Simone Walker

Senior Research Technician

Simone is a Senior Research Technician in the Inflammation, Repair and Development Section at the National Heart and Lung Institute.

Written in the stars

 I always liked science. I was always begging my mum to get me one of those toy chemistry sets, but she wouldn't get it for me because you had to be 10 years old. So when I was 10, I finally got the chemistry set. I did all the experiments that you're allowed to do in the instructions - then I just mixed the chemicals and hoped for the best. Occasionally the bung would pop off the test tube! So I already knew I was interested in science but it was when I did my first exams in GCSE Science, and I got 100%, I went fully into science. I became a science prefect and I used to do a summer school for primary school kids on basic science experiments, like the difference between enzymatic and non-enzymatic washing powder and extracting DNA from strawberries. So I've been doing science for a long time.

Before Imperial I was at the Institute of Cancer Research, just down the road, doing my PhD. But I never submitted my thesis. I would say that a PhD isn't for everyone. There's nothing wrong with that. I actually wanted to quit after two weeks but everyone, family, friends, my supervisors, told me I was just nervous. I now see that that's because everyone wanted me to get a PhD because it seemed like such a good opportunity. But although it wasn’t for me, following on from that I knew I still wanted to be in a lab, just not in that sort of position. So I applied to Imperial. And when I got the interview, I thought I was crazy – “Why did I apply for this job?”. Because I didn't know anything about asthma or how to measure lung function yet. But I did fit the job description and I got the job - and I'm still here 14 years later!

It’s important to know how the lungs function normally and in models of disease. I check to see how the lungs may or may not be altered by new treatments."
Reading is empowering. You can learn so much from it, even fiction. You can learn about different cultures, and it can open up your whole world. "
I’m British Caribbean. I grew up in London, but my mum would always talk about home, and she’d be talking about Dominica."
Green lab coat folded
earrings with Dominican flag
Pile of books

Object one: Lab coat

My current job title is senior research technician. I manage and run a specialist technical facility whereby we measure lung function in mice. It is perhaps obvious that it’s important to examine lung function when doing research into lung disease or conditions like asthma, lung fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or respiratory infections. But actually as long as we're looking at animal models in any sense, it's important to look at lung function. If you change the genetics, or put in a drug, you might affect the lungs . So we need to evaluate that. Make sure there are no side effects. So we're doing these technically ‘boring’ experiments, because we don't want to see any differences, but that’s also highly important information. Your research may not be looking directly at the lungs but I still need to check they are not affected.

I'm a biologist, but there's also a lot of physics involved. We basically push air into the mouse’s lungs, after we have given them a specific set of anaesthesia. Animal welfare is really important and you have to be really well trained to perform these techniques. We measure the pressure and the volume of the air going into the lungs, and then the pressure and the volume of the air coming out of the lungs. The easiest way to describe it is if you just think about the lungs being a tube, the bigger the tube, the easier the air can move through. So then the resistance is low. But if the tube gets smaller, for some reason, then it's harder for the air to move through the lungs. And then the resistance gets higher. We measure parameters that can give us an indication of why that tube might get smaller.

We've done collaborations with groups at Imperial, other universities, and industry. And some consultancy work for companies where they're trying to set up their own lung function lab. We've given them a lot of advice on how to do that along with training.

Aside from that I do general technical support, procurement, and I get involved with critical projects and supervise visiting workers. I also do a lot with students and newer members of the team, which I really enjoy. When students start they'll do a ‘boot camp’ with me, a fast paced two week training programme covering the technical skills that they're going to need. It's also a way for them to get to know each other and build up their own peer support system, and a way for us to find out how much support they're going to need - everyone comes in with a different set of skills and experience.

So that's my job role but I have extra roles I do. I have enjoyed sitting on the EDI committee for NHLI, and have recently stepped up to be one of the co-leads, and I am on the race equality self-assessment team and also a staff supporter. I'm always trying to make people feel comfortable, make sure that they know what support is available to them at Imperial. 

