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Get to know some of our early-career researchers; learn about their achievements and find out what inspired them to pursue their career

Sarah Massey, Research Fellow - Implanted Devices Group (IDG)

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What is your role and describe what a typical day at work looks like?

I am a Research Fellow in Lynsey Duffell and Nick Donaldson’s group, Implanted Devices Group (IDG), working on the iCycle II project, which uses functional electrical stimulation (FES) cycling for neurological recovery of chronic spinal cord injury (SCI).

On top of this, I have received some funding with colleagues at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore, to run a trial using transcutaneous spinal cord stimulation (TSCS) for inpatient rehabilitation of the upper limb in people with acute SCI.

Getting a clinical trial with human participants up and running is a lot of admin, so a lot of my days are currently spent rifling through lots of ethics forms! But I also get to run some great neurophysiological experiments to get a better understanding of how TSCS can help with the recovery of people with SCI. My days will hopefully be a bit more full of experiments and working with people once I get all of my admin done!

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

I’ve recently gained funding with the physiotherapy department at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital to run a feasibility trial with 6 patients with SCI. We’re planning on adding TSCS to inpatient rehabilitation of the arms and hands.

It’s been really interesting working closely with clinical colleagues and we’re hoping the trial will have success and will ultimately lead to us being able to use TSCS as a part of standard rehabilitation.

What inspired you to work in this field?

My Master's was in Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technologies, which was based at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, where I was exposed to real patients and people living with disabilities, which gave me a real perspective on how technology and engineering can help in the medical field.

Continuing to work in rehabilitation technologies and maintaining my clinical contacts at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital has been a great learning process and I hope to stick around a little while longer!

What do you think is the biggest challenge for women in science?

Being seen and heard in the same way as our male counterparts.

What advice would you give your younger self to help you in your career or life in general?

Ask questions – none of them are stupid!

Is there a female scientist or engineer who has inspired you?

My PhD supervisors – Lynsey Duffell and Anne Vanhoestenberghe. It was so nice to work with two people who are so knowledgeable in this field and yet so approachable and supportive.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

Sadly, I can’t say I’m much of a reader. I do, however, listen to a lot of music and my favourites always change, but at the moment, my favourite album is Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder. My absolute favourite film is Hunt for the Wilderpeople – if you haven’t seen it, go watch it!

What would it surprise people to know about you?

I’m not sure how surprising it might be – but I do a lot of DIY at home and have made our own bookshelves, cabinets and wardrobes. Saves a lot of money!


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Dr Anita Karsa, Postdoctoral Researcher - Magnetic Resonance Imaging Group

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What is your role and describe what a typical day at work looks like?

I am a postdoctoral research fellow. I develop and optimise MRI susceptibility and conductivity mapping techniques for clinical studies focusing on e.g. Alzheimer’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, COVID-19. I spend most of my days at my desk reading papers, coding, and looking at MR images.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

Mainly the ones that required learning new skills on the fly. Just recently, I implemented an image reconstruction method for Siemens MRI scanners. I knew the method well but I wasn’t fully comfortable coding in C++, especially in the Siemens framework, and I only had occasional meetings with our MR collaboration scientist from Siemens. It really felt like an insurmountable task that I was severely underskilled for, but I managed to accomplish it.

What inspired you to work in this field?

I specialised to medical physics for my Master’s degree and I thought MRI was the coolest imaging modality.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for women in science?

I don’t think I have faced a lot of challenges during my career because I am a woman. Based on what I have seen at work and what I have heard from my friends, the biggest challenge seems to be balancing work and childcare responsibilities.

What advice would you give your younger self to help you in your career or life in general?

I would tell my younger self to never worry about building a career, that learning new things can be very exciting and rewarding, and that, with some practice, even she can get better at academic writing.

Is there a female scientist or engineer who has inspired you?

I find this question very hard to answer. There are a lot of female scientists and engineers I admire for achieving amazing things. Personally, I don’t want to achieve anything; I just want to enjoy working on interesting problems.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

I don’t have any favourites, but I really like (good) mystery stories and retro sci-fi. As for music, I listen to whatever I like at the time from classical music to disco to electro swing to video game music.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

I watch anime. But since this is not that surprising nowadays, I would like to add that I like battle shounen anime which, I am given to understand, is surprising for a woman. Just to further destroy some stereotypes, my husband likes slice-of-life romance anime.

