From student to senior researcher: five women who are making their mark at Imperial

Dr Catherine Kibirige in the Department of Infectious Disease at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. She wears a white lab coat and holds a pipette in one hand.

For International Women’s Day and Women at Imperial week, we spoke to five women in various roles across the College, delving into their careers, future aspirations and advice for younger women.

Helen O’Brien

Senior Instrument Manager, Department of Physics

Helen O’Brien sat in a lab, smiling at the camera.

Helen O’Brien is a Senior Instrument Manager at the Space Magnetometer Lab. Helen’s role involves leading a team of engineers and scientists who build and operate magnetometers (magnetic field instruments) for space science satellites, including for NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). “Our Solar Orbiter magnetometer, launched in 2020, has sent back billions of magnetic field vectors to Earth, and measured the magnetic field of the Sun and Venus. The Sun’s magnetic field dominates our solar system. Understanding how it works, and how it influences the near Earth environment is fundamental to understanding space weather and its impact on our planet.”

Helen O'Brien speaking to another person in a lab, both of them are wearing face masks. A person stands in the background, also wearing a mask.

It was Imperial’s involvement in other notable space instrument projects that inspired Helen to apply to work there. “Imperial has a well-deserved reputation for excellence in space instrumentation; Imperial provided hardware for the first UK space science satellite (named Ariel 1 and launched in 1962) and Imperial magnetometers have been sending back data from all corners of the solar system continuously since the joint ESA-NASA Ulysses mission was launched in 1990.”

Helen O'Brien in a lab, speaking to another person. She holds part of an instrument in her hand.

Looking ahead, Helen’s work is taking her on new missions. “The launch of JUICE [JUpiter ICy moons Explorer] in April this year will take an Imperial magnetometer to Jupiter! Later this year, we will deliver our magnetometer for the NASA IMAP [Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe] mission, ready for launch in 2025.”

“I love seeing instruments I am involved with launching and generating world class science data. I also enjoy working with multi-disciplinary teams, including experts in electronics, software, mechanical and thermal aspects of instrument design, and mentoring younger engineers as they develop their skills and careers.”

A wide shot of Helen O'Brien working in a lab.

On advice for younger women, Helen emphasises the importance of self-belief. “We all need to nurture our own bubble of self-belief. Base your self-belief on the results you get from hard work, listening to supportive and inspiring voices. Filter out the overly critical ones – life is too short to dwell on those who you put you down.”

Dr Catherine Kibirige

Senior Research Associate, Department of Infectious Disease

Dr Catherine Kibirige in the Department of Infectious Disease at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. She stands posing for the camera, wearing a white lab coat.

Dr Catherine Kibirige joined Imperial in 2016 as a Postdoctoral Associate. She currently works as a Senior Research Associate for the Department of Infectious Disease. Catherine’s research involves HIV diagnosis, vaccine and cure-related research. “I am currently involved in developing an affordable ambient-temperature HIV treatment-monitoring kit specifically for resource-constrained settings. I am developing simplified protocols and optimising it to work on portable instruments that can run off a car-battery or solar panel so that they can be used at the point-of-care even at tertiary hospitals or rural clinics that do not have reliable electricity or refrigeration.”

Dr Catherine Kibirige in the Department of Infectious Disease at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. She wears a white lab coat and holds a pipette in one hand.

Following her PhD, Catherine worked in the United States on two postdoctoral research projects. When contemplating her move to the UK, it was Professor Jill Gilmour from the Department of Infectious Disease that inspired Catherine to apply for a role at Imperial. “I really wanted to continue in HIV research and see at least one of my long-standing research ideas through to commercialisation. When I told my peers and mentors that I was moving back to the United Kingdom, everyone kept recommending I contact Professor Jill Gilmour at Imperial. I had heard about her work and met her in passing in Uganda as we knew a lot of people in common, so I reached out to present my work. I obtained a temporary position before transitioning into another postdoctoral position in the Human Immunology Laboratory at the Chelsea and Westminster campus.”

Jill has remained a source of inspiration for Catherine, even in the UK. “Jill was very supportive of all my research ideas and funded the validation of the HIV-1 assay I had been developing since about 2011. She has been very inspirational and instrumental in helping me fulfil my vision.”

Dr Catherine Kibirige in the Department of Infectious Disease at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. She wears a white lab coat whilst working on a computer.

