The Department of Metabolism, Digestion & Reproduction is proud to have eleven of its staff recognised in the latest round of Academic Promotions.
Congratulations to Nick Powell and Niamh Martin who have both been promoted to Professor. Congratulations to Inês Cebola, Zoe Hall, Bryn Owen, Aida Martinez-Sanchez, Andrew Shevchuk and Yan Liu who have all been promoted to Senior Lecturer. And, finally, congratulations to Makrina Savvidou, Naila Arebi and Alex Comninos who have all been promoted to Professor of Practice.
Speaking about the promotions, Professor Mark Thursz, Head of the Department of Metabolism, Digestion and Reproduction, said: “Congratulations to my colleagues on your well-deserved promotions, your research, commitment to teaching and hard work deserve this recognition. I am also immensely proud that our Department is consistently expanding its cohort of accomplished senior female academics."
We caught up with our newly promoted researchers to find out about their background, research and how they feel about their promotion.
Niamh Martin – Professor of Endocrinology
I am a clinical academic. I was first introduced to Endocrinology 25 years ago at the Hammersmith campus, where I was a junior doctor for Prof. Karim Meeran and Prof. Steve Bloom. I loved my clinical experience in Endocrinology and was fortunate that they have continued to be wonderful mentors to me, encouraging me to pursue a clinical and academic career in Endocrinology. I undertook my PhD at Imperial College in Steve Bloom’s lab from 2000-2003 as a Wellcome Clinical Training Fellow and this gave me a really robust training in research. After completing my clinical training, I was awarded a NIHR Clinical Senior Lecturer award and this was instrumental in enabling me to combine my clinical and academic interests. I lead the Imperial Pituitary clinical service, which has provided a great platform for combining my clinical and research interests. I am particularly interested in undergraduate education and many of my roles for Imperial College and more recently, for The Society for Endocrinology, reflect that.
I am completing a really interesting research collaboration with medical oncology colleagues regarding the endocrine side effects of a group of drugs which have revolutionised cancer care, called immune checkpoint inhibitors. I see the ‘fall out’ from the side effects of these drugs in my clinical practice, but there is growing evidence that these side effects may be beneficial in terms of better cancer prognosis. This collaboration has looked at who may be at risk of these side effects and what impact this has on patient outcomes from an endocrine and from a cancer perspective.
I feel really delighted about my promotion! On a personal level, I imagine my promotion will help me in some of the national roles I have moved into recently. On a wider level, I am conscious that we are all role models in the workplace, particularly as we are promoted to more senior positions. For the women I work with and for my children, especially my daughters, I feel it’s enormously important. It’s a well quoted phrase now, but ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’.
Zoe Hall – Senior Lecturer
I carried out my PhD in Chemistry at the University of Oxford, where I studied how large protein complexes are assembled, using native mass spectrometry, ion mobility and computational modelling. I subsequently held a post-doc position at the Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge. During this time, I investigated how lipid metabolism is re-wired in metabolic disease and cancer, by lipidomics and mass spectrometry imaging approaches. In September 2019, I joined the Division of Systems Medicine, Imperial as a Lecturer – just before the pandemic hit!
My passion is to use cutting-edge mass spectrometry technology to bridge the gap between molecular, cell and tissue organisation. This will aid understanding of the molecular networks and cell metabolic states in health and disease, and help tackle the most pressing and hardest-to-understand diseases. Currently, we focus on the spatial biology of the liver, and how that is altered by pathology and injury. In particular, we are using spatial lipidomics (mass spectrometry imaging) to study the metabolic microenvironments of the liver during different stages of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). NAFLD is present in one quarter of the population in the UK and is associated with obesity, arising when too much fat is deposited in the liver. This can lead to more serious conditions, including cirrhosis and liver cancer. NAFLD is an increasing problem and is expected to become the main reason patients need a liver transplant in the next 10 years. Our research will help to unravel complex mechanisms of disease progression and potentially lead to improved diagnostics and the design of new therapeutics. This research is funded by an MRC New Investigator Research Grant.
I was delighted by the promotion to Senior Lecturer! It has been a great learning experience so far, and I am very fortunate to be surrounded by many supportive and inspiring colleagues. I am excited for the next chapter and to continue developing my research team.