Visit Anita's IRIS page

Dr Michela Esposito, Research Fellow - Advanced X-ray Imaging Group (AXIm)

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What is your role and describe what a typical day at work looks like?

I am a post-doctoral research fellow in the Advanced X-ray Imaging group, working on the development of an x-ray microscope for soft tissue imaging. I spend a significant part of my time in the lab, setting up and running experiments – a grown-up playground! I also take on a good amount of coding and data analysis, as well as reading and writing articles.  I have been lucky enough in the past year to travel to a few conferences and conducting experiments at synchrotrons. 

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

In my previous job at the University of Lincoln, I showcased my work at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. I loved contributing to the design of the exhibit, talking to people about what I was doing at the time, and share with them my enthusiasm for science. On that occasion, I designed a colouring book for children on the fundamentals of atomic structure. Children loved it and the feedback from schools was great, which made me very proud.

What inspired you to work in this field?

Since my teenage years I was deeply in love with philosophy and, just before starting my undergraduate studies in this subject, I asked myself why not try to answer the same questions with different and more quantitative tools. And that’s how I decided to go into physics. Since then, I have loved the excitement of asking questions and designing experiments and instrumentation to find the answers.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for women in science?

Even though our department has achieved an excellent gender balance, I am aware that this is not the case everywhere. The underrepresentation of women in science inevitably reinforces biases, hindering career expectancy for women at any stage of their path, whether it is applying for an undergraduate degree or for a senior academic position.

What advice would you give your younger self to help you in your career or life in general?

Believe in yourself: you can do amazing things. Choose a good mentor to help you get where you want to be.

Is there a female scientist or engineer who has inspired you?

As a student in a then male-dominated field, there were only a few female physicists mentioned in my textbooks, such as Marie Skłodowska–Curie or Madame Wu, so few that they were the exception. I hope that today aspiring young scientists and engineers can benefit from the example of many more female role models around them.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

I always find incredibly difficult to pick up all-time favourites, but let’s give it a try.  I listen almost daily to “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis and, if you have seen me air-drumming when walking past my office, that’s probably what I was listening to. Nanni Moretti and Pedro Almodóvar are my top two favourite directors. I tend to read novels which have strong female characters and are set between the second half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. The last one I read is “Dictionary of Lost Words” by Pip Williams and I truly enjoyed it.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

I used to play cello and Bach's cello suite no. 3 was my favourite piece to play, going back to the subject of favourites.

Visit Michela's IRIS Page

Nicole Thompson, PhD Student and Research Assistant - Electrical Impedance Tomography and Neurophysiology Research Group

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What is your role and describe what a typical day at work looks like?

I am technically a staff member as a research assistant but am also doing my PhD. I am currently in my last year of my PhD and hope to complete soon! To be honest, most of my days are very different from the other. Some are full day experiments – leaving home at 6am and returning at 23.30pm. Other days, I work on a computer all day, segmenting nerves, emailing, writing, etc. And other days, I run around the UCL and Royal Veterinary College (RVC) campuses between histology labs, CT labs, wet labs, and offices. Then, throw in numerous meetings, trips to Cambridge for nerves, LA for experiments, and around the world for conferences for good measure! 

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

Recently, I won first place for an Emerging Scientist Award from the NIH SPARC programme at the Experimental Biology Conference in Philadelphia in April. It was an honour to win this award for my most recent work and to be recognised by our current funders. I was also grateful for the opportunity to share my work to more people (part of the award was giving a presentation on the work for which the award was won) despite my unreasonable nerves I get before presenting!

What inspired you to work in this field?

During my undergrad in South Africa, I was mainly interested in Genetics, Biotechnology and Biochemistry. But, when I was completing my postgraduate Honours degree (equivalent to UK Masters Degree) in Human Genetics, my project focused on pharmacogenetics and pharmacogenomics of schizophrenia and of both the influence of the variants of a gene (MMP9) and the epigenetic influence of childhood trauma on treatment outcomes; therefore, there was a focus on neuropsychiatry. During this, I realized the extent of the ‘unknowns’ in neuroscience and this motivated me to pursue a field focusing in neuroscience and neurophysiology. What more could a scientist want than to contribute knowledge to the previously unknown?!

What do you think is the biggest challenge for women in science?