Looking to the future, Catherine pictures herself advancing her research at Imperial. “I would ideally like to stay at Imperial and translate my ideas into improved diagnostic and research tools that can be utilised not just in the West, but in resource-constrained settings like remote regions of Uganda where my family are from. I would like to extend the research and systems I develop towards other diseases, particularly neglected tropical diseases or diseases where there are barriers to efficient diagnosis and treatment in Africa.”

Dr Catherine Kibirige in the Department of Infectious Disease at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. She stands smiling at the camera.

If Catherine could offer advice to her younger self, it would be “to believe in myself more fully, surround myself with positive people and reach out to and find more mentors along the way to guide me towards my vision.”

You can listen to Catherine speak about her work on the Imperial podcast. Catherine also took part in the Imperial As One Media Academy – watch Catherine speak about her experience on Imperial’s YouTube channel.

Vanessa Madu

Undergraduate, Department of Mathematics

Vanessa Madu stands outside Imperial College London. She smiles at the camera, wearing a red checked blazer.

Vanessa Madu is an undergraduate mathematics student. As a mathematician, Vanessa uses maths as a lens to understand a much bigger picture. “That is not every mathematician. A lot of mathematicians do not seek to understand what the universe is doing, they may wish to do math for maths sake. But I am an applied mathematician, which means that I take the mathematical techniques that we develop and apply them to real life problems.”

“Maths at a degree level is very different to school, and it is using a developed toolkit to understand the way the universe works.” 

Vanessa Madu sits in a lab, reading a book. There are white lab coats hung in the background. She wears a red checked blazer.

Vanessa has been passionate about maths since she was young, which made her stand out from her peers. “People in my school were not particularly science-y. My love for maths was a very unusual thing at the time. So I did not have many other people [around me] who go it.”

Vanessa’s first introduction to Imperial began with her physics teacher, who is an Imperial alumnus. “He was the one that really challenged me. I did not go to a particularly high achieving school, but he used to give me extra questions or things to investigate. He came across a summer school one day and forward it to me, telling me to apply and so I did. I really enjoyed it!”

Applying for her undergraduate degree at Imperial followed, with the encouragement of her teachers. It was at Imperial where Vanessa found likeminded people, with a similar love for STEM as her. “My teachers told me that if you go to Imperial, you will find your people. And that is what happened! I came here and there are loads of people who love maths. But the main thing that I knew I was going to love at Imperial was the fact that it is just STEM.” 

When thinking of a role model, Vanessa draws a blank. For her, there is a gap in role models for young, diverse scientists. “Role models are a bit tricky, because there are not as many women in sufficiently high places that we can look to as role models. Particularly [for] women of colour. But I hope I get to be that person to somebody else.” 

Vanessa Madu writing mathematics equation on a whiteboard, she uses a blue whiteboard marker. She is wearing a red checked blazer.

Following the completion of her undergraduate degree, Vanessa will be continuing her studies on the Modern Statistics and Statistical Machine Learning (StatML). The programme is based at Imperial College London and the University of Oxford. “I will be developing statistical and machine learning methods that are used in maths and sciences more generally. I am doing it with a specific focus. I love oceans, I think they are very cool! However, it is too difficult to sample it all because it is massive. For us to make some progress on studying the ocean, we have got to find other ways to integrate things that we know about how the ocean will behave - from physics - and what we can see the ocean doing.”

Vanessa’s passions also include science communications. She is currently this year's Royal College of Science Union (RSCU) Science Challenge Chair. “I love telling people about science! Scientific literacy is something that I wish more people had, because it is not some faraway knowledge that only few can possess. But because of the way science is presented, people think they just cannot understand it.” 

“I want a huge part of what I do to show other people that they can get it. The lightbulb moment that people have when they understand something is just wonderful. In an ideal world, I would be a science TV presenter. Or doing lots of science communications writing. I would continue my advance research but explaining that same science to kids too.”

Vanessa Madu smiles at the camera.

Vanessa encourages all young women to feel empowered to ask that burning question in their lecture or answer the question asked by the lecturer, even if they are not confident. “My university experience has significantly improved because I will ask a question even if I am not sure or answer a question I am not sure about or apply for things that I do not feel fully qualified for. Because there are other people that will do it. I do not like the idea of just saying be more confident because it is not a useful thing to say. But just bear in mind that there are people who will do things with a lot less certainty than you.”

