As researchers, it is our duty to transmit our passion for our work, to tell the rest of society about the challenging problems we are addressing, and the very exciting pathways we are taking to tackle them. This duty became an extremely fulfilling experience on 4th May 2016, when we had the chance to directly transmit this passion to the Duke of Edinburgh and to guests at a reception that was held at Buckingham Palace.
The reception was organised by Action Medical Research, a charity that funds a project about the use of computational models to improve surgical decisions at our Department of Biomedical Engineering. The event brought together the trustees, the donors and the researchers funded by the charity. As researchers, we had the chance to meet the altruist people that are making our progress possible and to directly thank them for their support. We provided them with a wide portfolio of research activities that are being conducted in order to improve the life and health of children, which is the focus of Action Medical Research.
The event was perfectly organised, down to the last inch. His Royal Highness is an extraordinary person, with 94 years on his shoulders, and sharp to provide a speech, to meet each of the 100 guests that were in the room, and to follow our scientific explanations of our research. We heard some very nice words from Prof. David Edwards, reminding us of the importance of medical research and the charity’s work to save and change the lives of sick and disabled babies and children.
We would like to thank once more Action Medical Research, its altruist donors, and everybody that is making our research work possible!
Cinzia Imberti is a 2nd year PhD student in the Division of Imaging Sciences & Biomedical Engineering. Her research is about the development and evaluation of radiotracers for PET imaging. Here she talks about her involvement in an outreach activity all about chemistry.
On 17 February March 2016, the Division of Imaging Sciences & Biomedical Engineering opened its doors to around 40 secondary school students (years 11-13) from the London area. They were curious to learn more about chemistry in a medical setting and interested in pursuing scientific studies. This event was part of the larger Outreach event: “Discover Chemistry at King’s College London” organised annually by the Department of Chemistry, now in its third year, under the supervision of Dr Helen Coulshed.
During their visit to St Thomas’ Hospital, the students were able to gain an insight into molecular imaging and understand the key role of this applied field of chemistry in diagnostic medicine.
A tour of our Imaging Chemistry and Biology Laboratories highlighted to the students some of the processes involved in the development of radiotracers, from chemical design to radiolabelling, in vitro testing and in vivo/ex vivo evaluation. Finally they had the unique opportunity to visit the PET Centre where Dr Colm McGinnity and his colleagues talked them through clinical PET imaging as the ultimate goal of radiotracers development.
Poster session with current PhD student
Poster session with Head of Department
Students visiting PET Centre
Tissue culture lab tour
There was an opportunity for students to network with some of the research staff over a cup of tea, actively discuss some of the current research displayed in the posters and ask questions about our careers.
The division’s contribution to Discover Chemistry has been brilliantly coordinated by Julia Torres for the past two years. Therefore, when my supervisor, Professor Phil Blower, asked me to take over the organization, I appreciated how much work me and my colleagues would have to put in to make it a success. What I did not anticipate was the sudden sense of realisation I felt when hearing the enthusiastic feedback of the students. To have inspired these young men and women to undertake scientific studies, or at least to look at the world through scientific eyes, made this event an incredibly rewarding and fulfilling experience for everyone who took part in it.
Dr Lauren Fovargue is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Heart & Vessel Modelling group of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at King’s. Her work focuses on personalised computer simulations of patients who qualify for pacemakers to predict whether or not they will improve, since currently pacemakers don’t yield long term results in 35% of patients. Understanding more about how the heart functions will enable her and the VP2HF project to predict if surgery really is the best option.
In late February, my colleagues and I took part in the Science Museum’s Lates event as scientific experts in ‘How to Mend a Broken Heart‘. Currently, there is an exhibition in the Science Museum’s ‘Who am I?’ gallery under the same title which highlights the work done in 3D printing of complex hearts for surgical planning at King’s College London and Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospitals. The Science Museum Lates are a great opportunity for adults to enjoy the exhibits and special interactive events of a great museum (without any children to compete with!) and since I’d enjoyed these events as a participant I was keen to go as a collaborator.
