"Speak to as many people as you can about what you are passionate about. This will allow you to learn more about who you aspire to be, and what the area that interests you can offer you."
Elisa Martin Perez, Masters by Research Postgraduate student, Institute for Bioengineering
Elisa Martin Perez is postgraduate research student in the School’s Institute for Bioengineering where she is currently completing a Masters by Research (MScR) in Bioengineering.
Having gained a BSc in Biochemistry from the University of Glasgow, Elisa is now working on a research project investigating drug-induced liver injury (DILI)—a common cause of acute liver failure. She is currently working with the POR gene to obtain a modified human liver cell line as a model for improved drug testing.
Having gained a core background in biology, Elisa decided to expand her research interests and pursue a multidisciplinary career in both biological science and engineering, drawing on the perspectives and strengths of both fields. Outside of academia, Elisa is a member of the postgraduate Women in Science Committee at the University of Edinburgh, and has previously volunteered for the Anthony Nolan charity, which houses the stem cell donation register for the United Kingdom.
Here, Elisa shares her career inspiration, insights into her academic journey so far, and advice for aspiring women engineers.
What inspired you to get into engineering, and is it the same thing that inspires you today?
Bioengineering allows you to tackle the socio-economic issues that affect the world, by modulating biological systems using a wide array of molecular tools to achieve any new functionalities we desire.
I found this an exciting and powerful tool that could have a beneficial impact on society. The advances in the field allow us to understand, investigate and find solutions for previously incurable diseases and conditions. Being able to use both biological and engineering research techniques to solve real-life problems in the long term, really inspired me to want to become part of the field.
I have always enjoyed learning about human disease and the pharmacological effects that drugs have in our bodies. In conjunction with an engineering input, I saw this as a career with a lot of interesting potential. When the concept of genetic modification became popular, specifically the “CRISPR system”, one of the universities that contributed to its discovery and published their research was very near my hometown. I was excited about the potential applications of this technique, for disease investigation and also drug modelling.
The research that I am currently doing is at the core of the end goal of understanding how we can modify certain disease conditions within the human body. I am currently only a few months into my Masters by research, and I am very excited about the potential of the technique that I am investigating and the end results.
Tell us a bit about your career and studies in engineering up to this point; what have you enjoyed and what have you found most challenging?
I have really enjoyed being able to share my ideas and get feedback from my fellow researchers and peers with an engineering background. They have developed a different set of skills throughout their academic career, and I enjoy receiving their input and how it can really benefit my research.
There are some challenges I have faced however. I find it difficult that I don’t have great computational skills (from an engineering modelling perspective), as this is not something core biologists are trained in initially. Furthermore, academia can also be a bit isolating if you do not reach out to your peers and network. Research can be challenging, and requires dedication given that it is a very self–driven task.
So you need to be motivated about what you want to achieve and the research you want to pursue. Although engineering can sometimes be a challenge, it is something that you can derive great satisfaction from and acquire a diverse set of skills.
Can you explain your research “in a nutshell?”
The aim of my research project is to develop and subsequently validate a novel liver cell line by means of a range of synthetic biological as well as bioengineering research tools for context-specific pharmaceutical applications.
I employ the “CRISPR system” which has the potential to be used for gene editing roles, to disable the POR gene, known to be involved in liver drug metabolism.
Consequently, this will enable pharmaceutical companies to have an improved prediction of the compounds that should be screened out in preclinical drug development, and hence avoid the development of hepatotoxicity and conditions such as DILI.
What attracted you to a career in research and academia?
A career in research and academia will, I feel, allow me the freedom to develop and take my research and current project where I would like to take it.
I like that in academia, there is also the opportunity to network and collaborate with other notable researchers in similar fields, but also across different disciplines. I definitely want to do a PhD and remain in academia once I complete my Masters project.
What do you enjoy most about research and academia at the School of Engineering?
The School of Engineering at the University of Edinburgh has a very good postgraduate research community. I feel comfortable discussing my ideas and future research goals with my fellow postgraduate researchers. The environment feels welcoming and collaborative.
In addition, the School does not make me feel restricted in terms of my research area. I can work and collaborate with other Institutes and we can collaborate with other researchers all over the University, and across many disciplines.
I enjoy this because it allows us to expand our knowledge base and research skills outside out studies and primary field of research.
What career advice would you give to aspiring students, particularly young girls, wishing to pursue a career STEM?
Firstly, network. Speak to as many people as you can about what you are passionate about, because this will allow you to learn more about who you aspire to be, and what the area you want to study is all about.
In addition, I believe work experience is very valuable, whether it is shadowing someone in a lab or working in a library, the set of skills you learn will be incredibly valuable and teach you things about yourself that will prepare you for the studies you want to pursue.
Thirdly, go with your gut. You will not make mistakes if you do what you are passionate about at that stage in your career.
What career advice would you give to undergraduate and postgraduate students wishing to pursue a career in research and academia?
I am a postgraduate at the moment, so my advice to undergraduates would be to do as many internships and placements as you can. Do not waste your summers.
Learn to think independently, do not expect other people to drive your career. In addition, doing activities outside your studies at university will help you frame your thoughts about what you really want to do and who you want to be.
Languages are very important as well. We live in a globalised world, and language is power. This could help you learn to collaborate with other researchers in other countries, and further develop you career.