Bryn Owen - Senior Lecturer
I studied cholestatic liver disease during PhD at the IRDB under the supervision of Professor Catherine Williamson and Professor Malcolm Parker. I then spent four years as a postdoc at UT Southwestern Medical Centre in Dallas where I worked on liver-hormones and female fertility. I returned to the Faculty of Medicine in 2015 as a Welcome Trust career-development fellow, and then a Non-Clinical Lecturer in Endocrinology
Most of my work now focuses on the hypothalamic control of female fertility. We are running ‘mechanistic’ studies on gene-regulation, and a very exciting in vivo project on feeding behaviour in a new model of functional hypothalamic amenorrhea.
Titles have never really bothered me. However, I feel very well supported by the Department, and it is very nice to know that my contributions, including in teaching, are recognised and appreciated.
Naila Arebi - Professor of Practice
I qualified as a medical doctor at the University of Malta and moved to the UK in 1993 to pursue my clinical post-graduate training. I chose gastroenterology because I loved medicine and yet enjoyed performing procedures. Gastroenterology offered the best of both worlds and I’ve never looked back. During my initial training, whilst on a clinical rotation in Oxford, I was inspired to pursue post-graduate research and went on to complete a PhD at Hammersmith Hospital in basic science. As a consultant at St Mark’s National Bowel Hospital, I was involved in a post-graduate training committee offering teaching sessions and embarked on my own research activities. My research career really started from a large collaborative pan-European epidemiology study looking at patterns in Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Through various committee work, I also found opportunities to participate in new projects as well as lead my own.
My key interest is the epidemiology of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): increasing our understanding of risk factors, seeking ways to optimise data capture by data harmonization and new outcomes to capture and measure the effects of interventions. At present we have several drugs to treat IBD with limited tools to guide therapeutic decisions – I am also exploring the complementary role of molecular markers with patient related treatment preferences.
I am absolutely delighted about the promotion. It’s a reflection of the extra hours required to undertake research and teach as a measure of my devotion to my specialist field. I hope it inspires other clinicians to pursue a similar path where an NHS clinician embraces an academic portfolio in recognition of the close interaction between clinical medicine, and new discovery.
Andrew Shevchuk - Senior Lecturer
My background is biomedical engineering. I design and develop a nanopipette based robotic instrumentation, primarily Scanning Ion Conductance Microscope (SICM) and Correlative live imaging systems based on SICM – fluorescence confocal microscopy combination. I also develop functionalised nanoprobes for cell physiology, biophysics and electrochemistry. I have personal research interest in cell membrane dynamics and endo- and exocytosis in particular.
My current work is mostly focused on the development and construction of combined high-speed SICM and evanescent Selective Plane Illumination Microscope. This project is funded by EPSRC. I am also developing an SICM instrument to be used inside a glove box at Dyson School of Engineering to study lithium battery electrodes.
It took me a lot of effort and mostly enjoyable work to reach this stage of my career. This achievement is very encouraging and motivating to make further, more ambitious progress. I am very thankful to the Academic Expert Panel members for their advice and comments in my preparation for the interview.
Aida Martinez-Sanchez – Senior Lecturer
I have a BSc/MSc in Biology from the University of Oviedo (Spain) and a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, obtained at the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona (Spain). During my PhD studies, we discovered that the small RNA miR-181a regulated the expression of p27kip1, a tumor suppressor gene that controls cell growth. This sparked my interest in miRNAs as powerful regulators of cellular function. I subsequently joined the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology, University of Oxford, as a postdoc, to study the role of miRNAs in cartilage function. Later, I decided to combine my passion for miRNA biology with the field of metabolism, which had always fascinated me, and joined Prof. Guy Rutter's group at Imperial College for a second postdoc position to investigate miRNAs' action in the insulin-secreting β-cell. In 2017, I was awarded a New Investigator Research Grant by the MRC to set up my independent research group and, in 2018, I was appointed a Non-Clinical Lecturer in the Section of Cell Biology and Functional Genomics.
My research group is interested in understanding how miRNAs and their gene targets contribute to the maintenance of pancreatic ß-cell identity and function, which is altered in type 2 diabetes (T2D). Our research, largely funded by grants from the MRC and Diabetes UK, aims to get a better understanding of the importance of these small molecules in the maintenance of glucose homeostasis and, in the long term, aid the development of more efficient drugs for the treatment of diabetes.
On top of my research activity, I am a director of the MSc Applied Genomics at Imperial College, where I also lead a Module on Non-coding RNAs - this role is also very fulfilling since allows me to closely interact with the future generations of scientists.
