Imperial College London

From the British Army to Imperial: PhD Student Nadia reflects on her career


Nadia with her colleagues during her Afghanistan tour in 2012

Nadia (first on left) with her colleagues during her Afghanistan tour in 2012

PhD student Nadia Soliman delivered a lecture on leadership in the military and in academia as part of Women@Imperial Week.

Women@Imperial Week is an annual event taking place from Monday 4 March – Friday 8 March. As part of the week’s events, PhD student Nadia, of the Faculty of Medicine, delivered the Department of Life Science’s International Women’s Day lecture on Friday 8 March, titled “Myth-busting the military: what academia could learn.” 

The Department of Life Science's 2019 International Women's Day Lecture by PhD student Nadia Soliman explores the similarities and differences between leadership styles in the military and in academia.

Nadia studied pharmacology and drug discovery before joining the British Army for five years. She is now completing her PhD at Imperial, which aims to use new technologies to improve the quality and efficiency of preclinical systematic reviews and meta-analyses. Nadia plans to use systematic reviews to address some of the challenges of pain research and offer evidence to guide future research. 

We spoke to Nadia about her career in the army and reflections on her PhD so far.

Responsibility and adventure

Nadia planting poppies to commemorate 100 years since the start of the First World War.
In 2014, Nadia planted poppies to commemorate 100 years since the start of the First World War.

Nadia joined the British Army in 2009 and received training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where all officers are trained to take on the responsibility of leading their soldiers.

As part of her training, Nadia studied subjects such as war and international affairs, and was also put through intense physical fitness tests. Upon commissioning into the Corps of Royal Engineers, Nadia specialised in the safe disposal of conventional munitions and earned the title of an Advance Explosive Ordnance Disposal Operator.

"Yes, there are hard times, but you’re in it with your peers. You become the best of friends because you work together as a team.”   Nadia Soliman PhD Student

Nadia’s training was designed to prepare her for the real-life challenges of serving as an officer in the British Army - whether at home, on peace-keeping operations or providing humanitarian aid, or on the battlefield. One exercise which was dominated by ‘digging in’ has stayed with her to this day. 

“We had to dig our trenches by hand over the course of a few days,” Nadia recalls. “Our superiors gave us specific measurements to achieve while digging, and I remember being very sleep deprived and exhausted. We had to stay motivated throughout the entire exercise and were not allowed to slack off.

"I remember attempting to take power naps with my partner as a way of staying alert, but only managed to lie down for about 60 seconds before getting up and digging again. In the army, we’re being trained for reality. Yes, there are hard times, but you’re in it with your peers. You become the best of friends because you work together as a team.”

Preparing for Afghanistan

Nadia in Afghanistan with fellow colleagues
Nadia pictured with her team during their tour of Afghanistan in 2012

Following her training, Nadia became a Troop Commander and managed a group of 30 soldiers. She led a variety of operations in the UK, such as supporting the UK Police when any explosives were found or searching venues ahead of high profile events. 

In 2012, Nadia was deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation HERRICK; the British contribution to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. Its main purpose was to train the Afghan National Security Forces but also engage in the counter-insurgency of the Taliban. 

“It was always a part of my reality that we were preparing to be deployed to war. We were very aware that our training attainment was to a high standard – we knew that at some point, we would be working in Afghanistan. 

“When I arrived in Afghanistan, the Taliban were really effective at employing Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). They are cheap and easy to make and the Taliban would often place IEDs in the ground and conceal them, which hindered the movement of the British Army but also that of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. Anyone could cause an IED to function and explode, and sometimes civilians became victims.” 

Understanding and mitigating threat

Nadia teaching Nigerian Army Engineers how to safely search for IEDs
Nadia taught Nigerian Army Engineers how to safely search for IEDs

In Afghanistan, Nadia was a Threat Analyst and was responsible for understanding how the Taliban employed IEDs in certain areas, conducting risk assessments, providing advice to different units on how to safely detect and avoid IEDs and ensuring her team of soldiers were well-equipped and protected when defusing IEDs. 

“The first-ever call came on my first day in the camp at 6am - a soldier had initiated a mine and had been injured. I had arrived at the camp when it was pitch black and I didn’t know where I was. I hadn’t even looked at a map. We didn’t know what to expect or how hostile the environment would be. I remember thinking to myself ‘I hope it goes well. I hope today isn’t a bad day.'"                                 

"I certainly appreciate the value of life having seen how different things can be."  Nadia Soliman PhD Student

“However, I felt confident in the training we had received and knew what I needed to do. I remember experiencing a rush of adrenaline, but in a focussed way. Fortunately, our first job ran very smoothly, and the environment we encountered was not hostile – I remember local villagers giving us bread and tea.” 

Nadia describes her time in the British Army, and especially in Afghanistan, as being “invaluable.”

She added: “I stayed in Afghanistan for just over six months and I learned so much during this experience. Afghanistan is a beautiful country. I’m not sure if other people would say that, but I think it is. The area we operated in was extremely deprived. It’s a level of poverty that I can’t comprehend. For example, they don’t have mains electricity or running water, and they didn’t understand why an army was there. I certainly appreciate the value of life having seen how different things can be." 

Returning to academia

After leaving the British Army, Nadia returned to academia - a career that she has always been interested in pursuing. As part of her PhD at Imperial, Nadia is conducting a systematic review of literature on the medicinal use of cannabis. “There has been a lot of media attention around the use of cannabis as medication, it has been legalised in some countries, but the evidence for their use in pain management is conflicting and there are still gaps in our understanding. 

“I am analysing animal studies in which cannabis based medicines have been tested as a treatment for pain. We will review these studies in terms of their risk of bias and reliability and will also try to determine the effect size of cannabis-based drugs. As part of this, I’m working with scientists from the National University of Ireland Galway, Indiana University, University of Washington, Radboud in the Netherlands, and the University of Edinburgh.” 

Myth-busting the military

Nadia pictured with wearing ceremonial attireIn her lecture for International Women’s Day, Nadia will compare her experiences in the British Army to her time as a young academic.

She will define what leadership means to her, and discuss the myth that women don’t have success in the military, and that military training has little relation to academia.

“My one aim is for everyone to understand how important leadership is within the academic setting and how we could do more to incorporate that into the academic culture. I hope my lecture will inspire people to be the best version of themselves, improving our working culture and encourage us all to do better science.” 

This year’s Women@Imperial Week events include lectures, networking sessions, and a Wikithon. See the full list of events.


Martha Nahar

Martha Nahar
Communications and Public Affairs

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