We had a range of cardiovascular experts, from clinical to basic science and from those who interact with patients to those who interact mainly with their computer. Although we’re all linked through the use of imaging in our research, the patient groups we focus on are diverse, like fetal imaging or modelling for dilated cardiomyopathy patients. However, we were all interested in talking about heart and imaging research and had a selection of 3D printed hearts to play with, thanks to our 3D printing colleagues here at King’s.
Personally, I’m a researcher with a computer and by the time patients come to me, I can only see their ID number and MRI images of their heart. My research focus is on predicting whether a person who needs a pacemaker is going to get better, since about 1 in 3 people implanted with one don’t improve. To do this, I mainly utilises tools from maths, physics and computer science to create predictive personal computational models where I can simulate what happens when they get a pacemaker. However, I’ve found that ‘I’m a mathematician who creates computer simulations of hearts’ is not a good conversation opener and I was nervous that I’d have a hard time interacting with people visiting the museum.
Luckily, we had the 3D printed hearts. I knew the purpose of the hearts was to draw people’s attention and bring them in, but I significantly underestimated how helpful they were for me to engage with the public. As a computational scientist, I am sometimes very shy, but the 3D printed hearts gave me a guaranteed way of opening a dialogue with people who looked interested. I learned that starting with ‘Would you like to hold a 3D printed heart ?’ didn’t yield the normal responses of ‘I didn’t like maths’ or ‘I was never good at maths’ but instead peaked peoples curiosity and interest.
After getting over my original nerves, the evening flew by and I had an incredible amount of fun. It was very interesting to have conversations with people of diverse backgrounds and answer all sorts of questions.
We were a team of 8 researchers* and collectively we must have spoken to over 500 visitors in just a few hours. I think people appreciated hearing about how their own heart worked, what makes other hearts malfunction, and getting a picture of what the edge of research looks like. Additionally, I also found it very rewarding to actually feel like an expert for an evening since in research, there are not many days where you feel like an expert. The nature of the job is to push the limits of knowledge so most days you come into work under-qualified for what you need to achieve. People were not only interested in the 3D hearts but in my area of research, and it’s always helpful to practise explaining complicated science without relying on field jargon. Although I may have disappointed someone when I clarified that not all people who have surgery get their heart printed, the public enthusiasm overall was really inspiring. Overall, talking with people about their heart and circulation system was a welcomed change and a really nice chance to remember the impact research can have on our society.
Despite being exhausted from talking (and listening) non-stop for nearly 3 hours it was a really great experience and I would definitely do it again.
* Staff from King’s taking part included: Benjamin Sieniewicz, Samuel Vennin, Liia Asner, Markus Henningsson, David Lloyd, Alberto Gomez, Mari Nevis, Lauren Fovargue and Alice Taylor-Gee.
Nick Byrne is a medical physicist who works for Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospitals and within the Cardiovascular Imaging Department at King’s. His main research looks at methods of manipulating cardiac MRI data to fabricate 3D printed heart models that can help cardiologists plan treatments and surgeries for patients with structurally complex heart diseases. Nick took part in Skills London 2015, a careers fair for 15-24 year olds at the Excel Centre in London, where over 7,000 students took part. Nick was joined by Dr Kawal Rhode and PhD student Shuangyi Wang, both from the Department of Biomedical Engineering.
I was recently part of a team of NHS employees who attended the Skills London fair at the ExCel Centre. This is the biggest jobs and careers event for young Londoners, in its own words, aiming to bridge the gap between what young people enjoy doing and what they could potentially do as a career.
We were a mixed group of nurses, paramedics, researchers and scientists, and were there to showcase the wide variety of career opportunities in public healthcare. As the fifth largest employer in the world, we were never going to be able to represent all NHS job roles, so were lucky to also have staff from NHS careers on hand to help us out.
Initially I was concerned that our at least superficially simple stand of leaflets, literature and a few 3D printed heart models might be outshone by some of the flashier exhibits such as the rock climbing wall, penalty kick speed gun and pedal-powered smoothie makers. However, although I found myself considering a career change to animal handling, we soon had a great many school students and young people (15 to 24 years old) approaching us with a real interest in working in the NHS.
