Interview for the Broad Inquiry

By having more diversity within STEM fields, we can increase our scientific output, generate better technologies and understand more of the world around us.

A couple of months ago I agreed to do an interview as part of a new project highlighting women in STEM; discussing what challenges they face, how they were inspired to follow a scientific career and to share advice to women entering STEM fields.

The Broad Inquiry was started by Lauren Drogos, an AIHS Postdoctoral Scholar at University of Calgary, Canada. She initially voiced the idea on twitter, asking for volunteers to be profiled as a way for her to become excited about science in 2017. After much support and excitement from the STEM community, the project has become a bi-weekly profile of the amazing women in our scientific community.

Along with fellow site admin Debbie Yee, the project highlights not only the research of each of the individuals, but also the stories of how women move through their careers in STEM/academia.

The goal? To foster role-models for future women in STEM, to inform the public what the life of a female scientist is really like and to break-down the stereotypes surrounding scientific careers.

My views on diversity in STEM, in particular the championing on women, are ones which I’m never one to shy away from. I believe that STEM careers should be equally open to all, and that increasing diversity makes for better research.

I cannot express my admiration for projects like The Broad Inquiry enough. It is projects like this that will help to show women and under-represented groups of the future that a career in STEM is open to them, and that the support of thousands of women and men currently in STEM is there for them.

If you want to learn more about their project, check out their page!

Science in Images: ISMRM, Honolulu Hawaii

This years ISMRM meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii has been a roaring success for the MSU MCIL team.

With 4 oral presentations, a study group presentation and award, as well as an award for scientific merit, the MSU Radiology department has demonstrated that their research has value on a global scale.


Dr Barbara Blanco Fernández, awarded 1st place in the Molecular and Cellular imaging study group.

The Molecular and Cellular imaging group, a focus group of the ISMRM community, aims to provide an informal atmosphere to discuss the progress, evaluation, and application of molecular and cellular imaging using Magnetic resonance technology.

One highlight of the group is its championing of the exceptional research being performed by it’s junior members. Having delivered both a high impact abstract, as well as an oral presentation as part of the general meeting, Dr Blanco Fernández was selected to present her work on nanoparticles for immunology at the group chapter meeting, being awarded the top prize for research excellence.

The highly competitive and prestigious award was for Barbara’s research highlighting the use of Chitin and Chitin-materials for vaccines and nanocarriers for immunotherapy.


The group also received recognition for its outstanding research in the form of multiple accepted presentations.

Dr Christiane Mallett, presented a poster on her work on using MRI to measure acetaminophen toxicity in the liver.

Prof Erik M Shapiro presented a talk on behalf of Jamal Afridi on his PhD work, investigating Machine learning for intelligent detection of cellular transplants using MRI.

Dr Dorela Shuboni-Mulligan gave presentation on her groundbreaking work, investigating the link between diabetes and dysregulation of OATP transporters.


The final oral presentation and award was presented to myself, for the use of Polymer and Peptides as Theranostic agents. Peptides have been my area of specialty since undergraduate, so getting to apply my knowledge to molecular imaging and cancer therapy was a rewarding challenge for me.

I presented my work on switchable MRI imaging agent, capable of the non-invasive detection of specific cell types for cellular transplants, cancer detection and therapeutic delivery.

The ISMRM recognizes research excellence by awarding high-impact abstracts. Having scored in the top 5% of all submitted abstracts, I was awarded the Summa cum Laude IRMRM merit award.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can I get a round of applause for the achievent of all these awesome #WomeninSTEM?

ISMRM Honolulu, Hawaii. The end of a chapter.

On Saturday, I’ll be aboard a flight from Seattle to Honolulu. This year sees ISMRM (international society for magnetic resonance in medicine) holding its annual conference on the Hawaiian island, and many many researchers couldn’t be happier about it!

The conference marks a big change in both my personal and professional life, as I leave Michigan behind and pursue a new career path and life in Seattle, Washington.

Simultaneously, for the first time since working for MSU I have been given the opportunity to give an oral presentation at an international meeting.

I have attended many conferences and seminars, often presenting my research in the form of posters, but this opportunity allows me to finally share the exciting data we have been acquiring over the last 2 years, and share the news of upcoming papers.

Until very recently, all of my research had a focus on the in vitro characterization of a range of novel nanoparticles, made from polymeric and peptide materials, that allowed for the development of MRI contrast as a result of a stimulus. The data was great, but it wasn’t as scientifically sexy as some of the other work going in the field. Now finally, we have demonstrated that those very particles work within the body, and moreover, allow for the targeted delivery of chemotherapy. It’s a big development and the proof-of-concept of a new mode of molecular imaging.

The chance to share this work with the world is bittersweet. I’m proud of what we accomplished at MSU but I’m also sad to be leaving it behind.

I’ll be spending the next few days obsessively practicing my talk and probably editing slides. Hopefully a great talk is enough to send-off this chapter in my career in a good light. And if not, at least I’m in Hawaii!

