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Helena Dodd

Back story: Helena Dodd, ‘We can learn from each other as people’

Image credit: Helena Dodd

TV presenter Dr Shini Somara talks to Helena Dodd, PhD candidate in biomaterials engineering and chemical biology at Imperial College London.

Shini Somara: What are you doing at the moment?

Helena Dodd: I started my STEM journey with an undergraduate master’s in chemistry. I then realised that as much as I loved science, I wanted to do something applied, where I could use my chemistry skills to solve real-life problems. So I started a highly interdisciplinary PhD at Imperial College London, across chemical biology, biomaterials, engineering and immunology. I now engineer novel nano-drugs for use in cancer immunotherapy. I work across three departments and two labs. My research involves making nanomaterials; characterising them using materials-engineering techniques, then transferring this knowledge to an immunology lab, to test them in real-life cells.

SS: Why is the cross-pollination of disciplines so important to you?

HD: In chemistry, where I started off, I knew that so much of what I was doing could be more accurately automated by robots in the future. To me, what makes scientists stand out is our knowledge across disciplines and being able to think on the spot. So I really wanted to delve in to see where my skills could fit in a real-world context. I also wanted to see how many different skills I could gain. After my PhD, I hope to be an asset in being able to bring lots of different things together to better understand the bigger picture.

Everything is more digitised nowadays and information is a lot quicker to share, which gives me an opportunity to review what I am doing and what other people are doing. I hope to always stay competitive in STEM to accumulate the right skills to stand out in the future. I’ve always wanted to be challenged, where I’m continuously learning new skills. In pure chemistry, there have been relatively few significant novel advances for the past 50 years – almost all breakthroughs have been built on past research, and the most exciting innovations seem to be coming from either a more engineering or interdisciplinary and collaborative space. An interdisciplinary approach to research is sure to shake up innovation.

SS: What is the key to a good mentor?

HD: Honesty and transparency are key for good mentoring. Having mentors that aren’t afraid to talk about the things they could have done differently and their ‘failures’ are much more relatable for mentees. Empathy is also important in a mentoring relationship.

For me, it’s been beneficial to have mentors of different demographics, who are at various career stages. I’m now a mentor as well as a mentee, and I think it’s important to be aware of my shortcomings, and areas where I can’t empathise with my mentees because we are different. It is at these times when I put them in touch with other people that can help.

Regardless of whether we can relate to someone or not, I also have experienced that listening to others will always be essential. I’m sure every single person who’s made it to a certain level of seniority within STEM will have faced barriers to overcome and know how difficult these careers are and how isolating and competitive being in STEM can feel. Therefore, it’s key for all those people to look back and think about what could have helped them back then and pass those messages on to future generations, so they can avoid struggling with similar issues themselves, just as in research we learn from those who came before us and build on their discoveries, which I think is an amazing thing. I believe that we can learn from each other as people as well as researchers.

SS: As a woman, what is it like being a minority in STEM?

HD: As a minority in my field, I have sometimes felt excluded. I’ve also found that being a minority is quite often intersectional, and that many people who are in a minority group are a part of various minorities, which means feeling represented and celebrated can be even more challenging. What I’ve observed is by excluding voices, especially minorities, problems aren’t solved as quickly. Approaching a problem from one mindset or viewpoint, causes a lot of innovation to be missed. The key is to be open to people with different skill sets, particularly non-stereotypical engineers.

What makes STEM so great is the diversity that comes from welcoming people from different backgrounds, who think in different ways. In a team, the way to drive research forward is to have different voices that have different experiences all collaborating. If research is approached from various points of view, then it will probably be more robust.

At the same time, I also appreciate that when you are a minority in STEM, it can be hard to have the self-confidence to keep going when you can’t see anyone like you. That’s why having a role model, mentor or someone you can relate to, who has already made it, gives you that confidence boost to think, “OK, I won’t be the first one to reach that stage. Someone else has done it, maybe I can, too.”

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