We had enquiries from potential future doctors, clinical psychologist, nurses, midwives, dance therapists, scientists, surgeons, paramedics and geneticists to name but a few. I certainly learned a lot about the different routes into the various jobs we were exhibiting but also about just how many different roles are available in the health service. I also had the chance to talk to people about my own research work in 3D printing and enjoyed testing out the GCSE students on their recently acquired knowledge of cardiac anatomy.
It was great to see so many young people keen to learn about the relevant paths into their chosen career in healthcare. I was impressed by the number of clued up students who already knew the best route to take, both into and throughout, their chosen career path, and was happy to help those who were not so sure. We will certainly be in safe hands in the future!
Dr Arna van Engelen, a postdoc in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, recently volunteered at ‘Hands up for Health’, an interactive learning programme run by the Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust. In this article, she tells us about her experience.
The goal of ‘Hands up for Health’ is to help young people experience for themselves what it is like to work in healthcare. It is based in an amazing facility at St Thomas’ Hospital called the Simulation and Interactive Learning centre (SaIL), where visitors can take on the role of doctors treating manikins so lifelike that they speak and even breathe. The programme runs frequently and the staff are always in need of volunteers, so this seemed to me like a good chance to obtain some experience in teaching and interacting with school-age children.
The first time I volunteered I didn’t really know what to expect. After a general introduction to SaIL, I was excited to find my station and learn exactly what it was that I had to teach the children. I was put in charge of two separate practicals: first, a station with soap and a blacklight to demonstrate the importance of thoroughly washing your hands; and secondly, a transparent model of a body showing the lungs, along with equipment to do lung function testing. “Ok,” I thought. “I know a couple of things about this… Now to wait for the kids!”
As the first group came in – all children aged 9 or 10 – I had to catch their attention immediately. I told them as much as I could think of about germs, making sure to ask them questions to keep them engaged. Apparently my inexperience was showing, as one of the teachers started to add some new information, so I made sure to remember what she was saying for the next group! Still, it was great to see the kids get all excited as they started to play with the blacklight and tried to wash all the remaining soap off their hands. Turns out that it’s more difficult to wash one’s hands properly than you might expect!
Over at the lung station I spoke to the children about smoking, asthma and doing sports. It was fun to see them show a competitive side, as they all tried their very best at the lung function testing; and I was able to impress them all with my adult lung capacity.
Because the children were split into several groups, they kept rotating between the stations and I was able to improve my introduction and commentary every time. The kids certainly seemed to enjoy themselves, and I left feeling that everything had gone very well!
The second time I volunteered with a group of older children doing a summer programme. The session was therefore more advanced. In the morning I was running two practicals, co-teaching with an A&E doctor. The first part had us teaching students the steps you have to take when someone enters the emergency room. As a biomedical engineer, this was outside my experience, but luckily the ‘real’ doctor was around to take charge! In the second practical, students were able to take ‘blood’ samples from three lifelike false arms with ‘veins’ running through them. My experience as a blood donor came in handy here! It was great to see how proud the children felt when they successfully managed to take the blood, and I found myself thinking that teaching could be really quite fun.
The afternoon was a simulation of a boy being brought into a fully-equipped ER. The manikins used in the scenario are incredibly lifelike, moving and verbally responding to participants, so the whole experience felt very exciting and real. Again, I was glad of the presence of the A&E doctor, who lent some specific expertise. As assistant, my main task was to help the children do the work, guiding them in the right direction: “Wait, doctor, I think you need to check on him, because his blood pressure is dropping!… What just happened that could have changed his situation?” The whole process ran more smoothly with some groups than with others, but it was evident that all of the participants really enjoyed it.
I was very impressed with the SaIL facility during both of my experiences as a volunteer. The centre offers a unique experience and I am not at all surprised that the participants had such a good time. I also benefited a great deal: working on ‘Hands up for Health’ was a really good way to gain experience teaching young people, and I even gained some new knowledge for myself. As a non-medical doctor, I found it easier to manage the exhibits for the younger children; but with good guidance (and, probably, with practice) I’d recommend the simulations for the older kids to anybody else as well.
If you are keen to get involved and volunteer at Hands up for Health, contact the Division’s Engagement Manager or read more online.
