not to sound too judgemental — I am trying to put across my feelings, not what I “expect” of others.

Meat and dairy consumption are huge contributors to many different kinds of environmental pollution, and with the plethora of alternatives to meat and dairy (as much as I haven’t yet grown to like vegan cheese) now is a better time than any to make the change.

Apologies if this all makes me sounds like a pushy vegan – it’s hard to get the balance of passion, facts and eloquence when trying to explain why you are vegan and why you feel the movement is important.

What other things do you enjoy doing when you’re not PhDing?

I am a keen kickboxer and have studied martial arts in some form or another most of my life – since I was around eight and my dad would take me to Goresbrook Leisure Centre (which no longer exists) in Dagenham, Essex, to do Jiu-Jitsu. I competed in kickboxing throughout my BSc, but unfortunately developed compartment syndrome in my right leg by overtraining during the final year (on top of weightlifting and kickboxing, I ran 5 days a week, which put immense pressure on the muscle compartment of my right leg). I have spent the last couple years mostly coaching and slowly training myself back up to be able to compete this academic year. The goal is to get my black belt by the end of the PhD.

I am a BIG, BIG reader. I just find it amazing how years of collective life experience can be summarised into a few hundred pages, and then, as a reader, absorb that information and learn from others. I included a few books I have read recently which I love and cannot praise more highly.

  1. “Stuff Matters” and “Liquid”, by Mark Miodownik. Both books give a fantastic and beautifully grounded overview of the materials science associated with substances we interact with on a daily basis. I love seeing a field I am so passionate about given a wider context — it really helps cement the importance of the field in its many applications to humanity, both in the past and today.
  2. “The Butchering Art”, by Lindsey Fitzharris. This has recently become one of my favourite books (if not my number 1). It details the lifelong pursuit of the remarkable Joseph Lister to make Victorian hospitals less deadly to their patients. It recounts the grim state of 19th-century medicine and all the associated melodrama and controversy in changing a whole system of surgical practice. Lister’s journey is also deeply inspiring — in his pursuit to make hospitals more sanitary, he came against a plethora of opposition both personal and professional. These aspects of the book really invigorate my scientific intrigue when I stare down at the next two years of research I have ahead.
  3. “Sex, Lies, and Brain Scans”, by Professor Barbara J. Sahakian and Dr Julia Gottwald. A concise, yet fascinating, introduction to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and its applications, giving insight into questions like “are you in control?” and “how moral is your brain?”. Although it’s a little specialist in its subject matter, I would recommend this to anyone interested at all in neuroscience.

Fun facts about you?

I grow crystals in my spare time! A shout out to my chemistry days…

I read “Sex, Lies, and Brain Scans” (mentioned above) mostly to impress a date.

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