Whether leading on the global race to create a COVID-19 vaccine or helping disadvantaged local communities, Imperial’s women leaders have shown how to make an impact under difficult circumstances.
As part of International Women’s Day and Women at Imperial Week (8-12 March) - the College’s annual celebration of Imperial women - we look at the incredible work of five women who are changing the world we live in.
“One of the most rewarding aspects of my role is when I help someone, and they go on to help someone else – it's a ripple effect.”
Community Engagement Manager, Office of the Provost
Priya, Community Engagement Manager, has been helping the College to build and maintain relationships with local residents, businesses and organisations in White City over the past five years. Since the COVID-19 lockdown began in the UK last year, Priya says divisions in society which have always existed have become more visible and prevalent: “Over the years, I have seen firsthand the inequalities many in our local communities face. COVID-19 has brought lack of access to the forefront, such as schoolchildren not having the right equipment in their homes for remote learning, or our elderly neighbours being unable to connect with friends and family over the lockdowns. My first thought was: ‘what role can the College play in helping our neighbours overcome barriers around digital exclusion?’”
Priya and the Community Engagement Team have spearheaded Imperial’s efforts to support the local organisations and connect with vulnerable people in White City since 2016. Since the pandemic began, they have pivoted their work to address its immediate impact, which has included working with community partners to deliver science activity kits to local families, providing tech support to elderly residents through the What the Tech!? initiative, working with Imperial's Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) team to source and deliver recycled devices to local children, and offering general support to residents and community organisations during the lockdown.
It’s important that we make sure to take care of ourselves, especially before we take on new challenges or use our voice to challenge and address discrimination or inequality.
“I recall an elderly gentleman who was wheelchair bound and lived on his own, during the lockdown, the only way he could keep connected was through his computer which had stopped working,” Priya explains. “We found a colleague in IT who helped him work through a variety of checks over a week, and in the end helped him choose and buy a new computer, which meant he could do his online shopping and speak to his GP independently. We made sure to call and check in on him until he was sorted and he’s been in touch since to check in on us!”
Human connection is important to Priya and her priority is helping those in need. “As an institution, but also as humans, we have a duty to help people when we are in a position to, especially when it feels like the world has come to a standstill in times like this,” she says. “One of the most rewarding aspects of my role is when I support someone , and they go on to help someone else – you can see the ripple effect of your actions.”
“Fill your cup first”
Priya’s advice for women who give their time to help others, is to remember to fill their cup first. “By that, I mean women often juggle multiple roles – we can be parents and caregivers, manage households whilst working, volunteering and driving change at the same time ,” she says. “It’s important that we make sure we also take care of ourselves, especially before we take on new challenges or use our voice to challenge and address discrimination or inequality.
“Don’t be afraid to bring your genuine self to the table when challenging biases. We can hold ourselves back, working out the right way words to say something, to try fit in and be accepted so that we can be taken seriously, but this can prevent us from from saying anything at all."
Join Priya and Professor Maggie Dallman as they talk about the College’s Societal Engagement work, as part of the Current and Future Women Luminaries Series on Tuesday 13 April 2021.
“I have always wanted to move the boundaries of medicine forward."
Dr Katrina Pollock
Senior Clinical Research Fellow in Vaccinology and Honorary Consultant, Department of Infectious Disease
Dr Katrina Pollock
Dr Katrina Pollock, Senior Clinical Research Fellow in Vaccinology and Honorary Consultant, Department of Infectious Disease, says she always loved science and chemistry in school. “I come from a medical family – my grandfather was a vaccinologist, and I sometimes think that was where my guiding passion originated,” she says.
Katrina has been leading the clinical trials work on the Imperial College COVID-19 RNA vaccine programme and as Principle Investigator at the NIHR Imperial Clinical Research Facility, was instrumental in the trials of the Oxford-Astra Zeneca COVID-19 vaccine from the beginning. “I have always wanted to move the boundaries of medicine forward. I took up my current role in 2019 and was really excited because of my career interest in studying human immunity – vaccines were not at the top of the list then, but little did we know that this would quickly change. We have all risen to the challenge as a scientific and medical community. I believe we are now on the cusp of seeing a revolution in vaccine research that will continue to benefit science and medicine.
