Tuesday, 23 June 2015

ISTM Women in Engineering: Professor Alicia El Haj

Happy National Women in Engineering Day!

For the first post in our interview series with the female engineers in ISTM, we talked to Professor Alicia El Haj, a pioneer in regenerative medicine and our Institute Director. In recognition of her leading role in bioengineering, she received the MRC Suffrage Science Award 2015, which aims to encourage more women to pursue leadership roles in science and engineering.

You work in Cell Engineering. What does that mean?

Cell engineering involves finding new ways to use cells in treatments for human disease and injury. Essentially, we design exciting technologies for controlling the way cells behave. As a bioengineer, I take principles from engineering, such as biomechanics, and apply them to stem cells, and also use magnetic and optical materials. We often set up models of human tissues to study the way we can organise and control stem cells. This means building ‘bioreactors’, which are chambers which allow the growth of human tissues outside the body.

I got into research in this field because I found the concept of a stem cell as a therapy fascinating! But trying to find ways of controlling cells to help people suffering from disease and injury is extremely challenging. We work in an NHS environment, and everyday we see how much need there is in healthcare for new therapies. If my research can make steps forward along the pathway towards practical application in the clinic, I will have felt an enormous sense of achievement ☺. My research can also be incredible fun, allowing me to work across an international environment.

What is an exciting project you are working on at the moment? 

One of my most exciting projects at the moment is to see if we can use external magnetic fields to control the way cells behave in the body. We are designing a therapy where we attach small magnetic nanoparticles to signal systems on the cell and then inject them into a site such as the knee where we want them go and fix the cartilage. By using an external magnet, we can move the cells about and control the activation of the cell through the signal system. This means we can target cells and deliver injectable therapies which no longer need surgery! The Scientific American has an amazing article on our work in April which calls it the ‘Launch of the Nanobots!

How did you become a Professor of Cell Engineering?

When I first went to University, I wanted to become a game warden in an African safari park! I had no idea that I would fall in love with bioengineering research, and couldn't have anticipated the enjoyment it has brought me. 

The satisfaction of spending my days trying to answer new questions with a great group of young training students is fantastic. I spent my early career travelling to different universities in Europe and the USA before settling in the UK. I enjoy my job tremendously and the variation in work day to day suits me. It allows me to balance my job with my family and my home full of the safari park that I ended up with on my doorstep! 

I was very proud to achieve a Royal Society Merit Award and gain my Professorship, which is also a reflection of the good people who have worked with me over the years.

How can we encourage more women to work in engineering? 

I get involved with action groups who try and encourage young female students to join us in a career in engineering and science. I hope that I can show them that bioengineering is for everyone! 

I like to show how engineering is not as dull as it is often portrayed, and how I have managed to balance my normal family life with my partner, our four children, and a home full of dogs and horses with a full-on career in research. 

There is a place for everyone in engineering and I hope you will consider joining us!

No comments:

Post a Comment