When I was in school I unfortunately was never introduced to Healthcare Science (HS) careers through any outreach events. I was very lucky though to have been introduced to Medical Physics as part of my A-level physics, which is where it all started. Outreach events are not only used to promote HS careers but encourage and inspire young people to enjoy and take Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) classes. I’m not planning to be a famous science communicator and don’t plan on being the next Brian Cox but I do take every opportunity I have to talk to students about the importance of HS in the current medical era and try and pass on my never ending enthusiasm for it!
Outreach events co-ordinated by IPEM are very organised and everything you might need is provided! Whether it’s a projector and a screen for your presentation or a portable ultrasound scanner and a phantom! All you need is your enthusiasm, excitement and personal experiences from how you came to choose what you are doing now to what your daily job involves! I have prepared and developed a small PowerPoint presentation on what I do as a trainee clinical scientist and use it whenever necessary. I always try and take some bits and bobs of decommissioned medical physics equipment and show them to students. Practical and interactive events are always more successful I believe.
I won the I’m a Scientist (IMAS) Get Me Out of Here Medical Physics zone which came with £500 to spend on outreaching! I must admit it was a lot more intense than I thought it would be! This was an online X-factor style competition where four other medical physicists and I answered students’ questions through live chats and offline questions, which we could answer later on at our own convenience. We all love number crunching and statistics, right? Well, the Medical Physics zone had the most students and live chats of all zones! My profile page had 2,022 views and as you can see in Figure 1 I tried to answer as many questions as possible and participate in as many chats as possible. Figure 2 shows the words that were most used during the chat sessions! I think this figure sums up really well the type of questions we were most asked. Figure 1: Scientists activity pie chart
Figure 2: Cool keywords display from live chats!
The questions were so varied from ‘Can you weaponise your research?’ to ‘How far do you think the benefit outweighs the risk when using radiation for medical treatment?’ so be prepared for anything and everything! I must admit that I was caught unprepared at times and I had to ‘Google it’ when it came to non medical-physics specific questions. One of the best feelings was when a student said that we helped them see the importance of science and what they are learning at school and will think about a profession in HS!
The Science Museum Lates event was a totally new experience for me on the other hand! Why? The audience was the general public and this involved adults! I made sure I asked their profession before I started talking to them about the dangers and uses of UV rays or how light is used for blood pressure monitoring in hospitals. In this way I could adjust my use of science jargon and not waste their and my time if they already knew about it all. All in all it was a great experience and I often found that the public was so interested in medical physics that conversations drifted away to other areas of the profession. The impression I got, which I think we all know by now, is that not a lot of people know about this career. The reactions I got when explaining what clinical engineers and medical physicists do was truly rewarding!
You get the chance to meet a lot of people as well and the networking throughout the process is invaluable! Last but not least – CV! Participating in outreach events undoubtedly indicates that you enjoy your profession and is proof of your effective communication skills. For those who don’t worry about jobs and have them completely secure I have 3 letters for you, CPD! For trainees I have two words for you, professional competencies! Conclusions and Discussion On a personal level I find that being even able to talk about this profession from personal experiences is amazing. I am very lucky to be able to be a part of healthcare science.
I learn new things every single time! You learn how to communicate science at all levels! Not only at international or national conferences which you would do in your day-to-day work. It is a process of learning to explain something in very simple terms and using your own but also the audience’s everyday experiences and knowledge to help understand the importance of healthcare science and grasp the concepts used. At the end of the day we are helping deliver healthcare science to the general public and we should be able to communicate our work to them. Not only will this give recognition to our work, which most of the time is hidden in the background, but will also hopefully inspire future generations!
Dr Christina Malamateniou is a Lecturer of Perinatal Imaging in the Department of Perinatal Imaging and Health, part of the Division of Imaging Sciences & Biomedical Engineering. She organised a morning of talks and activities, showcasing King’s top quality clinical research to a local primary school.
There has never been a more exciting time for children to engage with the latest clinical science developments than now: new, more powerful and sophisticated MRI scanners are being built, a multitude of advanced imaging techniques are being developed-to study normal development and disease as early in the course of life as possible, starting (literally) from the womb(!); 3D-printing and robotics have brought visualisation and understanding of complex pathologies to a totally new level and genetics promises to disentangle the mysteries of human life!
