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The experimental physicist: Postdoctoral Researcher

Biophysicist Yolanda uses MRI machines and data analysis to probe the brain in innovative ways and develop techniques to spot the first signs of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

“What I think is interesting is that once you get to research level, you're creating and envisaging things that people haven't thought about before. I think in that sense it's quite artistic.”

First name: Yolanda | Job title: Postdoctoral Researcher | Organisation: UCL Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging | Qualifications: PhD, Medical Imaging, UCL; Master 2(MSc), Plasma Physics, Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris; MSci, Physics, Imperial College London

What does your work involve?
My research is developing MRI techniques to look at the brain, and the group I work with is specifically interested in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease. So my research is about looking to see if we can develop early detection techniques.

What's a typical day for you like?
I'm an experimental scientist, so that means I'm in the lab, using the MRI machine, and part of my work involves developing sequences as a way to probe the brain. To get a bit more technical, it's programming the scanner using radio frequency pulses and strong magnetic fields to be able to look into the brain. Another aspect of my research is the analysis side of things, so developing models to analyse the data accurately and then interpreting the results. 

What skills do you need to be able to do this?
First of all, there's a basic understanding about fundamental physics. So, thinking about electromagnetism and how magnetic fields work. Then there's a level of programming, both experimentally on the MRI machine and also programming analytical tools to be able to interpret the data that comes from the MRI. This analysis is very maths-based, using equations that have been established and trying to develop them to be able to interpret the physical data I get from the scanner.

What I think is interesting is that once you get to research level, you're creating and envisaging things that people haven't thought about before. I think in that sense it's quite artistic in terms of what you want to create. That’s not really expressed when you study it at GCSE and A-level, but when you get to uni you start to realise you’re learning about things that are really on the cusp of our understanding. It's crazy the breadth of what physics touches, that's what blows my mind.

What do you enjoy most about what you do?
I really like setting up experiments, coming up with a new idea and then trying to see if it works or not. I think one of the most exciting parts is doing analysis. You collect all of this data and then it's nail-biting, analysing all of the results to see if you can find any differences or if you find anything new. It’s exciting – but it can often be very deflating if it doesn't work. You have to be patient, and you have to understand that most things don't work, and that's ok. You can learn so much from the things that go wrong.

What are the skills the next generation will need in order to succeed in medical physics?
It’s the digital side of things, the computing and the machine learning, that’s really taking hold in the healthcare sector. You learn a lot of coding skills doing physics. A lot of my friends who I studied with are data scientists who use coding all the time. It's the digital side of things that's the future.

What advice would you have for a young person considering physics as an option?
I think that maths is key, because maths is the foundation to so many technologies. At school it seems very abstract – why do you need to learn algebra? In most people's jobs algebra and mental maths don't really come into it much, but in technical jobs, implementing the maths of computing technologies is really important. Having a solid maths foundation goes a really long way. If you look at Forbes billionaires, quite a lot of those are into computing, and that comes from computer science, from maths.

Physics gets a bad rep because people think it's really hard and so they shy away from it – especially girls. But if you put your mind to it, it's way more interesting than you might think. It might seem hard at school, but so many careers are hard. Being a successful musician is hard, it's lot of work, but people aspire to do that. I think sometimes it's just a matter of realising that it's not out of your reach. You have to work hard at anything to be really good at it, so I guess the message is hard work!

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