Welcome to this podcast about working on a medical project with an engineering background. This episode’s special guest is Saba Shirvani, a PhD student working in Addenbrookes Hospital to improve body scanning technologies as part of a project funded by the EU Horizon 2020 scheme for the University of Cambridge.

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Hahahahahaha… 0:35


artificial intelligence is a big booming topic… 1:29


I was mildly horrified to walk past a very small building that just had the Apple logo outside… 7:42


sometimes doing things where I catch myself being surprised… 20:50


it’s one of the newest scanners in the world… 26:46


I’ve seen here in university in Cambridge people and the whole degree programmes are pushing a lot trying to make it more inclusive… 39:18


it’s important to also be able to take your time off research and put it back in the lab where it belongs… 49:57




♪ tune



Arian Hi guys, how’s it going? Did you know astronaut helmets contain a small piece of Velcro so the astronauts can scratch their noses? Didn’t see that coming, did ya? ♪ tune


Off to a Great Start

Arian Welcome to this podcast about working on a medical project with an engineering background. This episode’s special guest is Saba Shirvani, a PhD student working in Addenbrookes Hospital to improve body scanning technologies as part of a project funded by the EU Horizon 2020 scheme for the University of Cambridge. Saba, welcome!

Saba Hi, welcome!

Arian [laughter] It’s like…

Arian [laughter] Ok…

Saba What the… [laughter]

Arian So I said…

Saba [laughter]

Arian I say wel…

Saba [laughter]

Arian I say welcome to you, you say welcome to them…

Saba [laughter]

Arian [laughter]


Seeing inside the Body

Saba I wanted to say…

Arian It’s like we’re co-hosting!

Saba …first, welcome to my home, but then I was like…

Arian [laughter]

Saba …I can’t say that.

Arian [laughter]

Saba I was like oh my God…

Arian Right. Sure, I’ll just ask the question.

Saba [laughter] I’m sorry!

Arian [laughter]

Saba [laughter]

Arian Ok, right. How would you describe your PhD project to a non-specialist audience?

Saba I’m doing an ultra high-field MRI project where we’re trying to come up with new methodologies to monitor chemotherapy response.

Arian So what… Ok, that’s quite interesting, so you have people undergoing chemotherapy. Do they have to like, check the progress after each round, or how does it work?

Saba Yes, that’s the approach we were thinking of implementing into the procedure of getting chemotherapy during the course of their medical treatment. So we have like a baseline where we start, once they start their chemotherapy sessions, and we do regular MRI scans throughout their time when they are getting treatment done.

Arian So what’s your, what kind of data do you get from.. Is it like, basically the output of the scanner, is it like.. How do you see the progress?

Saba So there are two approaches that we’re trying to implement, so one of them would be an imaging process where we actually take resolution scans to see if there is a volume change in the metastasis side throughout the time when they get their chemotherapy; and the second approach that we’re trying to implement is actually doing spectroscopy and seeing if the biochemical components of the metastasis change once they undergo chemotherapy.

Arian So, what is your work on trying to change what the process was before you came along on this project?

Saba So, with ultra high-field MRI this kind of approach has never been done before. What I’m coming up with is the methodology side of things. I’m implementing algorithms to improve an image that we can actually standardise and see how it actually looks through patients; and I’m also coming up with the computing mechanism that is behind getting an image that could be respectively used in clinical routines. Which is very new in ultra high-field, it has never been done before.

Arian Are the images then checked by the doctors that kind of monitor that, or is it automated?

Saba They would have to go through a radiologist to be approved, and the way we are seeing it would be an alternative to actually support clinical findings.

Arian So is that data potentially something you might use to train an artificial intelligence to kinda parse through it and give more accurate interpretations of images compared to a radiologist?

Saba This topic of like artificial intelligence is a big booming topic in medical image computing at the moment.

Arian That’s why I asked! [laughter]

Saba Yeah. One of the reasons for it being it is actually shockingly very accurate, much more accurate than people that sit behind a computer.

Arian Creepy.. It’s creepy.

Saba Yeah, that is creepy actually. It’s scary, but the way I like to see it is more of the approach of supporting a clinician in their daily work instead of thinking of it as in replacing someone, because we won’t be able to ethically justify this, changing the approach that we have at the moment. So it would definitely be a support mechanism to make more accurate findings and make more accurate decisions.

Arian But then presumably if it turns out to be, you know, like 100% accurate, and then there’s just really no need for a person there. Would it then just be ok to say, ok, just push the button, and whatever it says it says? It must be right.