Vanessa was also profiled as part of the 2022 Black History Month story which can be read on Imperial Stories.

Tani Akinmoladun

Undergraduate, Faculty of Medicine

Tani Akinmoladun sat on an armchair, smiling at the camera.

Tani Akinmoladun is a second-year undergraduate medical student who is passionate about interacting with people in a care setting. For her, medicine can be a transformative experience: “I would say medicine is taking care of people with the goal of making them the best versions of themselves they can physically be.” 

She explains: “I love people, and care is something I have always been quite passionate about. The idea of being a contributing factor to someone being relieved from a state of distress and discomfort is such a self-rewarding thing.”

Tani Akinmoladun leans against a table. She wears a brown dress.

When applying for university, it was Imperial’s approach to learning and teaching that inspired Tani to apply. “I chose Imperial specifically because of its modern approach to education. As a university, it is always seeking the best way to do things, improve on and even support its students with our innovations. At Imperial, you have the opportunity of learning from experts in their fields without being restricted by resources or even financial constraints.” 

Tani Akinmoladun sat on an armchair, posing for the camera. She wears a brown top with layered necklaces.

Thinking beyond university, Tani does not feel limited to medicine as a career path: “Honestly, I see myself doing a lot of things. I am quite a dynamic person with many interests even outside my degree. I just might become your first medical financial advisory/investment manager/medical doctor who also sings her patients to comfort them. On a more serious note, at this stage I have no clue. I am using my very many years at Imperial to explore and enjoy all my interests.”

However, care remains at the centre of Tani’s future aspirations. “I just know that whatever I decided to do, being a contributor in bringing someone to their best health would always be a part of my future career.” 

Tani Akinmoladun performing with the Imperial College Gospel Choir at Holy Trinity Church. She wears a purple choir robe.

Tani’s advice for other women is to dream big: “Do not limit yourself or create a cage around your ambitions. Just because it has not been done before does not mean you cannot do it.”

Tani was also featured in the Feeling Like A Scientist series and her profile can be read here. Alongside her studies, Tani also works as a social media ambassador in the Communications Division. You can see some of Tani’s work on Imperial’s Instagram.

Serena Shanaia Selvam

Undergraduate, Aeronautics

Serena Shanaia Selvam is a first-year undergraduate Aeronautical Engineering student. Serena explains aeronautical engineering as the study of the design, development, and maintenance of aircraft and spacecraft. “As an Aeronautical Engineering student, I am not only learning about the structure and mechanics of an aeroplane, but also the aerodynamics and thermodynamics of the air around us. We also learn basic coding, as well as general engineering skills which prove useful in so many industries!” 

It was Imperial’s reputation in STEM education that initially piqued Serena’s interest, but studying at Imperial felt like a faraway dream for her. It was a talk at school that finally inspired Serena to submit her application. “I applied to Imperial after seeing my high school senior talk about how much he enjoyed his course at Imperial, telling me about the opportunity to learn from world-class academics and collaborate with bright and motivated peers.”

“Not only that, but my parents always encouraged me to reach for the stars, and here I am!”

Serena’s father has also been a source of inspiration for her. “Coming from a poor family, he didn’t finish his high school education, but his passion for his job (a professional tennis player!) carried him into a successful life. His work ethics and moral values are something I want to keep with me forever.”

Serena hopes to apply the skills she has acquired through her degree to enter other fields, using the transferrable skills from her engineering degree. “In the future, I see myself working beyond the aerospace industry, and perhaps entering the banking industry. The aeronautical engineering field has already taught me so much about analytical and problem-solving skills, which prove very helpful in the banking industry. For example, risk management, operations management, and providing insight into a whole new world of technology and digital banking.” 

For Serena, her future aspirations are not limited to her studies or career. They also include her hobbies. “I am also a dancer, and I want to keep dancing on the side for as long as possible. You can do so many things besides JUST studying!” 

Serena reminds younger women and girls looking to study a STEM subject that “you NEVER have to give up your femininity to pursue an industry that is male dominated. Do not let anyone discourage you from pursuing your dreams, and always remember that you are capable of achieving great things.”

“Most importantly, have a hobby you truly enjoy that is outside of your academic life, because you definitely need a way to de-stress if you want to survive in such a challenging field for a very long time!”

Serena also works as one of two TikTok creators working part time in the Communications Division. Her TikToks can be watched on Imperial’s TikTok