The promotion feels great! Starting a research group as an independent researcher is exciting but can also be daunting, especially as we went through a pandemic and had to get creative in the way we do research and deliver the MSc programme online to great standards. Being promoted is reassuring and encouraging. It is an important recognition to the hard work of my team and my colleagues at Imperial to whom support and contributions I am very, very thankful.
Alexander Comninos - Professor of Practice
My interest in academia originated during my primary medical degree when I completed a BSc in Endocrinology looking at hormone-dependent cancers. My strong interest in clinical endocrinology as a career was further heightened when I worked for the persuasive and brilliant Professor Karim Meeran. Then during my post-qualification medical rotations I was awarded an NIHR-funded Academic Clinical Fellowship in Endocrinology to continue research supervised by Professor Waljit Dhillo, the embodiment of an inspirational mentor, alongside my clinical training. Thereafter, I was awarded a personal Wellcome/GSK Clinical PhD Fellowship and subsequently an NIHR Clinical Lectureship before taking up my current NHS Consultant post. Amongst my general endocrinology and medicine commitments I also run our Endocrine Bone Unit and Fracture Liaison Services which have been awarded important nationally-leading recognitions. In addition, I have continued to be heavily involved in research at Imperial as a consultant including working on the first studies identifying a completely new therapeutic strategy for menopausal hot flushes which will help millions of women globally (Fezolinetant has now been FDA-approved in May 2023). Furthermore, as well as teaching in every year of the medical school, I am Head of Academic Tutoring for our clinical medical students. Here I have expanded the classical welfare role of our 56 personal tutors (all consultants across NW London) to now include targeted academic support as ‘Imperial Academic Tutors’. This has improved the all-round support and how we equip our future doctors for the lifelong learning and vocation of medicine.
I am particularly interested in reproductive endocrinology and the roles of various reproductive hormones outside the classical reproductive axis, and especially their effects on our behaviour and our bones. Regarding behaviour, our studies have recently uncovered fascinating roles for the reproductive hormone kisspeptin in human sexual behaviour, in both women and men. These studies have received much global attention and we are now developing kisspeptin-based therapies as a possible much-needed new therapeutic for individuals with low sexual desire. As part of my interest in the roles of reproductive hormones outside the classical reproductive axis, I am also interested in the effects of reproductive hormones on bones, which I observe up close in my endocrine bone clinics. To this end, we have identified positive effects of kisspeptin on human bone homeostasis that may provide new therapeutic options for bone disorders such as osteoporosis, although there is much more work to do. All in all, these studies demonstrate the amazing way our bodies are designed with reproductive hormones having important effects outside of the classical reproductive axis namely on behaviour and bones – and I am sure there are many more roles yet to be discovered.
Primarily, I feel extremely grateful to the fantastic clinical, research and educational teams that I work with on a daily basis. The supportive, good-natured, hard-working and inspiring individuals within these teams have made it easy for me to strive for the best outcomes for our patients and students today, as well as identify new possibilities for tomorrow through our research. I look forward to many more years working with these teams and seeing where the journey takes us.
Inês Cebola – Senior Lecturer
My career trajectory has taken me on a journey across Europe, which has enabled me to experience doing research in different settings and to get to work with people from different academic backgrounds. Being from a town close to Lisbon, I completed my BSc in Biology (with a specialisation in Genetics and Microbiology) at the University of Lisbon, whilst starting to work in a leukaemia lab at the Institute of Molecular Medicine. This work experience was key to spark my interest in research and prompted me to apply for a PhD at the University of Barcelona. My supervisor’s change of research institute in the middle of this training period meant I worked in two different cancer institutes. During this time I became very interested in the field of Epigenetics, being therefore delighted by the opportunity to carry out my postdoctoral training in Prof Jorge Ferrer’s lab, which was based in Barcelona at the time. A very fortunate turn of events then brought me to Imperial in 2013, as a senior postdoc in the Ferrer lab. In 2019, I formed my independent research group, which focuses on the intersection between genetic and epigenetic factors of metabolic disease, and I became a Sir Henry Dale Fellow in 2021. Time really flies when we’re having a good time, and having already been at Imperial for 10 years is proof of that.
My team focuses on studying mechanisms of gene regulation to better understand genetic factors of human disease, particularly diseases affecting the liver. In essence, we build maps that allow us and others to identify genetic variants that cause or change our risk of developing diseases. This field of research is generally described as regulatory genomics and there is a huge push at the moment to use and develop this type of approach to discover drug targets and to develop personalised medicine avenues.
