As part of the LCN’s Athena SWAN initiative, and as a commitment to diversity in STEMM, we shine a spotlight on our fantastic female researchers, who are pushing the frontiers of nanoscience for healthcare, information technology and the environment.
Read about their exciting research, career highlights, and their favourite part of their job below.
Professor Rachel McKendry
Professor of Biomedical Nanotechnology with a joint position at the London Centre for Nanotechnology and Division of Medicine at UCL, Director of i-sense EPSRC IRC
Research: My research aims to harness the power of nanotechnology, telecommunications and big data to fight infectious disease. Recent research highlights span from unravelling the nanomechanical workings of antibiotics against MRSA (Nature Nanotechnology 2008, 2013 and 2014), to creating mobile phone-connected tests for HIV (NIHR i4i programme), and a major new EPSRC programme called i-sense, which aims to build early warning systems to prevent epidemics, by linking web data with mobile phone-connected tests.
I’m very proud of i-sense because it brings together such an outstanding team of interdisciplinary researchers from across UCL, Imperial College, London School for Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Newcastle and Surrey Universities with Public Health England, the NHS and industry partners, including OJ-Bio, Microsoft and Google.
In less than 18 months we have built a real-time mapping system to identify disease hotspots across the UK, linking social media, web searches, crowd-sourcing, clinical and public health data. We are also developing innovative mobile phone-connected diagnostic technologies that can link results into our early warning systems with geo-located information.
The next exciting steps will be linking our technologies into NHS systems, our new collaboration with the Wellcome Trust Africa Centre and an ethics study to responsibly develop our technologies. You can find out more information about i-sense at www.i-sense.org.uk.
Career highlight: Winning the £11M EPSRC IRC grant and the Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award after returning from maternity leave and part-time research.
Prof Dorothy Duffy
Professor in Physics, London Centre for Nanotechnology and Department of Physics and Astronomy, UCL
Modern computers can be used to simulate experiments on materials that would either be difficult or expensive to study in the laboratory. In such computer experiments we can observe the positions of all the atoms and how they move on ultrafast timescales. In my research group, we develop and apply computer modelling techniques for a range of technological and scientific problems, including radiation effects in materials, crystallisation and ferroelectrics.
Radiation often degrades the performance of materials but it can also be advantageous, particularly in nanotechnology, where ion beams and lasers are used to create nanostructured materials and devices. We develop methods for the predictive modelling of such effects in a range of materials, with a particular focus on the effects of radiation that excites electrons, such as lasers and high energy ions.
I am part of a new EPSRC funded consortium whose objective is to develop new ways to control crystallisation by combining cutting-edge experiment and modelling to understand the mechanisms of crystal nucleation and growth. My particular focus is the role of additives in the control of crystal growth.
Soluble additives can be used to modify morphologies, size and size distributions or, alternatively, inhibit unwanted crystallisation. Additives can also become incorporated within crystals, providing a novel route for modifying properties and functionality. Our closely coupled experimental/modelling project will provide unique insight into the fundamental processes and will ultimately enable us to make informed choices about additives that will deliver crystals with the desired properties.
Career highlight: The award of Daphne Jackson Fellowship that enabled me to resume my research after an extended break and set me on the path to an interesting academic career.
What do you enjoy most about your work? Supervising project students, PhD students and early career researchers. Their ideas, energy and enthusiasm is often so inspiring!
Dr Harriet Gliddon
Postdoctoral Research Associate, London Centre for Nanotechnology and i-sense EPSRC IRC, UCL
Research: Molecular diagnostics (i.e. those that detect specific DNA or RNA sequences within a pathogen's genome) allow us to diagnose infectious diseases sensitively and quickly. They also allow us to respond to infectious disease outbreaks with increased agility since they can be developed in a short space of time compared to serologic diagnostic tests (i.e. those that rely on antigen-antibody binding). My research focuses on developing molecular diagnostics for HIV and tuberculosis (TB). By coupling novel molecular biology techniques to advanced nanoparticle reporters, we can develop rapid diagnostics with high sensitivities and specificities that can be used as easily as a pregnancy test.
