Victoria Berquist has just begun her first year as an intern at Alfred Health. She studied undergraduate medicine at Monash University and in 2015, Victoria undertook a Bachelor of Medical Science (Honours) research year at the Central Clinical School for which she was awarded the Hatem Salem Award for Medical Research Student Excellence.
Can you tell me a bit about the research you undertook in your honours year?
I worked with the Department of Infectious Diseases at the Alfred in association with the Burnet Institute. My project was looking at the effect of bacteria in periodontal disease and any association that these bacteria had to cardiovascular events in people living with HIV.
We know that in the general population dental disease has a correlation with cardiovascular disease, which is thought to be mediated by dental bacteria getting into the bloodstream through processes such as chewing, brushing teeth or any other associated dental movements that create wounds, sores or micro tears. The bacteria in the blood cause mild chronic inflammation which the heart doesn’t deal well with. The inflammation damages the lining of our blood vessels which allows platelets and other build-up to occur, creating plaques and causing heart disease. I used lab techniques to measure dental bacteria in people’s blood and saw if that was associated with them having a cardiovascular event.
Throughout your undergrad were you interested in cardiovascular and infectious diseases?
I was definitely interested in infectious diseases (ID), particularly HIV, which is why I approached this department to see what research projects they had available. As a student I really enjoyed my ID rotation. I find that with cardiology and nephrology you’re looking at the heart and kidneys and things holistically relating to them, but you are very much an organ specialist. Whereas with ID, you can have problems anywhere and you get to do a bit of investigating, for example, you get to know people’s social lives, what they might be exposed to and ask about things like their pets and their trips overseas. Infections can be related to any organ, any part of the body and any age group so I found the diversity and the investigatory aspect interesting.
In regards to HIV, I’m very much interested in social determinants of health and stigma as it relates to health and HIV. As well as this, people can become quite sick if the HIV progresses. HIV can be quite complex making clinical work challenging and involving.
Was your honours year the first time you have participated in research?
It was, it was definitely a learning experience. I think it’s true that what you get out of your research year depends on what you put in but also the support of your supervisors and others around you. I had a supervisor, Professor Jenny Hoy, who is incredibly successful and busy but she gave me a lot of her time and patience. I also had Dr Janine Trevillyan who is an ID physician and was finishing up her PhD. She had a lot of experience with research and was able to sit next to me and help me out on a more day-to-day basis. So I was very supported.
You’ve worked for several different foundations during your studies, can you tell me a bit about this and how do you think it has benefited or enhanced your studies?
I’ve just gotten back from two days in Brisbane with the Australian Medical Students’ Association (AMSA) which I’ve been quite involved with for a while now. I was part of the Monash Medical Students Association and in my research year I became president. From that, I got involved in AMSA, which has provided amazing opportunities. I sit on their board of directors and manage things like finances and I’ve gone to courses to upskill myself in things like governance of an organisation. These are skills which I suppose are very relevant when you get to senior clinician levels. It’s been really helpful and it’s fun, I get to meet a lot of people from around the country and a lot of students who are very motivated in things like policy and running events.
From AMSA I got involved internationally and got to go to Geneva to the WHO world health assembly. I’m going back to it this year to help run a student upskilling workshop associated with the event. It’s just a matter of taking advantage of the opportunities around you.
Outside of medical based associations, I’ve been involved in the I CAN network, which is a group that empowers young people on the autism spectrum.
I think the best thing you can do in med school is get involved in other stuff, because I think it broadens your horizons significantly. I think that being involved in things has really provided me with opportunities to understand worlds outside of medicine.
What do you like to do in your spare time, when you manage to get any?
I just try and spend time with my friends or sleep! I also really like going out to eat.
Where is your favourite place in the world?
I was born in New Zealand and I really like it there. Every time I visit I always think it’s definitely the prettiest place in the world. Australia’s pretty great too though.
I did an anaesthetics elective in Germany for six weeks and lived in Berlin and that was really awesome. Luckily most of them have phenomenal English, as I had only a few German phrases I could say but couldn’t speak much.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I really liked visual art. That was my thing in school, I was arts prefect. I did end up drawing comics in med school of my experiences, which was something fun.
Or a pokemon trainer if you’d asked me when I was 8!
See our blog post on Victoria' recently (2017) published research with her supervisors here.