Object two: Earrings

I grew up in northwest London but my parents were born abroad. My mum is from Dominica, and my dad's from Jamaica. When I was younger I was surrounded by my Dominica family, my grandmother's here and my mum's here. And so they would always talk about home, and they'd be talking about Dominica. So I identify as British Caribbean. The reason I say that is because as much as my mum is from Dominica the Caribbean communities amalgamated together in the UK, and they made their own culture. There's lots of things that are not Dominican, and there's lots of things that are not Jamaican. And I think that's probably my best identifier, British Caribbean, because I can't identify with just one island. Although sometimes I think my best identifier is that I'm a Londoner. I guess somewhere between Londoner and British Caribbean is my cultural identity.

Sometimes I get annoyed, because in the UK people talk about Caribbean food shops, but most of them are Jamaican. So loads of people have heard of jerk chicken and ackee. But I do not eat those things at home, no other island cooks ackee, it's poisonous the majority of the time! Most Caribbean people in the UK would eat akee and saltfish but it's not actually from their home country. I tend to prefer the term Caribbean, but you can use West Indian, I would lean towards using Caribbean but that's a debate. When it comes to cricket, obviously I do support the West Indies! Again, that's a mix of all the islands. We're not the same, but we do come together and when you're away from the island, or grew up away from the island, you get an amalgamation and influences from all of them. But then with certain added levels of Britishness - so dinner on Christmas Day is the best example of that. We don't have turkey in the Caribbean, but we definitely have it here, but then we'll have a whole bunch of Caribbean dishes also. Yeah that's me, that’s the dinner I'm going to eat.

 Object three: Books

I've always read books, I thought everyone did. I remember when I was younger whenever I got my pocket money, I used to go to this bookstore on a Saturday, and pick up the latest in the series of Enid Blyton books that I was on. That was me. I always had a bookshelf in my bedroom. So I just thought that that was what you did, it’s like the most natural thing in the world to me.

I am happy to see other people reading, and I don't care what people read. Reading is more important than what you're actually reading. There is a book for everyone and I think reading is so empowering. You can learn so much from it even when it is fiction, especially when it's fiction. I sometimes think that non-fiction is a bit like being dictated to, to a certain extent, and that puts people off, but you can bury a lot in fiction that's actually true. And then you can engage people, you can learn about different cultures. You can learn everything in a book, and it can open up your whole world to so much. But it also gives you so much knowledge as well. So I just think everyone should be reading.

I would say my favourite genre is mystery and thrillers, I am definitely a Scandi Noir fan. I love all the stuff that comes out of Norway and Sweden - it's just fantastic. I think it’s with them being one of the happiest countries in the world, they can write this really fine dark fiction. I didn't really notice or care when I was younger, but as I've got older I wanted to read books with more characters like me - Black characters. And my reading habits have broadened in general, I like reading books from different cultures and environments. I read a lot of women's fiction as well, and about women's issues. I try to distinguish between ‘chick lit’ and women's fiction, I think there is a difference.

"I think it's important to embrace the differences that are around us"

Sign saying you belong

It always seems impossible, until it is done

 Seeing people communicate, understand each other, being happy and content - makes me happy and content. I do the ‘extra work’ I do because I think it's important. I just do it naturally. I've had people tell me lots of things, I think that you need to be a confidant sometimes, and people seem to trust me. I don't necessarily agree with them, but I try to help them have a different perspective, and not to take sides. Our working environment is not like others, you work very closely with people for potentially long periods of times. So it's important to have a good relationship with people. I've been fortunate on the whole, but I have worked outside of science and felt not included. And when you have a welcoming environment, and you can talk openly with your colleagues that is a very nice space to be in.

