An interview with Dr Vennela Boyalla

International Women’s Day 2020 – interview series

In celebration of International Women's Day, we interviewed five women from Royal Brompton & Harefield NHS Foundation Trust.

We sat down with Dr Vennela Boyalla, a cardiovascular fellow working on arrythmia research, to talk with her about her dreams to cure HIV at age 8, changing the system and privilege. 

What do you do?"Vennela Boyalla"

I am a research fellow. I am currently running a clinical trial at the Trust I’m a doctor by trade.

What’s your research trial about?

My trial is about patients who’ve had an irregular heart beat for more than a year and are struggling with their symptoms. 

To help improve their quality of life we’re testing two methods to see which one is superior. One is a minimally invasive catheter ablation which involves sending a small catheter through the groin, into the heart and burning tissue from the inside, and comparing it against minimally invasive surgery where they put 3 holes on either side of the chest and then burn tissue from the outside of the heart. 

We’re following up patients for a year initially and then doing long term follow up for 3 years.

Describe your typical day.

Today has just been computer work so a lot of sitting in front of a computer, answering emails, ordering equipment for the follow up study and reviewing the manuscript for the trial dating to the one year follow up. 

I do have weeks where it’s just computer work, and I have weeks where I need to be in the catheter lab or in theatre to get data from procedures that patients have had as part of the trial. And sometimes it’s meetings all day or going to the laboratory to run blood samples. So, I don’t really have a typical day.

What inspired you to get into your chosen career?

I wanted to be a doctor from a young age because I wanted to cure HIV. 

Of course, I don’t think an 8-year-old knows the difference between a scientist and a doctor but then once you have this idea in your head you just kind of follow it through. And it only occurred to me when I started my first job that it was the perfect career for me. 

What excites you most about your job?

The fact that there’s always something new to learn – it’s always challenging. And the fact that it varies day to day. Not just in research but also clinically. It’s so different and there are no two similar weeks. 

What do you enjoy most about working at the Trust? What could we do better?

Speaking as a someone working in research, I feel like the Trust has a very nice community feel to it.  Because it’s a small hospital, you get to know your colleagues and it very much feels like a second home. 

In terms of what could be done better, from a research perspective it would be great to have a facility just for cardiovascular research. It would also be great to have a dedicated sonographer, or an echocardiographer just for research. 

Do you remember any difficult choices in your career path where you really had to think about which direction you would go in?

Yes, I did. The main time was when I was deciding my specialism – it was going to be either radiology or cardiology. 

I always thought at medical school that I would prefer less patient contact and that radiology would be perfect for me. But one to two years into clinical practice when I had more exposure to patients, it made me realise that I love patient interaction and that I would need it to keep me going. So, I decided that I would specialise in cardiology. 

Plus, you get to make the bulk of the decisions for patient care in cardiology compared with radiology and I really like making decisions!

How important is it for women to lift each other up and what does that mean to you?

For me it’s not just about gender. For me there are other parts of it that are interlinked and gender on its own is not the end-all and be-all. 

The societal structures in place have been made mostly by men. I think we are still trying to attain equality within this system. No one (men or women) is really changing the system. 

So, I think our objective needs to change – our objective shouldn’t just be about women lifting each other up but also, how are we changing the processes that are in place?

So, what type of women do you think we need in power?

I think we need more women who promote the variability of female characteristics. And I think that is very difficult to achieve. Just placing women in positions of power isn’t enough.

Will putting more women in positions of power achieve equality? I don’t know. But I don’t think we should pat ourselves if women are equally on the executive board. 

We need to fix the systems that marginalise women and that can’t be done by maintaining the status quo. Saying ‘We’ll do a little bit here’, ‘We’ll have an equality form’, or ‘Just tick that box and we’re done’, is not enough.

Are there any women, either in your field or outside of it, who you admire and why?

There are lots of women I’ve admired but there have been more men who’ve been role models than women and it’s probably because there have been less opportunities for women in comparison to men. 

The women that have stuck with me are women who are both smart and intelligent as well as kind and caring. 

Do you think as a woman it’s still necessary to decide between a career and children?

I think the fact that we are still asking this question is a systemic failure. Why don’t we have structures that support a woman to have both? Because that’s definitely a possibility. 

Women should be challenging at every stage – why do I have to choose? 

But I also think gender is part of a triangle of race, class and gender and in my opinion the three shouldn’t be separated. For example, would you ask the same question of a women from a low socio-economic background and less privilege compared with a woman from a higher socio-economic background and more privilege? 

It’s not just about lifting women from a position of a secretary to chief executive. It’s about allowing women to be in the role of a secretary and have a family without having to give up her job. 

I’m privileged because if I were to have children my parents would support me. But I do think race, gender and class are very important and I think women can only be lifted alongside lifting race and class. 

If you could go back in time, what one's piece of advice you would give your 13-year-old self?

I would tell myself to not plan ahead. Just go with the flow. Do what you like and don’t do thing ‘just because’. It’s hard because culturally, planning your career is second nature.  

But yes, I’d say don’t plan the future.