Saba With these algorithms, they always have great findings but it’s also very unpredictable because you cannot statistically even predict something 100% because nothing is really certain. And it always depends on the quality of the data that you have, so there’s a lot of aspects that go into these automated approaches. But one other thing that is quite popular at the moment is actually acquiring images through automated processes.

So not really just the aspect of afterwards, judging and getting a clinical outcome, but also like the approach of how do I get faster computing? How do I deal with these enormous data sets that I get? Cos one of the challenges that we have in MRI is we have big, big data and we need to deal with that data.

Arian As long as you can get some useful stuff out of it it’s worth looking at it. But if not, I guess… does it have to be stored? Can you just delete it?

Saba So… for healthy volunteers at the moment there is no real procedure; you can store the data, and this is not, it is obviously very sensitive data working with people, and you have sensitive data requirements through the hospital. And then when it comes to patient data you have to be able to store it for at least 10 days and then you have research integrity, so there’s a lot of things to go through. Very sensitive data you have to be very careful how you actually share it, and the inclusivity is very restricted.

Arian Lovely. Let’s learn more the kind of educational path that might lead to working in a field like this, coming up. ♪ tune


Slaloming around Straight Edges

Arian What did your educational journey to Cambridge look like?

Saba So it was actually very multi-faceted, I’ve been a bit everywhere.

Arian That sounds like a familiar theme with a lot of people, so I think the more we can talk about it the more interesting it is for people listening, and sort of, maybe smashing their misconceptions, cos there probably are misconceptions.

Saba Yes, absolutely. I’m reading for a PhD here at the University of Cambridge at the moment. I’m based in Addenbrookes Hospital in the WBIC (Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre) which is an imaging facility. And before that I was doing a postgraduate degree in London, which was a medical imaging degree specialised in MRI, and before that I started my undergraduate journey in Vienna at the University of Applied Sciences, and started Medical Engineering when I did my degree, and then afterwards I drifted off and went to the States and did finish my degree over there with my project placement and all experiences I got that far.

Arian Where in the States did you go?

Saba I went to Boston, Massachusetts.

Arian It’s quite predictable, there’s a strong link between Boston and Cambridge, isn’t it?

Saba It is, yeah.

Arian Especially them stealing the name [laughter]

Saba [laughter]

Arian …which is the main thing of Cambridge.

Saba …which is so funny because everyone always asks me which Cambridge do you like more? And I’m like, it’s so not similar.

Arian There’s only one Cambridge as far as I’m concerned. There’s only one Cambridge. Why did they name it Cambridge, the river was it, no… What’s called Cambridge, the area?

Saba The area, the town yeah.

Arian Right, so this area is Cambridge because of the river, and they don’t have that river, they have a different river, what’s it called?

Saba Oh my God, you’re putting me on the spot…

Arian They have a different river, it’s not called Cam.

Saba [laughter]

Arian That’s the main point.

Saba Yes.

Arian They do not have a river called Cam, so the historical thing kinda falls to pieces, not to mention the sort of fake Roman, Greek MIT buildings.

Saba Oh my God…

Arian …which is funny because when I got there, obviously it’s called the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, so I expected a really modern, high tech sort of architecture…

Saba Oh no…

Arian And you get there, it’s these Roman columns with the fake Latin letters that don’t make any sense, like what is it, Einstein and… I don’t know, some English word that has these fake Latin letters in it.

Saba [laughter] But MIT is actually quite nice, you didn’t like it?

Arian I didn’t like the fake history, I thought that was weird.

Saba That’s true.

Arian [laughter]

Saba But I mean, it’s a bit like, I mean obviously there are similarities in historical aspects of these universities, but generally it’s very different over there so I do understand that you’re quite opinionated on that.

Arian We’re in Cambridge recording this and I’m like yeah, Cambridge is lovely, it’s real, it’s authentic, it’s a bit busy, it’s obviously very popular, it’s getting more popular I feel, but

Saba Silicon Fen they call it at the moment.

Arian Silicon…?

Saba Fen.

Arian Fen?

Saba Yeah, it is a bit, basically a similar concept as in like Silicon Valley

Arian Except without the silicon and history, sure

Saba Yes exactly, but right now we’re expanding South Cambridge to this huge massive biomedical campus where all these tech firms and all these companies are moving towards. And one of the similar things like in the States is that more of the startups are created by students of the university, so it has this Stanford approach to Silicon Valley which we have here with the University of Cambridge.

Arian Ok…

Saba But it has boosted the economic growth in England a lot.

Arian I can see it has.

Saba Yeah.