I, personally, have not had negative experiences but I think being taken seriously or being heard are often issues for women in science i.e. having to say something a few times until it is believed or even regarded. We just have to keep pushing forward, encouraging other women to work in science, and do what we can to represent good work by female scientists.

What advice would you give your younger self to help you in your career or life in general?

Worry less, take in all the opportunities around you and shine your bright light wherever you go!

Is there a female scientist or engineer who has inspired you?

Professor Louise Warnich from Stellenbosch University. She was my lead supervisor during my Honours degree. Prof Warnich is not only the Dean of Science at the university but was also promoted to Professor as the youngest woman to do so in the country. Her professionalism, intelligence and patience would keep us postgraduate students shaking in our boots when in her office for update meetings. She showed us what the meaning of a powerful woman in science is.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

Album: Staying at Tamara’s by George Ezra. I am all about the relaxing, chilled music that can set your mood for the day.

Film: The Blind Side. I am not particularly a fan of American football, but I am definitely a sucker for a feel good movie (and Sandra Bullock)! It somehow doesn’t preach ‘charity’ as similar movies do, but rather the importance of hard work, diligence, family and most of all, kindness. Also, Coyote Ugly – I’ve loved this since I was a kid! Picking it out from the movie store every Friday night much to my family’s dismay: “not again!!”.

Novel: Prey by Michael Chrichton. This book is quite different to those I normally read – it’s a science fiction novel with a focus on technology and genetic engineering. The way he writes it feels like you are within the set of its movie. I generally love a good thriller or suspense novel though!

What would it surprise people to know about you?

The day before I was due to go to ‘res’ (university residence) for orientation week to begin first year, I was 50/50 on my decision to go to university and study science or move across the world to Australia to pursue dance as a career. I had been given special auditions for a number of ballet and contemporary companies there, with an ‘in’ at one already; but, was also accepted to multiple universities in my home country of South Africa. The decision was tough, but I don’t regret it. I do wish, however, that I had kept up my dancing throughout the years despite not doing it as a career; feels like I break my back if I try an ‘arabesque’ now!

Visit Nicole's IRIS page

Maria Perez-Lara, PhD Student - Radiation Physics Research Group

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What is your role and describe what a typical day at work looks like?

I am about to start my second year as a PhD student. I am currently working on new ways to tackle the uncertainties during proton beam therapy, by detecting secondary particles that come out of the patient’s body during treatment and monitor the dose. As my research involves a lot of computational simulations, I spend most of my time at the office programming my own models to get an accurate picture of what happens inside the body when exposed to proton beam therapy, and how to detect the secondary radiation to get this information. Of course, a day in the office is not a typical day if it does not involve getting some coffee with my research group.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?
I think that the achievement I am most proud of is being a fully funded CERN Summer Student back in 2019, where I got the chance to learn the most beautiful aspects of particle physics, work on a radiation detector project with scientists I have always admired and meet a lot of very smart and kind people from all over the world.

What inspired you to work in this field?
Physics has always been on my mind ever since I found out it existed, but working in radiation physics applied to medicine is beautiful because you get to see how a field like physics can be applied to treat cancer. In particular, my father passed away from cancer when I was 11 years old, so I think that is my biggest inspiration.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for women in science?
To be heard and be taken seriously without having the need to overexplain why what you are saying matters.

What advice would you give your younger self to help you in your career or life in general?
Relax. Not everything has to be done perfectly and right in this second, there is a time for everything. I would tell my younger self to enjoy the present a bit more instead of being worried about what comes next.

Is there a female scientist or engineer who has inspired you?
Yes – Alexandra Olaya-Castro. She is a Colombian physicist (just like me) who started from the bottom and now is both a physics professor and vice-Dean for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in the Mathematical and Physical Sciences at UCL. Against all odds, not only did she win scholarships for her studies, but she also became the first Latin American to win the prestigious Maxwell Medal. She is currently my role model as a physicist, a woman and a Latin American, often fighting to break stereotypes.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?
This is a very hard question to answer because I like many things, for novels I truly enjoy dramatic stories, and for films I love the historical ones, but as for music, one thing is certain: Stadium Arcadium by Red Hot Chili Peppers is the best album ever.

What would it surprise people to know about you?
I love artistic gymnastics. It is probably the only sport that I would never get tired of, I have been doing it since I was 6 years old.