UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering


Spotlight on Maryam Atakhorrami

16 December 2019

Maryam Atakhorrami helps steer UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering’s strategic direction as a member of our management board. In the rest of her time she leads a partnership of five London universities through Health Data Research UK (HDR UK).

Maryam headshot

Maryam was recently named one of 2019’s ’50 Movers and Shakers in BioBusiness’ and praised for ‘changing the competitive culture of health data research in academia to work in unison’. Her work supports nine interdependent programmes in personalised medicine, better clinical trials and applied analytics that improve public health. To achieve this, she collaborates with stakeholders across London universities, NHS and industry. 

Prior to this, Maryam worked within UCL Translational Research Office (TRO) creating and managing translational research partnerships with Biotech and Pharma. She also has extensive experience in research & development, business development and strategy through time spent working on digital health innovations at Philips.

To celebrate her recent announcement as one of the ‘50 Movers and Shakers in BioBusiness’ of 2019, we sit down with her to explore her role at HDR UK more, highlights of her career and the challenges and lessons learnt on the way. 

Could you tell me a bit more about your role at HDR UK London?

As Chief Operation Officer for HDR UK London, I am leading on the operational delivery and coordination of London Site which is formed from partnership of five London Universities: King College London, Imperial College London, Queen Mary University of London, London School of Hygienic and Tropical Medicine and UCL as the coordinating University.We are one of the 6 national Sites within Health Data Research UK structure including London, Cambridge, Oxford, Midlands, Scotland and Wales/Northern Ireland.

HDR UK is established in 2018 to bring together world-class expertise into one national institute for making improvements in people’s health, by harnessing data science at scale across the UK. This is particularly important when scale of data is key and when we can achieve more together through team-science and partnerships across London and nationally. 

Led by science and patient unmet needs, the science is supported through building communities of researcher and professional support for data management across our 6 national science priorities that ranges from understanding the causes of diseases, better faster clinical trials, improving public health and better care with cross-cutting themes in human phenome and applied analytics. 

Developing an enabling national infrastructure is the key priority to provide access to data for researchers in academia and industry. This is being developed through Health Data Alliance and Data Hubs.  London is greatly positioned to best leverage on these opportunities for research and innovation as we are involved in 4 of the Data Hubs.   Engaging with public and patient is critically important when people’s data is used for research and innovation.  It is crucial to strike a balance between advancing technology while keeping the confidence that the data is used ethically and to add value to patient and society. We work on variety of PPI initiatives nationally (and linking those to our regional NHS initiatives in London such as LHCRE and About Me with UCLH BRC.

Next generation of leaders in health data science is key to enhance the competitive position of UK internationally through HDR UK training program. London is well placed for building these capabilities specially in applied analytics for health care through CDTs such as AI enabled Health care systems in UCL,  AI for healthcare  in ICL and DTP in safe and Trusted AI at KCL. Check out the HDR UK partnership with Turing Institute which is recruiting PhDs. 

Last not least, I am very passionate about inspiring young people to enter STEM research and motivate them at the early time to use their creativity to help change the world for better. We have set up a partnership with in2Science UK  to provide this opportunity and enable social mobility. In memory of Jacky Pallas our late colleague and friend to many in UCL, we have set up Pallas bursary for summer 2020. Please check the fund raising link.

There has been major progress nationally within the HDR UK to bring us all together. The partnership is only one year old so we are still in the “start-up” phase of learning to walk. Through setting up the basic operational delivery we are looking forward to working collaboratively across London and nationally to deliver on an ambitious plan. 

What is the highlight of your career so far?

Looking back at my career, I think the key turning point was a while back before joining UCL. About 12 years ago, I received an internal award in Philips to work on new concepts for innovation in home healthcare. I further developed a large R&D portfolio for a range of patient-centric product and healthcare service delivery in chronic respiratory care. Innovation is a long game! Now, when I see some of those solutions in global market touching people’s life brings me joy and pride. Especially when I see my grandmother benefiting from one, it is the icing on the cake.

I am looking forward to coming years and seeing the impact of some of the brilliant academic-led strategic partnerships with Industry that with my team we supported at Translational Research Office into lifesaving healthcare products.  

What has been the biggest challenge of your career so far? 

When driven by curiosity and pursuing many interests, it can be hard to “find your niche” in fiercely competitive career ladder that rewards track record in a single discipline. I entered university to do theoretical physics, ended up with a multi-disciplinary PhD in biophysics and then went on to do different functions at Industry and back again to academia. In many occasions I had to keep explaining and force fitting my interests and choices into a box that can fit the organizational structures or the funding application.

This meant getting used to hearing “No! that does not fit” and learning how to find alternative ways to get to “Yes! but under a different condition”.  

Finally, are there any valuable lessons you've learnt? 

I’ve been told to be impatient and have high expectation on productivity. Recently I saw a note from Adam Grant that summarises well: “if you feel unproductive it is the sign that you have not yet found what makes the project interesting to you or meaningful to others”. To deliver on a proposition we need to shape the solution to what is meaningful for all stakeholders involved and balance the incentives and motivations for all involved. It can feel daunting when things go slowly and I have to be reminded over and over again to be patient. I'll try!