Arian And I was mildly horrified to walk past a very small building that just had the Apple logo outside. And I thought, what do you mean the Apple logo is there, like a mini-Apple on here? It doesn’t look American with the sun shining, and the hot weather and the cyclists… there’s nothing American about it. It’s just a gloomy English road with a tiny building that just has the Apple logo outside, I thought, is that Apple? What are they doing here?

Saba I think they have a research development team and also I’m not sure if you passed it actually, but there’s Microsoft research as well

Arian Nope, I didn’t have the pleasure.

Saba Yeah. It was a bit more impressive, but it’s still not that great when you pass by. It’s a bit, very… settled. But it is the second location in the world, and I think the only other location besides Seattle where there’s a Microsoft research building. So there’s a lot of things happening here at the moment.

Arian Yes. So you went to Boston.

Saba Yes, I did.

Arian Right. What was that for?

Saba So I met this great professor there, and he took me on under his wing where I started kinda my research career in his lab, and that was the first initial experience I had with MRI where I was working on a much lower strength field, it was 1.5 Tesla and I was doing cardiac MRI which is a very exciting thing but also a very challenging thing because…

When it comes to body imaging applications of MRI it is a bit more challenging than… the people that are gonna listen, neuroimaging people are gonna be like why is she saying this, but it is a bit more challenging in the sense of, because you have a lot of motion from the heart constantly moving obviously, and then you also have breathing motion, so your heart moves up and down; and computing that, and doing signal processing is much more difficult than imaging an organ that is like not moving as much.

Arian Yeah, and… what is the… unit, the Tesla for, what does that measure? What’s the…

Saba Magnetic field.

Arian Right, yes. Cos it’s really funny. Tesla now has a different connotation, it’s the truck.

Saba The car.

Arian The Tesla truck and the.. it’s really interesting to take…

Saba It is yeah.

Arian …a really historically significant name and actually manage to give it a new meaning

Saba Yes

Arian But that’s pretty much what happened, cos

Saba That’s so true

Arian It was kinda a humble nerdy thing, and now it’s like Tesla what? Tesla who? Tesla flamethrowers? Tesla skateboards? So it’s a different thing.

Saba I’m sure Nikola Tesla wasn’t that excited about this happening to his name.

Arian [laughter]

Saba It is still, in a scientific community it’s quite known.

Arian Yes

Saba Yes obviously.

Arian I don’t know how excited he would be about the trucks and the things, but you know, someone takes the name and turns it into something else, although I’m pretty sure the name wasn’t very popular before Elon Musk, so he probably did popularise it, and eventually everyone who’s interested in the offshoots of that thinking oh, Tesla, where does that comes from?

They will be taken to the origin and they will learn more about this, and more about that, and probably will have aside effect of getting more people interested in those subjects, or at least the history of it. So that should be quite interesting. So tell me more about the educational side of things earlier on, like when you were a kid, primary school secondary school.

Saba Wow, ok so we’re going that back. So I always went into a scientific approach school, so it was very scientific heavy, I mean in this country where I grew up, this is Austria, there are different routes you can go through, through the educational system which is a bit different, and I know and I’m aware of in the UK

Arian Does that start in primary school? 1st grade, or is it later on?

Saba It starts in junior high which is after primary school which I believe is GCSE here?

Arian Yeah, like secondary school.

Saba This is something that I’m still trying to understand which is so different in the school system back home. Yeah so they specialise a lot more in the scientific approach, you have much more mathematical, physics, biology and chemistry heavy subjects. And balance those out with a couple language courses and classes.

Arian Was that something that you chose, that you were good at, or you just kinda found yourself in?

Saba I found myself definitely in the scientific route but there were, my balance was basically choosing languages which is very different than scientific ways. It’s much more I would say like artistic and a way of expression which I enjoyed a lot, but that goes back to the way I grew up because I grew up bilingual and that was something that was interesting to me always, just different languages.

Arian Do you do anything language-based at present or was that just something more then? I mean what is your first language? That you consider your first language?

Saba So I definitely say I’m bilingual in German and Farsi, but I’m definitely strong when it comes to German, just the way of, because when you go through the school system, the details and the way you can express yourself is much higher, but I’m definitely fluent in both of my first languages.

Arian Was that something you considered actually continuing or were you interested in science all the way through?

Saba I did have like an interest in languages, that’s why I was having always this like natural progress of like moving to other countries, I was very intrigues and fascinated by the English culture and also speaking English which is obviously not a language they spoke in my country. But not in the way that I would want to make it my occupation. More as like a hobby.

Arian Yeah. And yet you are now working in a different language to what it was and language is still a great opportunity and also a great barrier to migrating, to getting into certain fields of work. Another building down the street in Cambridge is…

Saba [laughter]

Arian …you know, building tell stories right?