Career highlight: Between finishing my PhD at Imperial College and starting my work at UCL, I spent a few months working at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva. I worked in the Department for Reproductive Health and Research (RHR) on the elimination of mother-to-child transmission (EMTCT) of HIV and syphilis. I really enjoyed learning about the processes and organisational structure within WHO. The work was exciting because it had a direct effect on policy change in an area I really care about; implementing rapid diagnostic tests in order to improve maternal and child health. I completed a systematic review with partners at WHO and presented the work both in Geneva and at the International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA) in Côte d’Ivoire in December 2017.
What do you enjoy most about your work? The best thing about research is also the worst thing; how much you immerse yourself in your work. It’s usually a bit of an emotional rollercoaster and far too easy to take failed experiments personally! But when they work, it’s amazing, so the highs definitely outweigh the lows.
Dr Jennifer Brookes
Senior Research Associate, London Centre for Nanotechnology and i-sense EPSRC IRC, UCL
Research: My background is in theoretical and computational physics applied to biology. I have researched various subjects such as how smell works, bird magnetodetection, energy transfer in photosynthetic bacteria, hormone-steroid receptor interactions and antibody-antigen recognition in infectious diseases. These systems may seem (and are!) incredibly diverse, which is part of the fun, but the common thread running through them is that the important events are defined by physics we do not yet completely understand. The fundamentals of many protein-interactions are undetermined yet such events underpin all important life processes.
My research gives me the opportunity to put natural systems under the microscope. As my work is computer-based this ‘dry-lab’ approach means the microscope is metaphorical; I look at the atomistic and electronic make-up of molecules that do fascinating and important things in biology.
Catching an infectious disease is, unfortunately, a pretty nasty way to observe fascinating nano-scale interactions. Falling ill with the flu for example - the invading virus attacks and releases 'biomarkers', i.e. antigens, which are detected and dealt with by the antibodies, produced by the body in defence. Luckily we can exploit this selective antigen-antibody recognition process by using it on biosensors for fast and reliable detection of disease. Undersanding the physics of these proteins, i.e. the diffusional properties, charge distribution, binding propensities contributes to understanding and consequently exploiting these properties in bio-sensor design.
Career highlight: I gave an invited lecture at the Royal Institution about the possibility that smell is a quantum effect. This was a real honour to speak about research that I am very proud of and excited by in such a special venue.
What do you enjoy most about your work? I enjoy most the first moments when you think you have discovered something new, even if it turns out to be perhaps not new (and/or interesting!) which actually often happens... there is no beating the first rush of a (maybe) discovery.
Dr Alice Pyne
MRC/UKRI Innovation Fellow, London Centre for Nanotechnology, UCL
I was recently awarded an MRC/UKRI Rutherford Innovation Fellowship to apply novel methods to understand how the complex, knotted and tangled DNA in each of our cells interacts with, and is maintained by, our molecular machinery. These molecular machines, called DNA topoisomerases, rearrange DNA in the cell, facilitating vital processes such as transcription and replication. This work is made possible by high-resolution Atomic Force Microscopy optimised to resolve variations in the DNA double helix. This enables us to visualise the interplay between complex DNA and topoisomerases in real time, at sub-molecular resolution. We will exploit this methodology to reveal the mechanism-of-action of topoisomerases; a major target for antibiotic and anti-cancer therapeutics.
The award of my MRC fellowship. This was a huge milestone in my career, marking the progress of my research from technical development, to biomedical research, that could aid in the development of greatly needed antibiotic and anticancer therapeutics.
My research is what drives me to succeed; trying to understand the mechanisms behind the complex cellular processes that keep us alive. In addition to performing research, I also enjoy speaking about the advantages of taking on STEM subjects and the rewards of research. During my fellowship I hope to act as a role model for women considering a career in research, and as an advocate for women in STEM.
Dr Eleanor Gray
Postdoctoral Research Associate in the i-sense EPSRC IRC McKendry group, London Centre for Nanotechnology
Research: I work in an interdisciplinary field with physicists and chemists to create the next generation of diagnostic tests that will allow us to detect infectious diseases, such as flu and HIV, earlier and more accurately than ever before.
Working together with a team from across different disciplines means that we can come up with exciting new methods to address old problems. I lead the development of novel capture proteins, including llama antibodies, against the HIV viral protein p24 to diagnose infections with high sensitivity and specificity. I also lead the early clinical evaluation of mobile diagnostic technologies using patient samples.
I work closely with clinicians at UCL Partners to ensure we develop technologies that meet their needs and the needs of the patient.
