Nobel path to medical benefits

October 31, 2003

It came as a bit of a shock to Lisa Willats when, two weeks after she started her PhD, the men who pioneered her area of research, magnetic-resonance imaging, were awarded a Nobel prize. "It put a spring in people's step," she says.

Twenty-two-year-old Willats, who has a first in natural sciences from Girton College, Cambridge, has just been recruited to a research group at the Institute of Child Health at Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital, where she will be using MR... to look at the brains of children being treated for strokes.

Having specialised in physics at Cambridge, where she did a research project in MRI, she admits that her new environment is a bit daunting. "I am not a medic -what I know about the medical aspect of things I have picked up in the few days I have been here. There is a pile of reading ahead."

Her research will involve observing and modelling blood flow in the brain and will have to overcome the fact that current MR... methods cannot quantify blood flow accurately. To assess stroke victims effectively, Willats must quantify blood flow at the much more detailed level of the capillary blood vessels.

She will work in a team of eight under Fernando Calamante. She says she has been reassured by the friendliness and professionalism of her new environment.

"I've heard horror stories about PhDs being left alone for years, but my supervisor is working in the same office. What I am doing is one of his main areas of research, and I will see him every day. It is a big plus.

Every week, the other PhD students and I will be given tuition on general MR... stuff so that we have a good background in what we are doing.

"One of the things that has really given me more confidence is talking to the third-year students. They are finishing their PhDs on time, and many of them are looking to stay on for postdocs."

Willats is confident that her funding of £12,500 a year will be enough to see her through her life in her shared flat in North London.

"Some of my friends are going into really high-paying jobs, and I suppose it is tempting. Money is not a big issue, though."

She hopes that her PhD will be a prelude to a career in research. "I got into this after doing summer research placements, and I really enjoy the work. I want to do research that is going to be of some good to somebody."

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