Saba Yeah.

Arian So it’s kind of a big deal, an English school or a sort of A level school, and I look at the English school and I think I can speak English, who cares? And then I think well, there’s all these people who do care for whom these language qualifications are the main thing sort of, that determines whether they can do a degree or they can get a job or get a visa, you know. So it is kind of a big deal.

And then in terms of publishing science as well, there’s all these scientists in other countries whether it’s China or Germany or wherever, who maybe their first language is not English but the body of knowledge, most of it is still in English and so

Saba Absolutely.

Arian If you want to take part in that activity you can’t really not speak the language, you can’t really not be able to read the content, you can’t not be able to write it again. I think… I don’t know whether foreign journals are growing in popularity because I see some publications that the abstract is in English but that paper is in a different language.

Saba Yeah.

Arian Which is funny because it’s like Ok, what’s, what is really, I don’t know what the motivation is for that, maybe it’s just to do with getting it indexed or whatever, but if you’re interested in the content and it’s like well, Ok, you’ve had the abstract, you’ve had your two sentences, the actual content is in some other language.

Saba Yeah. Which is interesting because for every country obviously it’s different and there’s some countries that really are trying to push the language barriers to promote their language. I work in a European Horizon project that is funded by the EU so the second national language that is used by them is French. And I had the honour of having some years of French in high school education

Arian Me too

Saba It helps me now

Arian It hasn’t got me far at all, in fact one of my previous guests told me a simple sentence in French and I couldn’t even reply. [laughter]

Saba It helps you when you travel or anything, just the documentation part in other languages besides English, but definitely the leading language in that field is English. With publishing and everything.

Arian Yes. So I’m curious about the things that surprise people as they move on to whatever they end up doing after school. We’ll see what things surprised Saba, in just a sec ♪ tune



Arian Were there any surprises at work you didn’t expect from your school days?

Saba I would say nothing really prepares you for your first job.

Arian [laughter]

Saba I think we’ve all been there. Obviously you think you have some understanding of what to expect, you get your project assigned, or a job assigned, it depends on what career path you choose, but you always learn a lot by doing. That’s one of the things that I don’t believe really any coursework can prepare you for.

Arian What was your image of it when you were still at school, thinking Oh, that sounds like something interesting that I’d like to do; what was the picture of that job in your head?

Saba I believe I would’ve seen in much more like, as like a box and just one single thing, but now when you work basically and specifically in science, you find yourself a lot more in this interdisciplinary approaches of everything because science is growing so much more into knowing different things and different aspects of different tasks, so it’s impossible to go there with just having a perfect understanding of just one field. You need to be much more flexible I believe – that’s something you didn’t, you don’t know about until you go into the first assignment or the first project that you actually do.

Arian Do you think what you’re currently working on didn’t really even exist in its full form when you were in school thinking about working?

Saba Oh no, absolutely not. I did not expect myself to be working in high performance computing in MRI. And sometimes I’m even, sometimes doing things where I catch myself being surprised that I’m doing these things but I believe it’s also a natural progress of evolving as a person, learning new things, and that’s how, it’s all about the progression that you do as a person and also in your career.

You end up doing things to get out of your comfort zone, that’s how you learn actually I believe. That’s something that I like looking back to and see, and be like Ok, wait, 1 year ago I did not have any idea about this, but now I’m actually really good at it.

Arian Yeah. I did not have any idea about material science; yeah cos it’s funny cos you prepare for so long to be very, you have this very specialist knowledge and you get rewarded with your, you graduate from your degree, and maybe you do a PhD and you think Ok, I’m really smart, I know all of this, and of course I’m working, I’m the one doing all of this work because I know everything and everyone else doesn’t. But then you end up doing something that you never knew up to that point and it’s just a case of trying it. I ended up doing 3D printing that I’d never done before, that didn’t even exist before anyway, so…

I was totally new, and I was just, you know, printing scaffolds for you know, bone tissue, muscle tissue, and I thought anyone could be doing this. A child in school could click this thing and start printing, and voila! You’ve just created a scaffold for an ear, an ear-shaped… an artificial organ maybe. What things do you catch yourself doing and you think I can’t believe I’m doing this?

Saba Definitely one of the things that I catch myself doing, I mean education-wise I’m a biomedical engineer, and now doing my PhD I catch myself doing a lot of electronical engineering work, so I do the hardware engineering faceted approach, like just making wires and making cables for a coil that doesn’t exist and I’m creating as part of my project in order to do methods in ultra high-field MRI.