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If you’re interested in my abstract have a look over it here!

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When is it Time to Leave Academia?

For the last few months I’ve been debating the concept of leaving academic research to pursue something new.

I have always considered myself on track for a lifetime of academic work, leading to my own research group and training the next generation of scientists. I love bench research and sharing my scientific insights and knowledge with others. Despite that having always been the plan, as I progress through my career, I am realizing more and more that a tenured position is less likely for me.

Thinking about an alternative career at this stage isn’t something new. Postdoctoral roles, particularly in the life sciences, are growing exponentially, largely because funding for the life sciences has more than doubled in the last 10 years. This over saturation of the market has inevitably led to high competitiveness for academic positions, as well as funding.

In the US it has been reported that around 65% of PhD-holders continue into a postdoc, but only 15–20% of those move into tenure-track academic posts. The situation in Europe, although less well reported and analysed is similar.

This career stage is also a pivotal time for women on the academic path. The stats show that the number of women in science rapidly declines after graduating from their first degree, with most women opting to leave academia during or just before postdoctoral roles. This is a multi-faceted problem, caused by lack of support to have a family and a career, historic gender biases and low postdoctoral wages.

For me personally, the drive to leave the academic lab however is that; the longer I remain, the more I become aware that my chances of success further down the path are almost zero. As I get better acquainted with the over-subscription for funding, the need to do lengthier postdoctoral roles and the undervaluing of my skill set by many universities, I realize there are other forums where I can use my scientific knowledge to advance technology, and more directly improve lives.

Research is my passion. Designing and planning experiments, analyzing data and getting to connect the dots is what I live for, but there comes a stage when the cons of the academic environment outweigh the pros.

So back to the question, when is it time to leave?

There are sadly so many reasons to leave academia; the end of your funding, loss of enjoyment in what you’re doing, poor work-life balance, the terrible pay or the serious gender imbalances, to name a few.

For me, I got to the end of a project and started thinking about writing it up, and all I could think was ‘there has to be more?’ I’ve been working and training for this for the last 10 years, and I’ve reached the point where the cycle has become predictable and repetitive. Research and innovation is born out of excitement and enjoyment in what you are doing, and the predictable work style has started to hinder my personal development. That’s surely not the case for all people. For some that comfort and routine is great, but for me I need to keep learning and applying my skills in different ways.

The skills you learn from being  trained as a scientist are really cross-applicable to a whole range of roles, from management to design. The most difficult lesson I’ve had to learn is that, just because this is what I’m doing right now, it doesn’t mean it’s what I have to do forever. It’s not failing by choosing to follow a new path and, equally, it’s not mundane if you love what you do and what to stay doing it for a lifetime.

I love science, and I love research, but maybe now is the time to try something new….

Science in Images: Diversity in Science

Our research lab currently has 8 nationalities, no less than 7 belief systems, and scientific backgrounds that range from chemistry to computer science. 


We are all very different, and at a time where discrimination based on difference is sadly a normal, it is important that I say that it is our variation that makes us successful and allows us to thrive as a research group.

Diversity in the workplace has been at the forefront of socioeconomic issues for many years. Increasing globalisation means that interactions with differing backgrounds are common place: insular populations are no longer the standard and people are part of a global economy.

Many see this paradigm shift as something to fear, that somehow embracing multiculturalism will diminish and devalue their own values and threaten their beliefs. There are many issues with globalisation that we should be wary of, but this is not one of them.

Exposure to a range of ideas allows us to form more balanced views on the world, ultimately leading to a decrease in in-built bias. The presence of a range of diverse perspectives also allows a groups to form much broader ideas, including perspectives individuals alone wouldn’t have considered. When this is viewed altogether, the society that is built from variation is one of increased respect and understanding.

In the context of research then, it is easy to see why a diverse cultural and scientific group can achieve more together than each individual could alone.

Working with those unlike ourselves offers us an untapped resource of knowledge, and challenges us even more so to validate those methodologies and understandings we base much of our research on.

The Importance of Self Care

Meet Kim, a service dog from Therapy Dogs International who payed a visit to the students and research staff at Michigan State University last week.

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The event, organised by the Michigan State Graduate wellness team, promoted time off for both students and junior faculty alike to unwind and let-off some of the stress that comes with working and studying.

I’ve been vocal in the past about the importance of mental health, particularly in science and research, but it was refreshing to see an academic institution actively promoting the mental well-being of their students and employees.

In academia in particular, mental health is usually overlooked and ignored, despite it’s high prevalence. Burnout, depression and anxiety are all common place and, in many cases, contribute to why people decide to leave their field of study or research entirely.

Taking some time out is important, especially when faced with stress and constant pressure. This doesn’t mean you have to take your eye off the prize but simply taking some time to read a book, go for a walk, eat a good meal or socialise with friends will not only make you happier and mentally more healthy, it’ll also put you in a better frame of mind to meet those deadlines, study that bit more and reach your potential.

