Still awed by the elegance & colourful aesthetics of chemical systems: Meet Michelle Ma

Dr Michelle Ma is a research chemist at King’s College London. Her work focuses on designing new pharmaceuticals that can help diagnose cancer. Here, she tells us about her passion for chemistry, how she hopes diversity is going to become the norm and how she wishes grants could last longer than two years. Michelle will be standing on one of our soapboxes on the 30th of May, SouthBank, 2-5pm, where she’ll be talking about “Lighting up disease with new chemistry: whole body diagnostic imaging”


SS: Michelle, how did you get to your current position?

michelle2MM: When I finished my high school in Australia, I began studying for my Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Queensland where the wit and enthusiasm of my lecturers revealed the elegance of chemistry to me. I became enamoured with the multitude of colours typical of metal chemistry, and the role of metals in medicine. I undertook my PhD in chemistry at the University of Melbourne, researching how radioactive metals can help diagnose cancer. Essentially, my job was to design a molecule that would get the metal into a tumour. Once the radioactive metal is at the tumour site, the emitted light provides an image that tells doctors a tumour’s location and size and what stage the cancer is at. Such research provides doctors with diagnostic tools that help determine the most effective course of treatment for a cancer patient.

Upon completion of my PhD in Australia, I was awarded a travel fellowship to undertake research work overseas for two months. My current supervisor, Professor Phil Blower, had recently examined my PhD thesis and seemed really interested in my research, and so I elected to spend a couple of months in his laboratories at King’s College London. These particular laboratories are very well equipped for radiochemistry, and they are located at St Thomas’ Hospital, across the river Thames from Big Ben and Houses of Parliament. I was quite astonished to find myself undertaking research in a landmark location surrounded by such tremendous facilities! I enjoyed the work and the laboratory environment immensely and so I applied for fellowships to conduct my research at King’s College London on a more permanent basis. I was lucky enough to land a Newton Fellowship from the Royal Society and a Marie Curie Fellowship from the European Commission that brought me back to King’s College London.


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

MM: I first became interested in science, and chemistry in particular, at the age of twelve, when I first learned about molecular structure and how it defines the properties of all the things in my life – the air I breath, the desk I sit at, the chocolate I will invariably buy to accompany my lunch, the taste buds and nerve responses in my brain that allow me to appreciate aforementioned chocolate! Later in my schooling, my biology teacher described biological systems and mechanisms to the class in clear but intricate detail. DNA, proteins, evolution, ecosystems – all of this revealed a mesmerising world that was actually rooted in reason and hypothesis testing.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research?

michelle3MM: For me, making hitherto non-existent, unknown molecules and then studying their unique properties is definitely the most enthralling aspect of chemical research. Waiting to see evidence of a new molecule flash up on a computer monitor is nerve-wracking, exciting and ultimately, when that bit of evidence does appear, absolutely exhilarating.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

MM: Firstly, the whole premise of Soapbox Science is attractive – scientists engaging face-to-face with the public in a public space. Secondly, I’ve also become more aware of the gender imbalance in science. I love being a research chemist, and I owe a great deal to my supervisors, mentors and collaborators who have all inspired me thus far. All of these people are marvellously creative, astute and intelligent people, but there is one thing that bothers me – the overwhelming majority of these people (at least 90%) are men. Ultimately, I want it to be normal to attend a scientific conference and observe that the senior invited speakers represent the diversity in the general population. Soapbox Science is lifting the profile and visibility of women in science, and such efforts are going to be seminal in addressing the gender imbalance and any persisting gender bias.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? fear? thrill? anticipation?

MM: Excitement!


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

MM: It would be terrific if more research grants and awards lasted longer than two to four years. Longer grants can mean (i) less time spent writing new grant applications to continue developing work based on the previous application; (ii) more time to develop a project in different ways and along alternate trajectories; (iii) longer research contracts for post-doctoral researchers, which not only provides post-doctoral workers with some measure of stability, but is more likely to permit retention of key skills; and (iv) researchers are more likely to approach particularly challenging problems that require more time to solve.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

michelle1MM: I would probably provide a female PhD student with the same counsel that I try to apply to myself now: Look out for opportunities that will increase your skill set or experience. This will include applying for travel grants or early career awards, oral presentations at conferences and meetings, outreach or public engagement opportunities, and collaborating on others’ projects. Participating in these sorts of activities will also facilitate improving one’s communication skills, which are critical to a successful science career. At the same time, it is important to balance this with focus on a PhD research project, as ultimately, this is what will gain a student a PhD, papers and necessary experience!

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