“I remember when we received very early data that the COVID-19 vaccines were having the desired effect - it was very rewarding,” she continues. “It has been a staggering effort to get to where we are today and a privilege to have been given this opportunity.”
Although she feels clinical academia remains a tough environment for women to navigate, Katrina stresses the importance of having the right balance in their careers. “Keep going, don’t be disheartened, and find pragmatic solutions. I’ve always been guided by my desire to help patients and seeing how medicine can support people and transform lives is compelling. I would hope other women can find a similar passion that guides them through any challenges they might face at work.”
“Girls and women should be confident in pursuing their goals and shouldn't limit themselves by common expectations and perceptions.
Dr Isra Marei
Honorary Research Fellow, National Heart & Lung Institute
Dr Isra Marei
Dr Isra Marei, Honorary Research Fellow in the National Heart and Lung Institute, was one of three winners in the Post-doctorate Researchers category awarded by L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Middle East Regional Young Talents Program 2020 – an initiative that aims to empower women participation in scientific research by promoting and encouraging exceptional women scientists at different stages of their careers.
Isra obtained her MRes in biomedical research in 2013, and her PhD in Clinical Medicine Research in 2018 at Imperial. During her MRes, she was introduced to the concept of tissue engineering and its potential applications to treat a wide range of diseases. Currently, in her role as a postdoctoral associate in pharmacology at Weill Cornell Medicine Qatar, Isra is investigating the potential applications of tissue engineering and the utility of blood endothelial stem cells in diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Our cultures are still struggling with diversity, and women are still underrepresented in science and academia to varying degrees across the world
She explains: “My work focuses on using tissue engineering and regenerative medicine to improve our understanding of diabetes and cardiovascular complications and to provide intrinsic ways to treat these diseases. There is a vast need for more potent therapeutic and preventative measures to control these diseases. Tissue engineering and regenerative medicine applications provide a potential solution to improve therapeutics, disease modeling, and drug testing.”
Isra feels she still has a lot to accomplish and hopes that her work will help in advancing our understanding of diabetes and its vascular complications. "Applying the knowledge gained from basic research, in combination with the advanced new technologies will pave the way to treat these diseases and reduce their impact on the society. Tissue engineering is a great example of this approach. This field is the result of collaborative efforts between the fields of biology, biomaterials, and engineering.”
No limitations on success
Transferring knowledge to younger generations is important to Isra and is one of the core reasons that she also enjoys teaching and supervising students. What does Isra feel about the representation of women in science?
"Our cultures are still struggling with diversity, and women are still underrepresented in science and academia to varying degrees across the world,” she says. “Girls and women should be confident in pursuing their goals and shouldn't limit themselves by common expectations and perceptions. This confidence combined with hard work and persistence will help them in achieving their aims.
“Also, having a clear perspective of their goals, objectives, and what they can offer to the world will help in pursuing their aims with strength and confidence. Seeking opportunities and finding good mentors and collaborators in the field will also have a positive influence on their careers.
“I hope that I will play a role in inspiring other women to pursue a career in science in general and in the tissue engineering field specifically. I think that this field carries the key to potential breakthroughs in clinical medicine applications.”
"Lead the way for others and they’ll follow.”
Research Postgraduate, Department of Physics
Meriame Berboucha, Research Postgraduate in the Department of Physics, is studying for her PhD in plasma physics while conducting research at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science laboratory operated by Stanford University in California.
Meriame’s work is crucial to help us learn about the inner workings of our planet, and this knowledge could also help us pave the path to inertial confinement fusion, a way of keeping our planet alive with clean energy. She explains: “I work on warm dense matter – matter that exists in the interiors of planets such as Neptune, Uranus and even our own planet, the Earth. We heat up the matter with high power lasers to mimic what happens in the interiors of these planets and probe it with X-rays.”