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Kim getting antiquated.
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Gran Torino, the smooth collie.

Science in Images: Melanoma Cells

Over the last few days I’ve been struggling about what to post. America, as well as the world, has been engulfed in the post-election fall out and I don’t need to tell anyone how to feel about it. I’ve chosen instead to focus on positive things, so here is a picture from one of my many current projects.

These are B16/F10 cells, or melanoma. With these cells our lab is trying to specifically target cancer, allowing us to treat locally.

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Cells can be influenced by external stimuli: receptors at the surface of a cell (built into its cell membrane) can act by receiving (binding to) extracellular molecules. I like to think of these as tiny code-lock doors. If we know the code, we can engineering a material to have the code inbuilt, allowing us to specifically interact with only those cells. Targeted treatment in this way would allow many patients to live better, longer lives.

Currently the therapeutic option for many patients, especially post-tumour removal, is chemotherapy. Chemotherapy has many side-effects; hair loss, weight loss,  nausea, vomiting, fatigue, as well as issues with drug resistance. By utilising cell surface receptors and only targeting the cells we wish destroy, we can make treatment more effective, less invasive and improve the quality of life for many.

There’s a lot of work to do before such therapy will be clinically available but every day, and every bit of research takes us closer. I, like many others, do this work because I want to help people, all people, so that’s what I’ll be focusing on.

 

Bioengineering Facility Grand Opening

When I joined Michigan State University back in 2014, the Bioengineering building was just a shell. Now 2 years later, the building finally had it’s opening.

The aim of the new building is to bring together researchers, across a multitude of disciplines, to begin to answer some of the many unmet needs in medical research.

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I have often said the future of healthcare is interdisciplinary, so it is very reassuring to see Michigan State taking steps to ensure that there is a place on campus for this kind of collaboration. The building itself will house chemists, cell biologist and computer scientist to name just a few and will be organised in such a way that facilities and equipment are available to all.

Key to the opening of the new facility was the recruitment of a director who shared the same vision of research as a collaborative enterprise. The facility will be led by Chris Contag, a leader in imaging technology, whose remarks at the opening ceremony really emphasised the building’s future direction.
“The disciplines are growing to the point where they are intersecting with other disciplines, and so the frontiers of discovery are not just where one discipline hits the unknown, but where the junction of multiple disciplines come together.”

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Researchers are set to move into the building in as soon as a month: it’s an exciting time for Michigan State!

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The event was also covered by the state news and includes some extracts from an interview with me: http://statenews.com/article/2016/10/bio-engineering-opening

Science in Images: Tissue Mimics

If you ask most people, they have an opinion on the use of animals in research. Despite the need for animals in some situations, there are many scenarios where viable alternatives do exist.

Imaged below are hydrogels: soft-solids consisting of over 90% water. Hydrogels are already heavily utilised in research, from tissue engineering to drug delivery.

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Hydrogels are great candidates for tissue mimics and in turn, the replacement of animals in some experiments. The properties of the gel can be individually tailored and designed such that the strength, charge and other characteristics are similar to a tissue sample.

In this case the hydogel is comprised of agarose, a polysacharide (carbohydrate), whose long chains make up the framework around which the water resides.

Hydrogels with similar properties to brain tissue were fabricated and used to test a large number of MRI contrast agents: the final therapeutic use is as an agent for labelling stem cells, for implantation into the brain, for cell therapy.

For cellular therapy to be effective, we need to know if cells remain in the correct location and are performing the correct function. One way to do is to label them before implantation, so we can image them with an MRI.

Samples of contrast agent are prepared and injected into the gel, before they are imaged. By using hydogels in this way, we can test many combinations of contrast agents quickly, cost-effectively and without the use of animals.

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Science in Images: Fluorescent Staining of Mesenchymal Stem Cells

Mouse mesenchymal stem cells, incubated with polymer nanoparticles encapsulating the dye coumarin_6 (green) and the enzyme Cellulase (red).

Cells are incubated in chambers on a glass slide. During incubation endocytosis occurs: cells uptake the nanoparticles into them.

Cells have a mass of surface receptors, which can allow for very specific uptake. The uptake of nanoparticles by cells in this way can have huge implications for medical treatments, such directed chemotherapy.

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After the cells have been incubated for around 24 hours, they are fixed and stained with further dyes, so the cytoskeleton (purple) and the nucleus (blue) of the cell can be seen. The first image shows a low magnification of the cells.

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The next image is a Z-stack confocal image. In other words, multiple images of the cell were taken at different spacing in the Z-direction, to get slices throughout the cell. The Centre image shows the XY direction, or the cell parallel to the glass slide. The images below and beside this show the ZY and the ZX of the cell, or the perpendicular directions. What we can see using this technique is exactly where both the nanoparticles and the enzyme are within the cell.