Can you give us an overview of your current position and explain what was your career path to this role?
I am Professor of Magnetic Resonance Physics within the Department of Neuroinflammation, UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology (IoN). I joined IoN on the 11th of January 1999, after my PhD at the University of Surrey where I developed a new method for acquiring ultra-fast magnetic resonance images. I joined the group led by Prof David Miller to support the development of advanced quantitative magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) methods to study the mechanisms of multiple sclerosis (MS). This is indeed what I wanted to do when I started studying solid state physics in Italy (there was no such a thing as medical physics in the late 80's)! I since stayed with this group and was really fortunate to work with great leaders such as Profs. David Miller and Alan Thompson, who were excellent mentors and others, like Prof Gareth Barker (now at Kings College) who really taught me the ins and outs of quantitative MRI. By "quantitative" we mean that from images we can calculate numbers that are reflective of biophysical properties of tissue. MRI is such a powerful technique!!
How did I get to my position? Loving my job, working hard and not being afraid to say yes. I was a postdoc for a few years, on a programme grant from the Multiple Sclerosis Society, but then I took a year of maternity for the adoption of my three children. When I got back to work I decided to leave my full time position so that the group could have full support, while I took a supporting role for a Wellcome Trust fellowship with my colleague Olga Ciccarelli, with whom I worked through the years (and I still am). I worked one day/week for about 3 years with Olga, and then I increased my time to 60%FTE for another 3 years before applying for a lectureship, still with the MS group, that I was awarded in 2009. The children were all at school, so I got back to work full time. I was promoted to Reader in 2013 and Professor in 2015. I would not be where I am without the support of my family and the trust of my superiors and of the MS group in general. I have always had a fantastic team of PosDocs and students who I can always count on.
I am currently the Head of the MS group and I coordinate an MR Physics group that includes not only my PostDocs and PhD students but also collaborators in different departments as I believe that collaborations are key to moving science forward, keep the excitement of discovery and promotes fostering of novel ideas.
I have covered several UCL and international appointments over the years, always with the intention of contributing to the advancement of quantitative MRI for translational purposes.
Can you tell us about a piece of work that you are particularly proud of?
When I joined the MS group David Miller asked me to translate what was established already in the brain to the spinal cord. As a result, I developed a method called ZOnally Oblique Multi-slice (ZOOM) imaging to focus on the spinal cord (as it is much smaller than the brain) and to be able to acquire microstructure feature of the cervical levels. A decade after my initial publication, all manufacturers introduced a similar method for localised imaging of the spinal cord. I never thought of filing a patent for it :) The importance is that now quantitative spinal cord imaging is possible and has flourished in recent years, contributing to understanding mechanisms of disease not only in MS but also in other conditions.
This year’s theme for international women’s day is “Break the Bias”. What bias would you like to break?
I think there is a scientific bias that is still very much embedded in the way a scientist can move forward, which is that of publishing in high impact factor journals. Imaging, i.e. MRI, is a field that is crucial to society, having transformed medicine and is very much part of patients' management. But publishing in high impact factor journals (I am talking about journals like Nature and Science) is not that easy because our work is often incremental and involves large groups of authors (clinicians, physicists, computer scientists). Yet, there are many scientists who are moving our knowledge forward and are "stuck" because they publish in good journals but are not "competitive" compared to colleagues in other science fields. This may become even more of an issue for females who may take time off for maternity and, like me, may return to a part time position while children are young, hence falling behind compared to male colleagues. There is recognition that each scientist should be compared to their own self and that possible biases need to be broken to ensure equal opportunities for all.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
It is really difficult to think of this answer! Maybe learn to say "no" sometimes. :)
Who is a female role model to you? Why?
My grandmother!!! She was a primary school teacher who always lived in the present time, always independent (until her 100th birthday), never longed for the past, always encouraging and curious about everything. She also had a strong Faith and was never scared about what was round the corner, despite Life had tested her too. She was the most captivating storyteller and had a passion for knowledge. I remember having to try to explain to her my progress in my PhD and she would not take simple answers!!
Do you feel you have a good work / life balance? Why?
Yes, although I tend to mix the boundaries. I am still as excited about my work as when I started my PhD, but my family has priority.
What is your favourite thing to do in your spare time?
Spend time with my family and friends, visiting places, going for walks, runs (or jogs!!) and when I get a chance rock climbing and skiing. I love also listening to music and watching movies. I used to play the piano and would love one day to take it on again.