My colleagues at King’s College London and I are passionate about both our clinical research and science and it was exactly this passion that we wanted to instil to 25 ten-year-olds from Heath House Prep School when they visited us at King’s College London Waterloo Campus at the end of summer 2015.
It was a pleasant morning at the Franklin Wilkins Library and I started our day describing how MRI scans are done in our department (Perinatal Imaging and Health) and how the clever imaging we use can make a difference in the quality of life of the very premature babies; children giggled when they saw for the first time how a fetus moves inside his mummy’s tummy and they had the chance to play with an inflatable full size MRI scanner too (a.k.a. the Giant Doughnut, “wow, now I can see why it makes such a loud noise, it is huge!”, kids remarked during the break).
The children then got a chance to learn cool facts about the most amazing, tireless muscle of our body: the human heart and got excited with the robotic arms that Dr Kawal Rhode and his PhD student Shuangyi Wang have constructed to study it. During the break kids saw, and even hold, 3D printed copies of human hearts and they got to guess which one belonged to a premature baby!
Dr Claire Thornton took the baton to introduce us to the magic of genetics and what better way than helping the children learn how to extract DNA from the most fragrant fruit of the summer: strawberries. The students were absolutely thrilled with all the lab equipment they got to use and they amazed us with their questions and eagerness to learn more. We could clearly see some little scientists in the making there!
After an inspiring morning, the children were introduced to our library facilities and academic study during a fun-packed event, carefully planned and organised by our amazing library staff. Mrs Beata Gędłek and her wonderful team navigated the children in the library quiet zones, discussion rooms, study pods (with kids commenting that they looked like coming out of a star wars movie!) and they organized a fun book treasure hunt, with books relating to the morning talks. Kids were divided into 5 groups (Medicine, Biology, Genetics, Robotics and Physiology) and they were like little science detectives as they looked for the specified books using maps and clues carefully prepared by the library staff. They then presented their results and answered questions in the high-tech touch-screen newly installed computer room in the library. There were all smiles when they were awarded their library super-user certificates and KCL gifts at the end of the day.
What an eye opening experience for the children and great fun for us too; kids were asking the most amazing questions, participating and engaging with science, their eyes lighting up with enthusiasm. They were clearly overwhelmed by the amazing facts they learned during our fun interactive workshop. Their feedback says it all: “That was the most amazing visit of our school this year”, “I learned about babies born early and strawberry DNA”, “I didn’t want the day to end!”, “I think I want to become a scientist after all”.
The success of this event and the smiles on children’s excited faces was the best reward for us all. It was also a great way to advertise the multidisciplinary top quality research that takes place everyday at King’s College London across many different departments. I am indebted to all the people who enthusiastically came along and shared their passion in doing research and teaching science to these young inquisitive brains. I guess for us all there is only one question: “When is the next time we can do it again?!”
Today we visited the Imaging Department at King’s College London at St Thomas’ Hospital. The Communications and Engagement Manager Alice Taylor-Gee, did a fantastic job at lining up different activities to showcase a diverse range of imaging modalities and lab techniques.
The King’s Imaging department is very engaged and lots of the researchers are working to communicate their research and inspire young people.
In the morning the students were introduced to members of the Imaging division and their research project and outcomes with presentations. We met Chris Kelly who works on perinatal brain imaging using a technique that can visualise diffusion to define the edges of neurones and map them. We also heard from Alberto Gomez who spoke about how robotics is being developed to provide a more sophisticated ultrasound to be used on pregnant women to scan their unborn babies.
Dr Samantha Terry (soon to be lecturer!) talked about different types and sources of radiation. She actively demonstrated how DNA damage can occur due to radiation using a rope and scissors and then detailed how her team harnesses this power and a complicated tracer/inhibitor to selectively fight prostate cancer cells.
During the afternoon, the students rotated around three labs. Firstly the students went to a lab with Enrico, Brett and Rick who work with radioactive tracers and examines the effects of hypoxia on cardiac perfusion. A very tiny rat’s heart was connected up to perfusion equipment where it continued to beat. This allows the researchers to change stimuli and heart conditions and examine the effects.
In order to understand more about the cellular changes that can take place under hypoxic conditions due to brain injury in pre-term infants, Claire and Ana from the perinatal lab talked about understanding cellular changes by extracting and examining DNA.
