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Clare Elwell, professor of medical physics at University College London

Back story: Clare Elwell, professor of medical physics, UCL

Image credit: UCL

TV presenter Dr Shini Somara starts a new series of interviews looking at interesting engineering careers by talking to Clare Elwell, professor of medical physics at University College London.

Shini Somara: What technology are you involved with?

Clare Elwell: My research focuses on developing brain imaging systems. I’ve developed a technique called functional near-infrared spectroscopy, which is an optical imaging technique. It is portable, low-cost and can be used on a range of different patient groups. Using this technology we can literally understand brain function from the day a baby is born.

SS: How has it been as a female professor in medical physics?

CE: I went to an all-girls school, so I didn’t have a comparison of how many boys or girls took physics – everyone in my A-level group was female.

When I got to university I realised I was one of only 10 per cent of female students in my undergraduate year. That was fairly typical across the UK back in the 1980s, and that ratio has continued. So, I’m very familiar with physics and engineering still being very male-dominated.

SS: What is the most important skill you have developed?

CE: The key for me is communication. Understanding what the problem is requires both clinicians and physicists to properly invest in understanding each other’s language. That means admitting when we don’t understand things and when we need things explained.

For me, the female experience has been about unwrapping those conversations. And if I’m going to be stereotypical now, it’s about leaving ego at the door. It’s about saying, we’re both really clever and we’ve got lots of qualifications in our subjects, but that is not going to do good unless we find a connection where we can have meaningful communication about the problem that we need to solve.

SS: What about diversity and inclusion?

CE: Diverse teams are what you need to make those conversations important and impactful. If we keep having conversations about how clever everybody is, that doesn’t move things forward. If we have conversations around what the problem is, that is when we really make progress. And that’s what I’ve seen throughout my career.

I feel that my experience of being in a minority in physics and engineering has made me work harder at those conversations. And things are slowly starting to change, I’m starting to see more diversity and gender balance in teams and I’m seeing that those conversations are more easily had.

SS: Describe a memorable role model of yours.

CE: I remember very distinctively working with a very highly lauded, experienced, hugely respected clinician who was a very, very senior professor right at the top of his game. And yet when he walked into a room, even though he knew that people knew who he was, he would put his hand out, shake people’s hands, say hello and give them his Christian name. Which immediately broke down a barrier.

I had no female role models in my early career because there weren’t any, but seeing highly respected senior professors come into the lab, roll their sleeves up and really want to understand what’s going on, not interfering, but just genuinely being interested, was very impactful.

SS: What makes a good mentor for you?

People who properly want to understand what people’s careers are actually like. Rather than just assuming that one career path fits all; enabling early-career researchers to be heard, because the challenges that they face now are naturally very different from the challenges faced 30 years ago.

SS: What is your approach to mentoring?

CE: There’s not much to be gained from having an hour telling someone what I think they should do. For me, it’s much more rewarding to ask, what’s the next stage that you’d like to get to in your career? How do you think you’re going to get there? Where do you see yourself?

It’s impactful for the early-career researchers to reflect for themselves. Not being made to feel that there’s one path, one way, one career trajectory, and that if they’re not doing that, they’re failing. It comes back to my own experiences; I knew I was in the minority and I had to manage that. One size doesn’t fit all. We have to listen. And that’s really important.

SS: Finally, how can we empower women?

We’ve got to really untangle what empowering women means. I think it means making women feel that there’s nothing they can’t apply for or do and that they will get support. They might not know everything at the start, but they’ll work out ways of gathering the support around them and both men and women have to encourage and support that.

Dr Shini Somara is a computational fluid dynamicist and mechanical engineer turned television producer and reporter. She has appeared on various BBC programmes and currently presents ‘Razor’, a science and technology magazine show on CGTN Europe. Her first children’s book for 6-8-year-olds, ‘An Engineer Like Me’, is published by Wren & Rook this month.

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