I was initially reluctant to get involved with Athena SWAN, not equality and diversity initiatives, but Athena itself. I had a lot of issues with it, but I guess those issues are what made me get involved, to try to see if it could be different. When it first started it felt like it was only for academics. And there was a focus on women being able to act like men in the workplace, rather than allowing people to be individuals and still succeed. A lot of the initiatives were for things like support to attend conferences and help with caregiving responsibilities. But how about, you don't need to attend conferences to be successful – could it be about trying to change the culture instead?

My other reason for getting involved, that was more significant to me, was that it's important that all of the staff groups within the university are given equal opportunities. I really enjoy representing the PTO staff. I first started being on the working group some time ago. And as I gave my opinions I started to realise actually this is important, you can make a difference.

Then the race equality charter was because it's the self-assessment team checking accountability, it's not writing the document. I think some previous initiatives didn’t result in lasting change, but as a self-assessment team I feel we're trying to keep it on track. That's why I wanted to get involved. I don't think that race should be looked at in a binary fashion, there are a lot of intersections, especially class. That's the angle that I'm interested in. I grew up in social housing, and council estates - it's just my background. But I'm also really interested to hear all the other angles and experiences of other cultures and minority groups too.

I think it's important to embrace the differences that are around us. There's lots of differences. Every year the new students are 21 years old, much younger than the rest of us who are just getting older! But it's good to impart your wisdom, and also to learn from them. Young people are fascinating.

What’s in a name?

For me, my job title isn't important. I am happy to do a good job regardless of what my job title is. But I think a lot of people do not understand what I do. And I think there's lots of other people within Imperial that have the same issue. I love being a technician. But I sometimes think people don't necessarily always respect that title, and they have no comprehension of what the role actually involves. So I would like to have the standardisation of job titles. I feel like we're not describing people properly all the time. Sometimes I don't like to label people and put labels on things. But on this occasion, I would like a bit more understanding of exactly what I do and what others do. I actually do want to be known as a technician because it's what I do. My wish would be to make people understand and appreciate the complexities of other people's jobs within the College. I also want people to know that this is a good career path, and there's options - I think that's a change I would like to see.

I always say I have the perfect job for myself, I get to develop a specialist skillset, and this specific knowledge that really appeals to me - being an expert in something. Then there are the other aspects, like finance, training and teaching - all the things I like to do. I get to interact with people, I get to help people. I like helping people, I like making people happy. Showing them that they've accomplished something. Sometimes people don't see that what they've done is a win, and I like highlighting that to them. Getting them to reframe how they're thinking about certain things. I can do that now quite well and show them. It can be six o'clock in the morning, and we're already winning the day, and they haven't seen it like that.

Simone looks down microscope in lab
Simone with author in bookshop
Simone with umbrella outside
Simone with face mask in front of computer
Simone uses pipette in lab
Item 1 of 4
Simone with author in bookshop
Simone with umbrella outside
Simone with face mask in front of computer
Simone uses pipette in lab

Visit my portrait in the Guy Scadding Building
on the Brompton Campus and see others 'Making Waves' below

View our stories now

Aaron sits smiling in clinical room


Dr Aaron Braddy-Green is a Clinical Research Fellow within the Airway Disease Section at the NHLI.

He talks about his research on COPD, why he became a doctor, the importance of representation and volunteering for the Royal Air Force Air Cadets.

Cecilia Johansson


Cecilia Johansson is a Professor of Mucosal Immunology within the Respiratory Infections Section at the NHLI.

She talks about mentoring, her immunology research and the many hats we all wear that make us who we are.

Maike and Salina in the lab

Maike and Salina

Maike Haensel and Salina Nicoleau are PhD students at the National Heart and Lung Institute in the Vascular Science Section.

They discuss their research, podcast empowering women and an international outlook.

Sejal holds inhaler and chocolate


Sejal Saglani is a Professor of Paediatric Respiratory Medicine and Section Head of the IRD section at the NHLI.

She talks about her work treating childhood asthma, the importance of the team that surrounds her and how small vices can help us on difficult days.