For this month's ISTM Women in Engineering post, I was delighted to talk to Professor Divya Chari. I first got to know Prof. Chari as the lead of the INSPIRE programme, an Academy of Medical Sciences/Wellcome Trust-funded programme designed to enable medical students to engage with academic research. This is just one of her many roles, that include Theme Lead of the Neuroscience Research Group in ISTM, and Director of Internationalization for the School of Medicine.
You work in Neural Tissue Engineering. What does that mean?
Neural tissue engineering is a relatively new field and a sub-branch of the wider field of Tissue Engineering. It applies engineering principles to develop better materials, devices and cell therapies for the repair of neurological injury and disease, and to enhance the function of neural tissue.
What do you do day-to-day?
I run a laboratory that primarily works on developing methods for better cell therapies for use in neurological injury. For example, new ways to genetically engineer neural transplant cells to augment their repair capacity and protected cell delivery systems for enhanced transplant survival. We are currently very excited to be working on a project to develop an implantable system to deliver a population of cells called olfactory ensheathing cells, to sites of spinal cord injury in dogs. We are working closely with veterinary surgeons in Bristol and the United States to develop the project, and the chances of being able to implant these into dogs that have naturally incurred spinal injuries is high. I enjoy the highly translational and practical elements of the job.
However, my work is also particularly interesting because I concurrently hold major roles at the School of Medicine, particularly in the development of research opportunities for medical students. I was recently appointed Director of Internationalisation for the medical school, and have been developing partnership opportunities in Brazil. I personally want a diverse job with multiple challenges that involves travel, so I feel uniquely privileged to have one that allows me to visit a hospital in a small Brazilian town in the morning, and write a stem cell paper in the afternoon. And pays me to do it!
Researchers in Prof. Chari's lab. Clockwise from top left: Jackie Tickle (PhD student), Arwa Al Shakli (PhD student, Iraqi MOHESR Scheme), Chris Adams and Dr Stuart Jenkins (both: former PhD students and EPSRC E-TERM fellows)
How did you become a Professor in Neural Tissue Engineering?
I have a PhD in Developmental Neurobiology and my postdoctoral work was in the area of neural transplantation in situations where the insulating sheath around nerve cells is destroyed (diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis). I won a scholarship to come from India to England, for my PhD in Oxford. Once I finished I moved to Cambridge University and held a Multiple Sclerosis Society Junior fellowship there from 2003. By the end, I was very tired and stressed with the uncertainty of contract research positions, so focused hard on securing a lectureship. Keele had a new medical school and was looking for researchers in my area so it was a good fit. It was also one of the institutions at the forefront of Tissue Engineering, and gave me the chance to interact with chemists and engineers. This suddenly gave me lots of new ideas for my own work, and I have really enjoyed developing a highly multidisciplinary and translational programme of work for neural transplantation. However, I don’t have any engineering training as such, I have taught myself as I have gone along, and met lots of people in the Physical Sciences who were kind enough to explain things to me from scratch. I would like to do a Masters in Biomedical Engineering, the problem is finding the time.
I don’t think I have faced any direct discrimination or major challenges being a woman in science. I made the conscious decision not to have children, which has meant that I do face fewer challenges day to day trying to reconcile work and home life. I think the biggest issue is lack of mentorship for women in traditionally male-dominated fields. This can lead to women suffering from a lack of confidence and a bit of an ‘outsider’ complex. I myself have felt on occasion that I was excluded from male cliques where opportunities were made available to men at my stage, but not me. However, there is a huge push to support women in STEM subjects at the moment, and the scientific community is more aware than ever of the challenges women face, so I personally can’t complain.
What advice would you give a girl considering a career in engineering?
I think I would give her the same advice I give any young person: find your passion and follow your heart. A career in science is a long and hard slog, where you will inevitably face many challenges and setbacks, so you really have to want to go down this path. I sought a lot of advice at the early stages, and some of it was helpful, but after a while there were so many contradictory opinions and views that it created too much conflict in my mind. So in the end, I ignored a lot of conventional advice and expectations, and tried to make my own way. It has been very hard and stressful at times, but I would not change anything, as I have had a fantastic time setting up my own lab and helping develop the new medical school. The key piece of advice I would give female scientists though, is to stop thinking of themselves as ‘women in science’, focus on being the best and most innovative researcher they can be, and compete accordingly. Things usually fall into place after this.