Young girls and women shouldn’t say ‘no’ to studying a STEM subject or pursuing a career in STEM just because they don’t see someone that looks like them in the field – why not be that person?
In school, Meriame remembers being told that physics was for men by some of her teachers and friends, but says her mum – a physics technician – was her role model. “Change is about making the STEM field a place that is welcoming for everyone,” she says. “I can sometimes experience imposter syndrome and feel like I don’t belong. For example, I’m often the only woman in a meeting or in a research group, and it’s very sad to see that it’s still happening. I came to Imperial and found so many like-minded women, but in my postgraduate studies abroad in California, I am the only student in my group, and t can feel quite isolating. I’m waiting for the day where I can be in a room full of a diverse group of people and feel like I belong.”
Leading future generations
In order to “create a face for science”, as Meriame herself puts it, she has created an Instagram page ‘Girl in a Physics World’ to highlight her work. From showcasing her experiments to the large machines she uses in her day-to-day, it’s a space for her to inspire others and share her achievements.
Meriame advises that young women should not be afraid to ask questions. She says: “Don’t surround yourself with people who don’t support what you do. Young girls and women shouldn’t say ‘no’ to studying a STEM subject or pursuing a career in STEM just because they don’t see someone that looks like them in the field – why not be that person? Lead the way for others and they’ll follow.”
Meriame has spent the first six months of her PhD away from her research group in London during COVID-19. "It’s been an interesting experience, to say the least," she says. "But I am excited to be able to go into SLAC and be a part of experiments that are adding to my PhD. Currently, I’m drafting up my first ever paper to hopefully be published! And I’m taking my followers along with me on that journey and hopefully helping out other PhD students grinding through the pandemic – we're all in this together and we can do it!"
“Don’t be afraid and don’t feel as though you are coming across as weak or silly."
Dr Hannah Cheeseman
Head of the Core Immunology Laboratory, Department of Infectious Diseases
Dr Hannah Cheeseman
Dr Hannah Cheeseman, Head of the Core Immunology Laboratory in the Department of Infectious Disease, has been one of the women leading Imperial’s COVID-19 vaccine work. In her role, Hannah has been responsible for ensuring that high-quality immunology data is obtained from trial participants and helping to assess whether the vaccine is working.
“Working on a vaccine that means something here and now has been incredible,” Hannah reflects. “People have become complacent about vaccines, thinking of them as something you receive when you need to travel overseas or associating them with babies. COVID-19 has put everything I do into perspective.”
It’s very important that women remember to reflect and congratulate themselves on how far they have come, as well as believing in themselves and their abilities.”
Now the general public is using terms like ‘vaccine efficacy’ in their day-to-day conversations, Hannah feels that people have finally started to understand the level of research that goes into making vaccines and the impact they can have. “It’s nice to see our field get some recognition,” she adds.
Hannah has been part of a team of researchers led by Professor Robin Shattock racing to develop an effective COVID-19 vaccine at Imperial. She explains: “I have been managing a fantastic set of colleagues who have been working in the lab on our vaccine candidate. I make sure the experiments have been performed as we planned, checking if we’re meeting our deadlines and, most importantly, identifying if our vaccine is working and inducing an immune response.
“The most exciting moment has been when colleagues have said ‘we’ve got some data!’ and it shows the results we want. We’ve been in close contact with our peers at the University of Oxford and it has been amazing to see their vaccine roll out.”
At the beginning of her career, Hannah says she was quiet and shy and built confidence over time. “I asked a lot of questions when I was new in my role and I would suggest that other young girls and women do the same,” she says.
“Don’t be afraid and don’t feel as though you are coming across as weak or silly. It’s very important that women remember to reflect and congratulate themselves on how far they have come, as well as believing in themselves and their abilities.”
Thomas Angus (Dr Katrina Pollock, Dr Hannah Cheeseman)
L'Oreal Middle East (Dr Isra Marei)
Meriame Berboucha – SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (top image), Sam Eardley (lab pic)