So one of these things that, I think personally evolved a lot on the software side, so it is not just the hardware approach that I’m doing in my PhD, I’m also doing much more deeply coded software, which is one way to bring your vision to life with MRI, and that’s how we code up things. So it is a bit of both worlds, software and hardware.

Arian When was the first time you had to make a coil or just do something that was like from the ground up? And did you have a good supervisor for that?

Saba I did some coursework in lab work when I did my undergraduate degree, and I also did some coursework when I did my Master’s degree, but it was never preparing you specifically for what you do now. So now I… you do have a background and you do learn the basics, but bringing you to the level of what you actually specifically need in your own project, you do that yourself.

But I found myself being quite comfortable doing it, and of course there are always points where you find yourself where you’re not as comfortable, you’re not so sure about what you’re doing but that’s where your supervisor steps in a PhD, and he’s the one who’s supposed to monitor it all or support you.

Arian This is gonna be in a similar vein of… cos we have already talked about the specific science things, cos sometimes there’s the.. the sort of general school and work, and there’s specific science things, but I think this area is actually very interesting, so I think there’s probably more to talk about; which is any bizarre science-specific insights, and I wonder if you have any to share coming up next. ♪ tune


Engineering Left, Right and Centre

Arian So you mentioned doing some hardcore engineering stuff that was not necessarily something that you’d done before, and that is one of the sort of disciplines that is weaved with general science and other parts of science that a lot of people might not really understand fully; and I think another one that we’ve talked about previously on the podcast was design. And engineering is one of those things, so what is your sort of basic definition of engineering? It doesn’t have to be a textbook definition. Your definition.

Saba Engineering is a hands-on approach of creating a solution to a task. And that can be something in various ways. It can be a software solution, for instance creating some scripts that get you some information from data that you want to look at; it can be a hardware solution where you build something that likely doesn’t exist and compute it to tell it what to do. Yeah, that’s how I would put it.

Arian So from that, it makes me think Ok, so science is more about finding information, structuring information to just have that knowledge; and then engineering part is having these tools that you work with that is not necessarily related to the knowledge or the finding of knowledge?

Saba Yeah. That would make sense because especially in the field where I’m doing my PhD it’s one of the newest scanners in the world, there hasn’t been any work done in that field prior, and a lot of things, I have to come up, you know transfer the knowledge that has been known into the applications that I would need.

Arian Mmhmm. So… the, the actual theme of this segment is – because we keep going on tangents – but I like the tangents so it’s good. Any bizarre twists and turns in science that are not obvious to people, the general public? Especially when a lot of really powerful, interesting work is being commissioned through public funding bodies; they’re working very hard to try to communicate that research to the public.

There’s actually a very recent initiative by the British Podcasting Association and Wellcome Trust to try to actually use podcasting to try to achieve that which is quite funny because podcasting is quite niche, or at least relatively niche; and I thought I’m just being weird doing a podcast but then, you know, it’s becoming more official all of a sudden.

So hopefully people get to understand the realities and the nooks and crannies of science better. From your personal experience, what did you encounter as someone who was previously a bit of an outsider to now having become an insider, what things that really surprised you and didn’t see coming?

Saba One of the biggest surprises that I encountered so far is that people or young researchers make the mistake of like underselling their research. And I believe one of the reasons for that is that, if you are at the early stage of your career you just think that any finding can be not significant enough, but it is actually the opposite, any progress in science is a progress.

And that’s not something that you really expect when you come out there, because you get into this huge field where there’s so many teams around the world that are doing an amazing job and have established teams for years, there are all these research papers you look through and read and you feel intimidated by because it sounds so technical and very impressive to you; and you find yourself in a situation where you believe you cannot do that, or what you are doing is not as good as them.

And it is a bit of… you need to boost your own confidence and put yourself in these uncomfortable situations to actually see – what you’re doing is actually very credible and is very, very important to the community.

Arian That’s actually really encouraging to hear because yeah, a lot of people don’t expect to make a difference and don’t expect even their whole career to make a difference, never mind just one placement or the beginning of their career. Do you think there’s a danger to have the reverse happening where someone is very excited and feels very strongly about what they’re about to do or what they’re doing, and has that positive energy but then actually nothing comes of it and it isn’t that significant?

Or maybe they spend years trying to achieve something and it just doesn’t work, it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t come to fruition, and there’s a danger of suddenly having this crash and having to come to terms with knowing how to think about the past 10 years of your life, or the fruits of your labour or the lack thereof.