Career highlight: Coming back to academia after a period working in an applied science lab was a good move, and enabled me to focus on what I loved best, which is fundamental science research. One of my past career highlights was my research on a strange virus called XMRV, which was thought to be a novel human virus, until our work showed it to be an artefact due to contamination! It is one of the most highly cited publications in the field - full paper available here.
What do you enjoy most about your work?Bench science involves logical thinking, thorough planning, and careful analysis, but also experimental creativity, flashes of insight, and fun! Along the way you get to understand how the world works and contribute to solving some critical problems facing mankind. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.
PhD student in the i-sense EPSRC IRC McKendry group, London Centre for Nanotechnology
Research: I recently joined LCN and I am working in the i-sense group, supervised by Professor Rachel McKendry. My research project aims at developing a point-of-care diagnostic for Ebola. Point-of-care diagnostics are rapid, portable and user-friendly, designed to be used in remote areas by end-users. My project capitalises on the novel technologies owned by the i-sense group.
Developing a highly sensitive test for the early detection of Ebola can enhance the global response to Ebola epidemics which frequently occur in West and Central Africa.
PhD or career highlight: In 2016, I had the chance to do an internship at LSHTM which opened my mind to the importance of research done in tropical medicine and infectious diseases. For my master project at Imperial College, I worked on malaria as I wanted to be involved in the crucial research to control tropical and infectious diseases. Then, I was awarded an EPSRC studentship for my PhD, allowing me to carry on my research career in this same spirit.
What do you enjoy most about your work? Working in a multidisciplinary team such as i-sense is a great opportunity to learn in different fields, share ideas and be part of innovative and exciting projects. The application of nanotechnologies to early diagnostics is very promising. I enjoy applying cutting-edge research to create new testing tools, improve healthcare and tackle emerging infectious diseases like Ebola.
PhD student in the i-sense EPSRC IRC McKendry group, London Centre for Nanotechnology
Research: I am a PhD student working on using atomic force microscopy (AFM) to detect and investigate the action of antimicrobials. I use the AFM to take high resolution images of the action of novel antimicrobial compounds on live bacterial cells to see what happens to individual cells in real time. I am also using the AFM to develop a novel method of detecting antimicrobial resistance in bacteria, with the aim of this technology being used as a diagnostic tool.
PhD or career highlight: In the third year of my PhD I had the opportunity to present my work on the imaging of antimicrobial peptides acting on bacterial cells at a conference in Kyoto, Japan. It was a great conference, and resulted in follow up collaborations.
I have also recently been on secondment to the Government Office for Science, as part of the RCUK (now UKRI) Policy Internship Scheme. It has been a fantastic opportunity to learn how government operates, and how science and evidence are being embedded in policy making. Whilst there I have had the opportunity to work with the Government Chief Scientific Advisor (GCSA), Dr Patrick Vallance, and the network of Chief Scientific Advisors (CSAs) across government.
What do you enjoy most about your work? The AFM imaging work that I do can very satisfying when you get all the parameters just right and produce exiting images of bacteria - not everyone gets to take pictures for their research! I've even 3D printed some of the images I have taken to use at public engagement events.
But I would also say that my research group, and the whole of the i-sense IRC, are very supportive which has made even the challenging times of my PhD easier! So I definitely enjoy getting to work alongside a great group of people in the lab everyday.
Professor Molly Stevens
Professor of Biomedical Materials and Regenerative Medicine and the Research Director for Biomedical Material Sciences in the Department of Materials, Department of Bioengineering and the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at Imperial College London.
Research: I lead an extremely multidisciplinary research programme that designs and develops innovative materials, which have applications in a range of fields such as regenerative medicine, tissue engineering and biosensing.
My team create bio-inspired materials and nanomaterials that go well beyond the state-of-the-art as well as innovative materials-based characterisation methods that inform on the cell-material interface. My major goal is that these innovations elicit a step-change in medicine and have real clinical impact. For example, I am developing various elegant materials-based approaches to engineer tissues and create diagnostic platforms capable of detecting diseases such as cancer, HIV and acute pancreatitis, amongst others.
My group’s research has received over 20 major awards including the 2012 EU40 Award for best materials scientist under 40 in Europe as well as a listing by The Times as one of the top 10 scientists under 40.
Career highlight: Developing nanomaterial-based ultrasensitive biosensing technologies for a range of applications in healthcare.
For more information on the LCN’s Athena Swan initiative Rachel McKendry.