Dr Parry Hashemi discusses how her PhD in Bioengineering led to her current research in understanding and treating mental health issues.
This International Women in Engineering Day, the Department of Bioengineering has profiled three lecturers from the department. We hope to provide you with an insight into the ground-breaking work that takes place in the UK’s leading bioengineering department through the eyes of the fantastic female bioengineers who are advancing research frontiers, using engineering to solve life sciences-related problems and creating future leaders.
Our next profile is of Dr Parry Hashemi, (she/her) who joined the department in 2019.
Parry's laboratory engineers microprobes to measure the brain's chemicals. They are studying the underlying chemical causes of mental illnesses, such as depression, which is the world's largest cause of disability. Their goals are to create chemical tests for depression, based on biomarkers that can be used to clinically diagnose this mental illness. These tests could help to reduce the taboo and stigma of mental illnesses since they would definitively show a pathophysiology. Parry's lab group are also working on bettering the treatments and understanding the causes of depression.
How did you become a Bioengineer?
At school, my favourite subjects were science and art/design and I was good at both! it broke my heart to have to choose between them at University but I chose to study chemistry, because, at the time I felt that it provided better career prospects. I kept art and design as a hobby (which is easy to do in London), while I studied chemistry. I was fortunate enough to do my final year undergraduate project with a bioengineer and I instantly realised that the intersection of science with art was engineering! This was a "eureka" moment for me and the further I got into my final year project the more my path to being an engineer was solidified. This process was greatly facilitated by the excellent mentoring and support that I received from my supervisor, who showed me the real power of bioengineering in helping society. What could be better? Doing the two things I loved most in the world to help people? Yes, please! I did my PhD in bioengineering here at Imperial and have loved and been devoted to the subject since.
What is a regular day in the life of a Bioengineer?
Many people don't realise how dynamic and busy the life of an academic bioengineer is. I run around all day. A typical day is a mix of teaching classes, meeting taught and research students one-on-one for supervision, working with collaborators here and abroad, editing papers for either my lab or for a journal on whose board I am, working on my own grants, peer-reviewing papers and grants, working on the administrative aspects of how the department functions, examining vivas and other projects, attending seminars given by guests, working on policy for the International societies I am on a board member of and organizing conferences and during all this, i think it's really important to find time to socialize with students and colleagues. One of the best aspects of this career is that I am invited all over the world to present my research at Universities or conferences which is an excellent way to meet new people, forge new collaborations and get an insight into a different place and culture.
What is your proudest professional achievement?
There are two things I am really proud of.
Firstly, in 2018 I was the first person to win two very prestigious young investigator awards for my depression research. Because of these awards, our research was highlighted in recorded interviews, newspaper articles and I was invited to give a TED talk.
The very best part of this story is that since this exposure, I get a phone call every month or so from random members of the public. These are people who suffer from depression or are living with someone who suffers. Sometimes they ask me questions about our progress, other times they share their stories, sometimes they just thank me for our work. I have to say that it's one thing to be recognized by one's peers but another thing entirely to know that you are reaching the people you seek to help.
Secondly, I am incredibly proud of the students who have come and gone through my lab and my classes. I keep in touch with a lot of them and it's a real thrill to see them succeed in their careers, using their skills and knowledge to do great things in the world.
How has being a woman shaped, influenced and impacted your career?
All fields, especially science and engineering, benefit from diversity in thinking and approach. Although engineering hasn't traditionally been thought of as a woman's field, it is changing quickly because the gains to the field (and the world) from having a diverse work force are undeniable.
My career path has benefited from some luck (working with people who supported me), some strategy (holding onto the people who supported me), a lot of hard work, and breaking through my own and others' misconceptions and prejudgements. We're shaped to think that certain categories of people are good at different things, but that's simply not the reality. Our individual brains and abilities are far more complex; there are simply no intellectual boundaries on who can be a good engineer. Imperial College has long been a trailblazer and is not falling short in supporting its women engineers (more than 50% of our department's undergraduate class are women). I am really thrilled to be part of training and supporting the next generation of women engineers, it's an exciting time for bioengineering.
How has being a part of the Department of Bioengineering shaped your approaches to your research?
This department is dynamic. I have learned how to be flexible, to talk to many types of people and to go to the absolute limits of my creativity to move research forward.
This department is excellent. There is a culture of excellence in everything we do, whether its research, teaching or the day to day running of things. This standard of excellence motivates me to also try to be truly excellent at my work.
This department is supportive. There are systems and committees dedicating to making our workplace inclusive, collegiate, collaborative and supportive. As such, most of the groups in the department collaborate with one another.
What’s your advice for young women interested in the field of Engineering/Bioengineering?
I would encourage anyone that is interested in engineering to spend a lot of time researching what the course and future career could entail. Engineering is broad enough that it can facilitate endless career opportunities. In terms of women who are interested in engineering, you absolutely should go for it! Your lives and careers will be a series of ups and downs, but you can achieve anything if you work hard enough and use the knock backs to get stronger. Some of the most successful people in our college are women and the President of Imperial College is also a female engineer! we have some pretty spectacular role models to look up to.
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