Saba I’m not as advanced yet in my career to really be able to know that but I definitely see it on a day to day basis because these are the things behind the scenes that people don’t see, it takes a lot of dedication, it needs a lot of persistence to get results in science, in any field. Significant or not. But experiments never work out the way you plan them to be, you come up with these hypotheses and aims that you want to do, and it doesn’t work out that way, so it can be frustrating but then once the second kicks in when you actually get results that are making a difference, that’s when you create and that’s when you get back to the main motivation.

Arian I just remembered that – this is a whole story really – because… I’m just gonna try and make it brief, but basically I was really trying to get some science experience and I applied to an internship, and it was supposed to be in America but they couldn’t get the visa done; they also had a lab in Cambridge so that’s how I ended up doing an internship in Cambridge as an undergrad still, which was bizarre because you know, surrounded with PhD students and postdocs and the real scientists and the real institutes of research

Saba Yeah.

Arian …that I guess most undergrads that are studying at Cambridge itself would not necessarily have an experience with; and it was obviously just like a basic research, like 3-month project, and one of the supervisors in that lab was also an editor of one of these journals and said, By the way, if you have something to publish, there’s this deadline; and I thought, I didn’t know anything about publishing, I didn’t know anything about writing a paper, but he just said you know, just write up your experiment, and I thought Ok. The deadline was like that day.

Saba [laughter]

Arian Which is funny because normally a paper takes months, years, God knows how long

Saba …preparation yeah

Arian But I didn’t know what was going on, and he said you know, there’s this deadline if you wanna make it into this journal, and I said Ok, why not? So I sat at the canteen, and you know, over like a couple of hours I just wrote everything up and I said Ok, here it is. Just like that, I don’t know if I read it twice. And he actually took it and he did publish it, and

Saba Oh wow!

Arian I see, I see a couple of, I see some people on these website, the research websites where you see the people that interact with your publication, and I see people sort of reading it, and citing it, and I don’t know, I don’t really look into it, I don’t know what, if it’s one of those troll citations cos sometimes people cite like hundreds of papers for some strange reason; or whether it’s real, I’m not sure.

But you know, that point about, well, you don’t even know what you’re working on, but right at the beginning you could be doing something really interesting that maybe other people are gonna be interested in, really resonate with me because there’s this random paper that, I don’t know, some people are reading [laughter] so I did that as part of my internship, just wrote it up in a couple of hours, really crazy.

Saba That’s actually so impressive. Because as you mentioned before, people prepare for a long long time

Arian [laughter] there’s a process

Saba Making figures…

Arian It’s a long process

Saba All the data and…

Arian Yeah you don’t just kinda knock it up and sort of, in Word and you’re like here’s the paper. I mean it wasn’t Nature or Science but yeah, that’s quite interesting. I don’t know if you need a specific university credential to submit publications because you know, back in the day you just thought Oh, that sounds like an interesting idea, and you just shared it cos you were the only crazy person in the village thinking of a random idea, whereas now it’s like it just needs to be part of a whole career and there’s all these processes, it needs to be in this format, and it needs to be reviewed by these people, and it’s this whole thing.

Saba Yeah, it’s a long, long progress of actually submitting something and getting it published which people underestimate. Especially now in the day and age where everything is moving towards open access and data integrity which is very important

Arian Thank goodness.

Saba An especially in healthcare, people wanna see the data, people wanna actually know the algorithms or whatever you used, the tools; and that is a long, long process that needs a lot of hard work and dedication. I think that’s one of the things that I would say gets very under appreciated. But once you’re actually pub… because there’s so many situations where people actually get rejected, and that’s such a daily thing in science but no one speaks about it, and maybe that’s one of the things where everyone can identify themselves out there listening because it is so real.

Arian Is there like a rejection shame?

Saba I wouldn’t say rejection shame, but ‘let’s not talk about it’ shame [laughter] which is a bit different because everyone comes up with a plan to publish, comes up with these journals they pick where obviously you have impact factors or it’s a very important journal in your field that you know about; and you always try to, from what I’ve seen so far in my career, people try to aim for these high ones with a high impact and try the best, and then once it gets rejected they go down the hierarchical table which, yeah, it is, it’s a topic in itself.

But it’s definitely real, people try to push it and you have these long processes where these experts and reviewers look through your research and actually that’s when it gets a bit tricky.

Arian Yeah. That is definitely a topic in its own right, it’s quite a depressing topic.