In this session, we extracted DNA from strawberries using extraction buffer and isopropanol and measured the DNA concentrations to compare strawberries. Surprisingly it doesn’t relate to strawberry size in our groups!
Different imaging methods can be used to visualise different parts of the body, comparing CT to examine bones versus MRI to identify liquids. The students went down to the clinical oncology departments at St Thomas’ to the MRI machine and managed to correctly identify several scanned images of items under the MRI machine.
“On Wednesday we spent the day learning about imaging; it’s a really interesting field because scientists from all parts of science are needed to improve the imaging techniques we use today. At school, they teach us very little about medical imaging and for that reason I learnt lots. Because of the summer school, I now understand the basics of a PET, CT, X-Ray, MRI and ultrasound scan, and was able to see an MRI and ultrasound scan in use. One way cardiologists are able to prepare for an operation now is through 3D printing; scientists print out hearts in plastic to see how they can operate. For me, this was really fascinating because I was able to see the structure of a real heart and learn about how medical methods are improving.” Kate Bernal (age 15)
“I’ve attended the Summer School for 5 days at King’s Health Partners. It was an extremely fun experience and I learnt and saw many things. I learnt presentation skills, various amounts of technical skills, and developed an understanding of many features of biomedical research. I learnt clinical scenarios and life support skills at a simulation centre and I sat in on lectures from many professionals; including professors, doctors, and researchers. All of the activities were engaging, and interesting, and educational. I even got to extract strawberry DNA!” Mohaned Al-Bassan (Age 16)
We would like to say a very big thank you to Alice for co-ordinating the activities today and everyone from the Imaging division who gave a presentation, demonstration or provided an activity!
Dr Michelle Ma is a Research Associate within the Department of Imaging Chemistry & Biology, King’s College London. Herwork focuses on designing new pharmaceuticals that can help diagnose cancer. Michelle took part in Soapbox Science, a public outreach platform for promoting women scientists and the science they do. She stood on a soapbox on the Southbank on 30 May engaging passers-by with her research on whole body diagnostic imaging.
In late May, I participated in Soapbox Science, an event that puts female scientists on Soapboxes for an hour in the bustling London area of Southbank on a Saturday afternoon. There are two overarching aims: 1) to have female scientists discuss science face-to-face with members of the public who would normally not attend science festivals; and 2) increase the visibility of women in science. I’d been tasked with standing on a box, talking about chemistry, radioactivity and diagnostic imaging, and keeping random members of the public interested enough to stay at the foot of my box. Basically, I was busking science!
Saturday afternoon came around and I jumped onto my soapbox. The crowd from the previous speaker was still in attendance so I hijacked their attention by being as noisy as possible. I asked them some questions, they answered politely back, and with the help of some props and some volunteers from the crowd, I demonstrated how whole body diagnostic imaging works, and the role that chemistry plays in this. (You can read more about my research in a previous blog post). A discussion with the crowd started to open up, and this was really the part of the afternoon where we started to engage with the public. There were plenty of questions, all of which were considered and really relevant to the frontiers of research in this field. My audience seemed to have understood everything I’d talked about but there were things that they wanted to know more about: how do you define what is diseased tissue in an image? What is the “cut-off” point in contrast? Why don’t we screen everyone in the population? How do you choose a radioisotope? If a radiopharmaceutical clears through the kidneys, how do you find out if there is disease in the kidneys? Where does radioactivity come from?
Overall, I had a marvellous time and everything about my experience was very positive. The other speakers were fantastic, the science was diverse and we were not short of attention from passers-by.
As a result of my participation, I was invited to the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Public Attitudes to Chemistry launch. My own experience, coupled with the findings and strategies discussed at the launch really enforced some key public engagement messages to me.
Firstly, it is critical that chemists can explain the impact of their chemical research on society. It is not enough that a chemist, or any scientist for that matter, can explain in simple terms what they do on a day-to-day basis. For the science to have a lasting impression on an audience, the audience must appreciate what the endeavour is actually delivering.
Secondly, the public are the shareholders in public investment in science, and so specific questions that the public raise during such events are likely to be directly relevant or fundamental to the future impact that the field will have on society, particularly in medicine and the health sciences. This is a terrific thing! If the public are asking the same questions as researchers themselves, then public engagement can be used to leverage and secure public investment in science.
