UCL Engineering researchers recognised for their role in promoting STEM

5 December 2016

Clare Elwell + Princess Anne

Professor Clare Elwell (UCL Medical Physics & Bio Medical engineering) received the 2016 WISE award for research in recognition of her work developing new ways to use light for imaging the body. PhD student Fatumina Abukar (UCL Biochemical Engineering) was one of three nominees for the ‘rising star’ award for her work on stem cells for heart repair.

The WISE awards are an annual event at which the WISE campaign recognises individuals and organisations for activities related to its mission, of promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics to girls and women. The awards are presented by Her Royal Highness, the Princess Royal, patron of the campaign. Awards are given in a range of areas including excellence in open source development, the young ‘rising stars’ category, employers taking action for gender parity, and woman of the year, as well as the research category in which Professor Elwell was recognised.

Clare is the Director of the Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) Research Group who develop systems for monitoring and imaging the human body. Her groundbreaking work is non-intrusive and portable, which opens up new applications such as understanding the developing brain. In collaboration with the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, Birkbeck, University of London, she has developed NIRS methods to investigate brain development during the first year of life. This resulted in the identification of differences in brain responses to social and non-social stimuli in infants as young as four months of age at high and low risk of autism – described as one of the best examples of potential biomarkers in autism literature. (See a video about the project here)


She is currently leading a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded project to investigate the impact of malnutrition on brain development in infants in rural Gambia  . This resulted in the first functional brain imaging of infants in Africa, and ongoing relationships with local communities. Her research will inform nutritional and other interventions targeted at protecting the ‘at risk’ brain and enabling children to reach their full developmental potential. Clare’s outreach with year 12 girls has ensured gender balance of undergraduates studying medical physics at UCL.
The judges commented that

“[Professor Elwell] can engage anyone. She is undertaking ground-breaking research that is genuinely making a difference to society. She understands that engagement should happen at every level and is active in key areas from influencing young girls and young scientists, right through to professionals and academics on the international stage.”

Professor Jem Hebden, Head of UCL Medical Physics & Biomedical Engineering, said:

“The presentation of the 2016 WISE Research Award to Prof. Clare Elwell is a fabulous achievement for Clare and for Medical Physics at UCL. It is an acknowledgement of the sustained excellence of her research, and recognises the amazing impact that Clare has had on promoting medical physics and biomedical engineering to young people, and to girls and young women in particular.”

Fatumina Abukar is a PhD student working on the use of stem cells in heart repair in the Department of Biochemical Engineering. Her work has been published in the Journal of Integrative Biology and she has been an active participant in outreach activities such as the 3 minute thesis competition, where she won the People’s Choice award. Her excellent academic record is all the more notable because she came to England aged 16 and speaking little English, and balanced her academic career with caring responsibilities for her younger siblings. She also runs a successful creative business. Fatumina can be seen explaining her work in under 3 minutes here.


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