Saba [laughter]

Arian So I try to kinda keep it as positive as possible

Saba Yes…

Arian Although there are some good things happening in that area. I think only a few years ago it was, there was still this perception of open access is just, it’s not possible, it’s a pipe dream, and now I keep seeing these things that are open access and it’s like, well, we found a way. I and was like, well good. So there are ways of doing that. Ok so we know that people don’t experience working in science the same way, and one of the reasons is the perception of gender. We’ll find out Saba’s experiences in just a tick. ♪ tune


Made in My Image

Arian What were your experiences working in this field as a woman? I know you were talking about studying in Vienna and how the perceptions there were very strong.

Saba Yeah, definitely is when you do engineering you find yourself in a lot of situations where you feel a bit isolated as a woman. And it definitely is underrepresented because I remember when I went to America there were about 120 people on the course and we were 10 women and that is definitely underrepresented.

But I have to say, graduate scheme programmes and graduate training from different universities are pushing a lot to promote engineering for women, and they’re trying their best. I’m not sure what it exactly is, it is a very conservative field, people think of it as like something that is a very scary area to go into, and I do see people and I’ve seen a lot of people in the past that get intimidated a lot. And you need to stand your ground and work through it I would say.

Arian Was it any easier for you coming from a science-based school that you went to?

Saba Yeah, basically the coursework degree educates everyone at the same level, it’s not that everyone comes in at the degree with different levels, I mean obviously people have personal interests so if someone is an expert of course they’re gonna have some advantage over someone who’s coming into a degree with no background to it, but technically through coursework and everything, you get educated to learn everything and they have to teach you.

But you find yourself often in these situations where you feel like… Do I feel this is a struggle because of where I’m coming from or this this something everyone goes through? That definitely crosses every woman’s mind that is in engineering.

Arian So, at school everyone was studying the same content and it wasn’t, there wasn’t a sort of you know, 90% male, 10% female sort of ratio then, but then at university level it was very skewed.

Saba Yes, exactly. Because I believe people that go into a course programme at university, those are the people who really want to do a specific degree. And that’s when you see the drive happening. It’s not, at least from my own personal experience, it wasn’t in school where I felt already that there was a lack of representation or a different ratio, it happened when I went into university. And that’s something I wasn’t aware of to that extent.

Arian So if there was no, if that skewed representation wasn’t there before university, was everyone on the sort of same level playing field?

Saba Yes.

Arian And then the choice to go to university all of a sudden presented this massively skewed gender ratio

Saba Yes absolutely.

Arian So why do you think that might be? Is it just the preference of the people wanting to do this at degree level or just the expectations of what people should do for their job later on?

Saba It definitely is expectation, it definitely has to do with the country you grow up in, it definitely has to do something with preference and different aspects of a country that promote a lot of things for people of various backgrounds. But you find yourself in these situations always where you feel it’s not as inclusive as it should be.

Arian So maybe it’s not really the fact that it is engineering, maybe it’s also a matter of the level at which it is taught. It’s a bit like you know, cooking; you know, if it’s low-level cooking it’s female, if it’s high-level cooking it’s male. So it’s not so much what you’re doing, it’s what it stands for.

Saba Yeah.

Arian You know, where low-level cooking stands for being domestic, and high-level cooking stands for being distinguished and being famous or being rich or whatever. So you know, it sounds like the school-level science was what you need to know because you’re a child and you need to be highly educated and smart, but the higher level stuff is now something different.

Saba Yeah. And that goes back to just the conservative approach of science in general. Cos when we go back it has not been a long time ago where women were actually allowed in science and were able to freely pursue the science career. So it doesn’t date back that long ago and you can definitely still see the ratio imbalance in reality.

Arian The remnants of the past.

Saba Absolutely.

Arian The relics, the…

Saba Yeah, but we’re stepping it up! We can see like, I’ve seen here in university in Cambridge people and the whole degree programmes are pushing a lot trying to make it more inclusive. Also in different topics, it’s not just women underrepresentation, it’s also diversity, all these things that are so important, that matter and are becoming a topic; we’re progressing and I can see this as a long term progress. It’s impossible to find a one-day solution because that would be very very unreasonable.

Arian Yes. There’s a lot of overlapping statistics and the thing is there’s multiple realities overlapping with each other that belong to different groups of people.

Saba Yeah.

Arian So, there’s the reality of you know, 30+ year old women who were the only one in science or who… where it was an all-male dominated field. And there’s the newer reality of all the under-20 year old women who maybe have never really experienced the male-dominated environment because it’s already been challenged to the point where they are now being put forward.

So there’s this like, on one hand, this extreme experience of being separated and being in the minority and then a sort of flipside that maybe overshoots and then you have people thinking I don’t know what these people are talking about, I’m surrounded by women. Or I don’t know what these people are talking about, I’m surrounded by men! And it’s like, Ok, those things obviously can happen at the same time at different levels.