I am obviously delighted to be promoted, it has given me and the team a huge sense of achievement! TEAM is really the keyword here: I am very grateful for all the hard work of the students and postdocs I had the privilege to work with these past years, as well as senior staff in the Department who have been very supportive of my establishment as an independent team leader. I must admit that opening a lab soon before a pandemic was quite different from what I had set out to do and I’m looking forward to see what the team can achieve now that research has again a sense of normality.
Makrina Savvidou - Professor of Practice
I am currently a Consultant in Obstetrics and Fetal Medicine, and Lead for the Fetal Medicine Unit at Chelsea & Westminster Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. I obtained my MD on maternal endothelial function from Kings College London and in parallel with my clinical work I have led research projects in different areas including pregnancy complications, prediction of pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes, and more recently, obesity in pregnancy. I am actively involved in the teaching of medical students and training of junior doctors. I have supervised a number of BSc, MSc, MD and PhD students as well as subspecialty trainees in Maternal and Fetal Medicine. I am a Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (BJOG).
The focus of our current research is on obesity and weight management interventions, such as bariatric surgery, during pregnancy. Studies from our team has shown that weight loss through pre-pregnancy bariatric surgery has significant effects on various parameters and can affect maternal and pregnancy outcomes, including fetal growth. We plan to investigate more comprehensively the aetiology of the observed clinical and metabolic effects of weight loss in pregnant women and the short- and long-term impact on the health of the offspring. As obesity is a growing public health concern, I believe that this is an area of high clinical interest.
I am obviously very delighted with my promotion, and I see this primarily as a recognition of the hard work and dedication of my team, which despite the challenges of the clinical work, managed to produce high-quality research. I am grateful to all of them. It is also an inspiration to continue and expand my research interests but also an opportunity to approach and engage more students and collaborators. I look forward to an even more productive and interesting future.
Yan Liu – Senior Lecturer
I am a chemist by training. Following a B.Sc. degree in chemistry at Peking University, China, I moved to the UK and undertook my Ph.D. in organic chemistry at the University of Bristol. My academic journey took an intriguing turn during my first postdoctoral experience when I joined Imperial College Glycosciences Laboratory as a member of UK Glycan Array Consortium in 2005. I delved into the captivating realm of glycobiology under the guidance of my mentor Prof Ten Feizi FRS. My fascination with the roles that glycans play in mediating a wide range of processes in health and diseases has kept me dedicated to this field. Over the course of 18 years, I've cultivated extensive expertise in the advancement and utilization of glycan array technologies. My most significant achievement to date is the establishment, alongside Prof Ten Feizi and esteemed colleagues of the Microarray Facility within the Glycosciences Laboratory, which has since evolved into a globally recognized collaborative resource. In my initial role as the Microarray Project Leader and subsequently as the Head of the Facility since 2019, I have led interdisciplinary projects involving over 150 researchers both in the UK and internationally, resulting in the publication of 75 research papers (Google Scholar h-index 40).
My research has been centred on the development and applications of new technologies, in particular glycan microarrays, to understanding glycan recognition events of biological and medical importance. As the PI of a Wellcome Trust Biomedical Resource Grant (£1.34M; 2019-2024), I am leading a team dedicated to maintaining a vibrant Carbohydrate Microarray Facility at Imperial College for the broad scientific community and upholding its world-leading position in Glycosciences. Continuing to advance glycan array technologies is a central focus for my team. This involves further expanding the scope of the glycan libraries, enhancing the precision of array readouts, and extending their applications to encompass recognition studies of whole microbes.
My current research places a special emphasis on unraveling glycan-mediated interactions at the host-microbiota interface, encompassing a range of systems including the respiratory, digestive, and reproductive systems. I am also enthusiastic about investigating the roles of glycans in the trans-kingdom interactomes that involve viruses, bacteria, and fungi. With the ever-growing pool of glycan interaction data collected at our Facility and globally, I am keen to spearhead the development of a curated Glycointeractome bioinformatics resource to fill the knowledge gaps on glycans and glycan-mediated molecular interactions in the wider biological landscape.
I am very excited about this promotion. It's a great opportunity to launch a new chapter in my career, with new opportunities for taking on challenging collaborative research projects, and contributing to the department's educational programs with the aim of advancing and integrating Glycosciences. Above all, I look forward to leading my team to achieve impactful results in the years ahead. Additionally, I aspire for my promotion to inspire early and mid-stage women scientists across the College, encouraging them to set ambitious goals, persevere through hard work, prioritize their well-being, and, above all, believe in themselves.
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