Seven Questions with... Mariam Elgabry
5 February 2021
This week we meet Mariam Elgabry, a final-year PhD researcher who has led an award winning technology for early detection systems in drug testing at AstraZeneca and worked as a Sergeant at the London Metropolitan Police.
What are you studying, why are you interested in this subject and what do you plan to do in the future?
I am a final-year PhD researcher with a joint appointment in the Department of Security and Crime Science and the Advanced Centre for Biochemical Engineering (ACBE). I hold an EPSRC studentship to research Biocrime, the Internet-of-Medical-Things and Cyber-biosecurity at the Dawes Centre for Future Crime.
In an increasingly health-centred global economy, Cyber-biosecurity is an emerging field that has today proven more necessary than ever. Health data is being sold in the black market at 20 times more than other types of data, that unlike your credit card credentials, cannot be re-generated. Cloud laboratories and connected medical devices or Internet-of-Medical-Things (IoMT) transform healthcare and an “immunity passport” will certify your health, determine your identity and freedom of movement.
Given that we shed genetic material every day and that with the engineering science of synthetic biology we are capable of reconstructing peoples' portraits from discarded DNA samples of cigarette buds and hair using “at-home” sequencing, we begin to ask the question, can we protect our own DNA?
My research aims to inform, influence and underpin evidence-based policymaking in the UK regarding biocrime and, where relevant, to change organisational culture and practices to improve national security.
My motivation has always been driven by current problems that have global long-lasting implications, as evidenced by my most recent paper on the COVID-19 pandemic for its widespread consequences on cyber-biosecurity. My work was recognized and published by the UK Parliament Joint Committee on National Security, and it has been featured in a series of special COVID-19-policing papers by the Jill Dando Institute for Security & Crime Science at UCL, where I discuss the pandemic’s effect on the growing problem of bio-crime both in the UK and abroad.
What is the most interesting thing you’ve done, seen or got involved with while at UCL?
As a researcher within the Security and Crime Science Department, there have been several interesting or unusual moments that I have experienced while at UCL. Part of my research entailed fieldwork to approach the community of biohackers – individuals who practice Do-It-Yourself Biology outside the institutional premise, self-experiment with gene-editing technologies and implant chips in their body. This meant that I travelled to the US in States like Las Vegas and Texas to attend biohacker conventions to research their activities.
Even more interesting was bringing biohackers from the UK into our department building for interviews – which, needless to say, had a few double takes from staff members.
The nature of my research also involved a lot of knowledge transfer activities with highly specialised groups of experts such as within the National Digital Exploitation Service - Counter Terrorism (NDES-CT) unit and the biometrics unit within the Metropolitan Police of London. As well as presenting to larger groups of over 200 attendees in a series of technology specific events sponsored by the UK Home Office Director for Data and Identity to explore implications of emerging technology and crime in UK policy.
Finally, while at UCL, I’ve turned part of my PhD research into a MedTech start-up alongside my co-founder Phoebe Heseltine (also a UCL PhD student!). Enteromics unlocks the gut microbiome for sustainable healthcare by building a platform for a range of secure and smart gut-sensing pills that connect to our app to provide AI-powered medical insights; moving healthcare from the hospital to the comfort of the home!
Enteromics ranked in the Top 5 out of 518 applicants of this year's Mayor's Entrepreneur Health Award, hosted by Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, and was recently awarded an Innovate UK Smart Grant to accelerate our work towards Inflammatory Bowel Disease.
Have you discovered any hidden gems during your time at UCL?
The Institute of Making at UCL – is not hidden but is definitely a gem!
It is a make space with a huge Materials Library, from breathable chocolate to NASA-made aerogels. I spent time there switching off and getting my hands dirty – from making silver jewellery, pottery, learning how to 3D print and 2D laser cut.
Give us your top three things to do/see/go to in London:
If you’re an exercise-freak like me, knowing where to run, cycle and eat are always your top priorities. I would highly recommend flat 10km runs alongside Regents canal, as well as the River Thames from the side of Hammersmith bridge. For hilly (and scenic) runs head to Hamstead Heath. A 120km cycle from London to Windsor and back is always a great Sunday activity – reward yourself with a cinnabun cake slice from the Cinnamon café at Windsor and a cup of coffee. For a ride with some incline, dare try going to Surrey Hills and back! Just be prepared to relax for the rest of the day.
Being half Greek, caffeine literally runs in my veins so I am always in the look out for good places to grab a strong coffee. Carpo in Knightsbridge and Piccadilly is my go-to – ask for a Greek coffee, no sugar, and you’re good to go! If you like flat whites, Roni’s café makes a good cup – make sure you grab a yeast cake too! L’Eto is a chain, but it has a funky iced latte that is worth a try (coffee ice cubes served with hot milk). If you are into your teas instead, then Katsute 100 in Angel is brilliant, it has a hidden garden where you can enjoy your green tea with the company of their Leopard cat (I’m serious). Again, don’t forget to get a matcha cake slice – trust me you won’t want to share.
If you’re near UCL, the café’s around Marchmont St. are always great to explore; 49 café, Pitted Olive and Half Cup are some of my favourite choices.
If you live out in the West, spend a day at the Victoria and Albert Museum – I always discover new things every time I go. The Troubadour café and Jak’s Kings Road are hidden must-gos too.
A few places to eat for a taste of the world: Chit Chaat Chai (Indian), Villa Mamas (Bahrain), Chapati & Karak (Qatar), Banh Mi Bay (Vietnam) and Lao Cafe (Laos).
What’s one thing you’d like to see in a post-Covid world?
Responsible health tech and a “bio-savvy” public.
The introduction of the internet and the proliferation of internet-connected devices (IoT) has enabled knowledge sharing, connectivity and global communications. At the same time, these technologies enabled a wide range of crime types from burglary to stalking, as security has been largely overlooked.
Even more worrisome are the security implications of connected devices that do not collect information about household appliances, but that collect health data. The introduction of the Internet-of-Medical-Things (IoMT), internet-connected medical-grade devices, are increasingly integrated to wider-scale health networks and consumer markets in order to improve users’ health.
I’d like to see responsible health tech through a prioritization of cyber-biosecurity at the design stage of medical device development. At the same time, I would like to see a more “bio-savvy” public that is informed and demands for secure solutions.
Who inspires you and why?
Mainly, the perpetual student of a Greek grandmother I have. My multi-lingual mother who as a Fellow of Innovation and Creativity is currently leading the Synaesthesia program at the American Community School of Athens. My genius father who is pioneering global implementation of Building Information Modelling (BIM), and my talented brother who is saving cinema with his own start-up Cinebur, challenging the film industry by supporting independent film makers through an AirBnB model.
What would it surprise people to know about you?
I have published a novella, Everlasting, at seventeen, making me one of the youngest Greek writers. I have proudly represented the Greek National Team in the 100m, 200m and four x 100m sprints. And I have also volunteered as a riot officer at the London Metropolitan Police for two years!