Meet Maria Raposo de Lima, Dr Ashraf Ben El-Shanawany Memorial Prize winner


Maria Raposo de Lima portrait

Every year, the Department of Mechanical Engineering awards prizes to recognise the achievements of our PhD students.

The Dr Ashraf Ben-El-Shanawany Memorial Prize is awarded for outstanding achievement in research, innovation and public engagement by a PhD or EngD student. Dr El Shanawany was an Engineering Doctorate student in the Nuclear group, who died in 2017, shortly after finishing his thesis entitled Uncertainty Quantification in Probabilistic Safety Analysis.

The current holder of the prize is Maria Raposo de Lima, let’s get to know her better:

Can you say a few words on the award you’ve received?

I am deeply grateful and honoured for this recognition of PhD research, innovation and public engagement. Meeting Mr and Mrs Shanawany over an enjoyable lunch was a privilege. I admire this fantastic and exemplary initiative.

This is a special moment and an achievement I’ll cherish! Indeed, a powerful reminder that hard work pays off, which is particularly welcome as I navigate the last (scary!) mile of my PhD. A sincere thanks to my supervisor, Professor Ravi Vaidyanathan, and my mentors for their constant support and guidance throughout my research journey. I also extend my appreciation to our Department, where I really find support and inspiration to strive for excellence and impact. Thank you!

Why did you decide to study for a PhD?

I wasn't sure about pursuing a PhD. Questions like "Is this really for me?", "Do I have what it takes?", "What if I end up not liking it?" circled in my mind. I was surrounded by peers who seemed so certain that a PhD followed by an academic career was their path, which only added to my uncertainty.

But it’s OK to question your path. It’s OK to be curious but hesitant. It’s OK to have doubts about pursuing a PhD. In fact, I think it’s good that you have them. It helped me consider all the pros and cons from a realistic perspective. I now realise so many people face doubts down the PhD road, so it’s better to sort them out early before taking on the challenge. At the end of the day, it’s a long-term commitment and a journey that demands perseverance, independence, motivation, and importantly, passion. 

During my MSc in Advanced Mechanical Engineering at Imperial, I really enjoyed my research project in socially assistive robotics for well-being and mental health. Taking part in an entrepreneurship accelerator programme opened my eyes to the commercial translation of technology. The opportunity to discover and innovate in a Robotics field with a significant impact on people’s lives really motivated me. So, despite the doubts, my curiosity and enthusiasm for the field pushed me forward.

Looking back, I'm glad I took on this challenge! Sure, it's been a roller coaster of ups and downs, but the steep learning curve and the opportunities for personal and professional growth have been totally worth it. Lastly, a PhD does not close any door to other potential career paths one may consider – but it certainly opens new ones!

What is your research about, in a nutshell?

As the world population ages, the number of people affected by dementia is rapidly increasing, expected to triple by 2050. In the UK alone, dementia accounts for 1 in 4 hospital beds. With no cure in sight, there is a need to develop assistive technologies to increase safety and prolong independence at home. My research explores how social robots capable of verbal communication can enhance well-being and safety in older age and dementia care at home, ultimately aiming to help people remain safe and independent in their homes for longer. My work directly involves stakeholders (people living with dementia, carers, clinicians) bringing their perspectives and needs to translate robot support. I am also exploring the cultural feasibility of socially assistive robots for dementia care in India.

Maria Raposo de Lima at the Ashraf Ben El-Shanawany Memorial Prize lunch
Maria (center) with Dr Ashraf Ben El-Shanawany's parents at the Memorial Prize lunch

How has your experience been in the department during your PhD? What do you enjoy the most about it?

My time in the Mechanical Engineering department since starting my MSc and continuing through to my PhD has been fantastic! The department offers us a supportive and dynamic academic environment. I feel supported in my project by my supervisor. Other academic staff, although not directly involved in my project, are always available for guidance too. Finding good mentors besides the core PhD supervision is something I find extremely valuable!

As a representative for my PhD cohort, I am thankful to contribute to fostering our department's collaborative and inclusive culture. I enjoy organizing social activities for PhDs, which the department always encourages and supports. Having joined student-staff meetings each term, I have witnessed the department’s commitment to student well-being and overall experience. It's empowering to know that our voices are heard and that departmental leaders actively discuss strategies for improvement.

A PhD journey is made of ups and downs for everybody. For me, prioritizing a healthy PhD/life balance is key, as is having an open mindset to accept failure and learn from every experience. I enjoy the constant learning and challenge. I enjoy the scientific discovery and the multidisciplinary collaborations.

For example, working with the UK DRI Care Research and Technology Centre has provided me with a unique opportunity to learn from people who work passionately to tackle a significant societal and public health issue: dementia care. Another highlight of my PhD was my research trip to India to conduct a human-robot interaction study. Additionally, presenting at top international conferences has been great to improve my presentation skills and network with experts in the field.

What are your interests beyond Mechanical Engineering?

I'm a big sports enthusiast! Tennis is a big part of my life and I have enjoyed playing at BUCS for the Imperial women’s tennis team. I also love running through parks and participating in races from time to time, which is not only fun but allows me to support charities like the Alzheimer’s Society.

Exploring nature is another passion of mine. The unique flexibility of a PhD has allowed me to travel and explore different areas of this country. When I'm not exploring or hitting the tennis courts, you might find me indulging my inner ‘foodie’, trying out new cafes and restaurants around London with friends. I also enjoy visiting art exhibitions and watching musicals whenever I get the chance.

Last but not least, I enjoy mentoring young students, particularly female students, to encourage them to pursue careers in STEM. I find it very rewarding to be able to inspire the next generation by sharing my journey in mechanical engineering, robotics and AI.


Nadia Barbu

Nadia Barbu
Department of Mechanical Engineering