For example you know, for A level physics the students in the UK studying A level physics are 90% male which is a crazy split, but then for biology it’s like 70 or 75% female. And you’re like Ok, what’s happening? [laughter]

Saba Mmhmm.

Arian Why is there this split and why the subjects? When at a higher level there’s so much interdisciplinarity and these things just come back to each other. So there’s definitely these leftover perceptions in terms of teaching and in terms of teachers and… You know, something as subtle as who the teachers are and what they’re interested in and their emotional landscape is communicated to children very very strongly.

Saba That’s so important, that’s one of the things I believe truly, and like representation matters so much. If you see someone, even when you grow up and think of children and the media and everything, it’s so widespread across the globe that if you see someone where you can identify yourself with that person you’re more open to approach this and do something; whereas if you see something that is so far off from the understanding that you have or the way that you identify yourself, you would be more scared to pursue the career in that path. Therefore I really believe in representation. And it’s just, though time it will improve but there’s still lots of work that needs to go in there.

Arian It’s very hard to have to be the first one doing something. I watched this show about colonising Mars and of course the first team of people going to Mars were, you know, 10 people, not that many people and they were the first ones, so they had to deal with this foreign territory and the harsh environment.

Of course one of them dies soon after landing and you think, on one hand, from the perspective of let’s say people after hundreds of years living on Mars and they have the plants, and they live comfortably, you think from the perspective of that comfort and legacy and default state of being, this individual kinda barely landing and then just dying cos of some technical glitch seems so sad and pathetic, but at the same time that is the necessary starting point for everything else to follow.

So if you’re the first person doing something uncomfortable you know, as a leader it is the hardest thing to do. But also as a leader, because you’re looking forward to something new, you don’t get to look behind and see how many people are coming on the path that you created. You just need to have the faith that that is what you’re doing and then maybe in time, when you’re old, maybe you turn around and you think Oh my goodness, these people are here because of me. And I think that’s probably an amazing feeling, but first you have to make it.

Saba Yeah. That was very motivational

Arian [laughter]

Saba Philosophical…

Arian Poetic tangent

Saba That was amazing yeah.

Arian Yes. Let’s talk about the future. Coming up next] ♪ tune


Doctoring a Doctorate

Arian Do you have any hopes for after your PhD and have you ever questioned doing it?

Saba I have questioned myself if I want to do a PhD. Basically, a lot of people who actually go straight into the industry after they do a postgraduate degree like a Master’s degree, and that was definitely an option I considered but then I found myself in a situation where I realised, No I do have actually really strong skills in research and I wanna pursue academia and see how far I can take it.

Arian Good luck!

Saba [laughter] it is a work in progress for sure.

Arian You sounded very determined. And I was like yes

Saba It is…

Arian You would need that to see it through. I did not have that. I did not see it through. But it was a conscious decision.

Saba Talk to me in 2 years again and we will see.

Arian [laughter]

Saba [laughter]

Arian Maybe there will be a follow-up episode of what happened next.

Saba Absolutely.

Arian That would be interesting because these things, you know, you just capture a snapshot of the moment but then you never know what happens. You could have someone just being very enthusiastic and saying you know, I could’ve been that person, like I can’t wait to do this work, this work is interesting, this is exciting; and then you know, some time later Well, that didn’t work out. Or.. things changed right?

Saba Yes.

Arian So, you just, you don’t know how it turns out. So do you consider academia more challenging than just you know, the options industry in terms of not doing a PhD?

Saba That’s difficult for me to speak on because I haven’t chosen a career in industry so far. So I would not be able to really compare it directly, but I do believe that academia is something that when you leave your job and go home, you still have it in the back of your mind because this is a personal project you’re doing, you have a very personal approach to the things you have to do to go forward and the tasks you do.

Whereas I believe, or what I’ve heard so far from industry that’s maybe one of the benefits in industry is like you can go home after you wrap up your job and like start the next day again from scratch. And that’s where a work-life balance comes in because it’s important to also be able to take your time off research and put it back in the lab where it belongs, and then you go back to it whenever it needs to go back into. But yeah, it is definitely a dilemma so we shall see.

Arian We shall see indeed.



Arian Thank you joining me Saba.

Saba Thank you so much Arian for having me.

Arian Thank you for listening, and remember Samsung’s first product was dried fish. Byeeee

Saba Bye! ♪ tune


Learn more about Saba at https://www.wbic.cam.ac.uk/userdirs/saba-shirvani, https://www.instagram.com/seboshi/ and https://www.linkedin.com/in/saba-shirvani-a87431131/