Very exited to have made it though to the final day!
William Farr School, Lincoln (1993-2000), University of Manchester (2000-2004), King’s College London (2004-2006), Imperial College London (2006-2011)
MPhys Physics, MSc Medical Engineering and Physics, DipIPEM Medical Physics and Engineering, PhD MRI physics
Barts Hospital, London (MRI research physicist – speech MRI), The Royal Brompton Hospital and Imperial College (PhD student), King’s College Hospital, London (trainee medical physicist), Comet (defunct electrical retailer), Wickes (I worked on the checkout), EF (I taught English to school students), summer camp counsellor (New York State, USA), fruit picking,
Senior Physicist in MRI
The Royal Brompton Hospital (National Institute for Health Research funded Cardiovascular Biomedical Research Unit)
Favourite thing to do in my job I really love doing stuff that no one has ever done before, especially if it might help people live longer and even better if it involves a really cool picture. This might be seeing how the walls of the arteries in the heart thicken as we get older, scanning a singer for a music video or comparing the way the muscle cells line up in a giraffe heart to those in a human heart.
I’m the make it happen man in MRI.
I work with a team of doctors, radiographers (they take the pictures) and other scientists (physicists, engineers, biologists, geneticists, image processors and more) to figure out new and improved ways of using MRI scanners to look at the heart. My background in physics means that I understand how the huge magnet and radiowaves that the MRI scanner uses work to make a picture from the water molecules inside your body.
I work on several different but related projects at the same time. Each project starts with either:
A doctors asking a question like: “How can we see which way the cells in the heart are pointing? We think this might show that a patient has a heart problem.” or “The pictures that we we take of the arteries in the heart look a bit blurry, can you make them look better?”
Me or my boss saying, “What would happen if we did this with the MRI scanner, could we use that to learn something new about the heart or help doctors detect diseases earlier?”
We then write computer programs to control the MRI scanner and turn the radio signals we get out of the scanner into the pictures we want to see. Then we need to test what we’ve done. This sometimes involves building something that we can scan and we can check to see that the scan shows what we know it should. Then we test in healthy people before finding out what we can learn about people who have heart disease.
For the last couple of years I’ve been working on a type of MRI called DTI (diffusion tensor imaging), that allows us to see which direction the cells are pointing in and if they are all lined up together. In my department we’ve been doing this in the heart, which is more difficult than in the brain or other parts of the body because the heart is moving all the time while it beats. We expect that the cells won’t line up as they should in some diseases and we’re hoping to show this with DTI.
Before my current job, I worked at Barts Hospital where we worked with a team of plastic surgeons and speech therapists from Great Ormond Street Hospital. We used the MRI scanner to make movies of the tongue, lips and soft palate (the flap between your mouth and nose at the back of your throat) that has a split or hole in it if you have a cleft palate. To make more people aware of our work, we helped out a singer and a music video producer in making the music video for Better man than He by Sivu. You can watch this here:
There’s also an interview about how we made it here:
and a whole website about it here:
My first research project in MRI was my PhD, that I did at the Royal Brompton Hospital and Imperial College London. I worked on a way to stop pictures of the arteries in your heart looking blurry when you breathe during the MRI scan. These arteries, called the coronary arteries, can get clogged up and cause heart attacks, but the blurriness that’s caused by trying to take the pictures while you breathe can look like a blocked artery. By using the new way of scanning that I worked on, I was able to show that even in healthy people with no obvious signs of heart disease, the coronary arteries get thicker as we get older.
My Typical Day
I spend quite a lot of time at my computer, but I also spend a lot of time at the MRI scanner and doing odd stuff that you might not expect me to be doing.
I spend quite a lot of time writing computer programs that control the MRI scanner and make the numbers in gives us back into pretty pictures. This is horribly frustrating when it doesn’t work, but that makes it all the more satisfying when it does work. I also spend quite a lot of time reading and thinking about similar work that other people have done that might help with the work that I’m doing. Then there’s all the testing on the MRI scanner. I sometimes scan objects (bottles of water, jellies, blocks of lard, celery sticks, cans of tuna, pig hearts from the butcher) because I know what they should look like, but a lot of the time I am testing on healthy people. One of the reasons that so much research is done on MRI is that it is a very safe technique that, unlike x-ray or CT, doesn’t involve any ionising radiation. I often ask one of the other staff in our department to be my volunteer and they often ask me if they can scan me for their work. Often I do the scanning with one of the doctors or radiographers.
I also spend a lot of my time talking. We talk about what we’ve been doing and why stuff does or doesn’t work. Sometimes this is in the coffee room, sometimes it’s over Skype with people we work with in America. I’ve just started getting students to supervise and I spend quite a lot of time discussing projects with them. I often have to explain to doctors or radiographers why something looks like it does on the MRI pictures and they often explain to me the medicine and biology.
Once I’ve done the work on a project, I have to tell other people about it. So I write it up, a bit like a school science project and send it to a journal (a bit like a magazine) who decide whether it’s good enough to include in their next issue. About two or three weeks of the year I am at conferences presenting the work I’ve done, listening to other peoples presentations and discussing projects with people from other hospitals and universities all over the world. Fortunately, these conferences are almost always somewhere interesting. I’ve been to Berlin, Stockholm, Milan, Washington DC, Arizona, New Orleans, San Francisco, Hawaii, Melbourne and a few other places.
There are also a few slightly odd things I’ve done, like making a music video, but more usually it involves building something. I’ve done a couple of electronics projects and I built a huge wooden table in my garden a couple of years ago to hold bottles in the middle of the scanner. Last year I had to go into an abattoir last year to collect some fresh pig hearts for an experiment and this year we scanned a giraffe heart, it was massive!
What I'd do with the money
Fund a stall at the Imperial College Festival designed and run by a school team.
Every year thousands of people come along to Imperial College to see and join in with some of the most exciting science in the world. In previous festivals people have tried out robotic surgery, danced with a robot or learnt how x-ray vision could really work.
I’d use the money to work with a school to produce a stand at the festival showing some of the work we do in my department. The group from the school would need to come and find out what we do, plan and design an activity for the festival and then man the stand at the festival.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Determined, adaptable, thinking.
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
It’s a toss-up between the conference in Hawaii and making a music video.
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
My school physics teachers, my dad and my lecturers at university.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Occasionally, but I think I was probably quite good at getting away with it.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
A baker, a brewer or a scaffolder.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
This month it’s Alabama Shakes
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Going away to university, living with my friends and having loads of fun for 4 years.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
More hours in the day; a guaranteed good life for my family; world peace.
Tell us a joke.
Did you hear about the magic tractor? It turned into a field. (sorry).
This is me and my boss (Professor David Firmin) discussing some results:
This is part of the team that work on my project, from left to right: Ranil de Silva – Cardiologist, David Firmin – Professor of medical imaging, me, Pedro Ferreira – imaging processing, Sonia Nielles-Vallespin – physicist at the National Institutes for Health in Washington DC.
This is the control room, where we control the MRI scanner:
and this is me in the MRI scanner, ready to go into the scanner and to be scanned:
and this is me in the scanner being scanned:
Then these are the kind of pictures we can make from our scans:
The big circle is the left ventricle shown like the heart has been cut across the middle. The left ventricle pumps the oxygenated blood around your body. The right ventricle looks like it’s stuck on the side and pumps the blood that comes from your veins up to your lungs. The little coloured blocks are lined up with the cells in your heart and the colour tells us what the angle of the cells is.