For these reasons alone, it is important that the scientific community supports events like Soapbox Science. However, I also had a tremendous amount of fun talking with my audience as well as meeting all of the other scientists and volunteers involved!
Dr Michelle Ma is a Research Associate within the Department of Imaging Chemistry & Biology, King’s College London. Herwork focuses on designing new pharmaceuticals that can help diagnose cancer. Michelle has been selected to be part of Soapbox Science, a public outreach platform for promoting women scientists and the science they do. She will be standing on a soapbox on 30 May on the SouthBank between 2-5pm, where she’ll be talking about “Lighting up disease with new chemistry: whole body diagnostic imaging”.
This blog post was originally published on Soapbox Science website.
Soapbox Science encompasses many things that are stupendously exciting: breadth of science, sharing science, science communication and women in science. I’m excited about all of these things, because they are integral to what I do as an early career scientist. I’m a research chemist and my work focuses on designing new pharmaceuticals that can help diagnose cancer. Doing this work doesn’t just involve standing at a bench, mixing different chemicals in odd-shaped glassware. I need to be able to talk to doctors, pharmacists, physicists, biologists and other chemists, and we all need to be able to understand each other.
I first became interested in chemistry, and more broadly, science, at the age of twelve, when I first learned about molecular structure and how it defines the properties of all the things in my life – the air I breath, the desk I sit at, the chocolate I will invariably buy to accompany my lunch, the taste buds and nerve responses in my brain that allow me to appreciate aforementioned chocolate! Later in my schooling, my biology teacher described biological systems and mechanisms to the class in clear but intricate detail. DNA, proteins, evolution, ecosystems – all of this revealed a mesmerising world that was actually rooted in reason and hypothesis testing.
When I finished my high school in Australia, I began studying for my Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Queensland where the wit and enthusiasm of my lecturers revealed the elegance of chemistry to me. I became enamoured with the multitude of colours typical of metal chemistry, and the role of metals in medicine. I undertook my PhD in chemistry at the University of Melbourne, researching how radioactive metals can help diagnose cancer. Essentially, my job was to design a molecule that would get the metal into a tumour. Once the radioactive metal is at the tumour site, the emitted light provides an image that tells doctors a tumour’s location and size and what stage the cancer is at. Such research provides doctors with diagnostic tools that help determine the most effective course of treatment for a cancer patient.
Upon completion of my PhD in Australia, I was awarded a travel fellowship to undertake research work overseas for two months. My current supervisor, Professor Phil Blower, had recently examined my PhD thesis and seemed really interested in my research, and so I elected to spend a couple of months in his laboratories at King’s College London. These particular laboratories are very well equipped for radiochemistry, and they are located at St Thomas’ Hospital, across the river Thames from Big Ben and Houses of Parliament. I was quite astonished to find myself undertaking research in a landmark location surrounded by such tremendous facilities! I enjoyed the work and the laboratory environment immensely and so I applied for fellowships to conduct my research at King’s College London on a more permanent basis. I was lucky enough to land a Newton Fellowship from the Royal Society and a Marie Curie Fellowship from the European Commission that brought me back to King’s College London. I’m still working in the same area of chemistry – using radioactive metals to image cancer – and I’m still awed by the elegance and colourful aesthetics of chemical systems. For me, making hitherto non-existent, unknown molecules and then studying their unique properties is definitely the most enthralling aspect of chemical research. Waiting to see evidence of a new molecule flash up on a computer monitor is nerve-wracking, exciting and ultimately, when that bit of evidence does appear, absolutely exhilarating.
I’ve loved my time as a research career in chemistry to date, and I owe a great deal to supervisors, mentors and collaborators who have all inspired me thus far. All of these people are marvellously creative, astute and intelligent people, but there is one thing that bothers me – the overwhelming majority of these people (at least 90%) are men. Ultimately, I want it to be normal to attend a scientific conference and observe that the plenary speakers represent the diversity in the general population. Soapbox Science is lifting the profile and visibility of women in science, and such efforts are going to be seminal in addressing the gender imbalance and any persisting gender bias.