What is your scientific background?
My scientific background is Materials Engineering and during my Ph.D. program at the Australian National University (ANU), I focused on developing a fingertip-size sensor with the ability to detect a variety of diseases in the human body via analysing human breath. This sensor can be adapted to not only detect cancer but other diseases like diabetes, kidney failure, and liver diseases. We envision a sensor that can be fitted to a smartphone or portable device so that everyone to check his or her own health on a regular basis can use it.
Why did you choose to become a scientist?
I always enjoyed spending my time in libraries and laboratories. As a kid, I loved puzzles and figuring things out. I was always bored at summer times and wanted to go back to school as I always found the school times more exciting and fascinating. After finishing my Master’s degree, I started working in two big companies as a material’s engineer and I was quite successful in my position in both companies. However, after 1.5 years working in the industry, I felt the need to get back to the university, become a researcher and start thinking outside the box rather than working on narrowed industrial projects.
How did you choose your field of study?
When I started my Ph.D. research four years ago at ANU, I became fascinated by studies reporting that people smell differently when they are sick. Not only does our behaviour and appearance change when we are sick, our fundamental body chemistry also changes. This extends to illnesses that aren’t physical – people who live with schizophrenia also have altered body chemistry. As a result of this chemistry change, some biomarkers are emitted into our blood system and to our breath and this gives us a unique opportunity to detect disease just by sniffing out the breath.
Current disease testing requires a patient to feel ill enough to warrant making the time (and in some cases finding the money) to make an appointment to see their doctor, undergo painful blood sampling, then wait weeks while the blood is sent to a laboratory for testing and the return of results. My research in this field will result in a simple breath test that is significantly cheaper, less painful and almost instantaneous. It will make disease detection more accessible to millions who do not have ready access (either through geographical, time or financial constraints) to primary healthcare and will reduce burdens on already overstretched GPs, hospitals, and pathology providers. It will reduce costs for an already stretched national Medicare budget.
What are the hardest parts related to this work?
When I think about my journey to get here I can’t think of a particularly difficult moment, I think I just had to work hard at all times. I was very lucky as straight from my Ph.D. I landed a Postdoctoral Research position, but if I have to choose one part that is the hardest I would say it is to find funding for my research and writing lengthy grant applications. Receiving funding in academia is extremely competitive these days as less than about 15% of applications are awarded funds so it is much more difficult for the scientist to survive in academia these days.
If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?
Be patient! Try to find out the true reasons behind your scientific data and avoid finding the easiest answer, even if finding the truth takes a much longer time of your life. Do not be afraid to go against the flow. Stick with your plan and idea. You will find the true answer eventually.
What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome?
As a female scientist who spent more than 10 years in the engineering field, I would say women in science and engineering fluids face so many obstacles such as the glass ceiling, a lack of self-confidence and a lack of mentors. Despite a huge improvement over gender equality issues in science and technology, most young women entering STEM fields, I believe, still have to experience many of the same petty slights women used to feel many years ago.
Did you ever have the impression that it would be easier/harder if you were male?
Once I started working as a researcher during my Ph.D. program, I felt as if I had to work extra hard to get where I wanted to be; I had to prove myself, maybe more than my male counterparts. In fact, as a female engineer, if you want to be chosen over your male counterparts, it is not enough to simply be better than them.
In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?
Encouraging more women to become possible future scientist begins by addressing the challenges they face in the educational system. Firstly, we need to provide our grade school girls with an opportunity to receive mentorship from female scientists and engineers, who they prove to be as competent as or more competent than their male counterparts. Later, once our women engineers are encouraged and educated, they must then find jobs in the field. Obstacles such as the glass ceiling, both in position and in pay needs to be addressed effectively.
Here´s Noushin’s TED-talk!