Young researchers present on the global stage (Part 16)

In this sixteenth edition of the researcher series, three rising stars, competing for Sparrho’s Early Career Researcher Prize, tell us about their work and why they chose to become scientists.

Yang Shen

PhD Candidate, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), U.S.

#medicine #stroke #engineering

Yang spoke at the IEEE-RAS International Conference on Humanoid Robots in Birmingham, UK.

How would you introduce your research to a non-expert? Stroke survivors, due to brain trauma, are often left with disabilities in moving their arms and legs. According to neuroplasticity, physical therapy helps recovery, but after months ascending movement capability often reaches a plateau limited by the therapist’s expertise, hiring cost, etc. Powered robotic exoskeleton devices (like EXO-UL8, the dual arm exoskeleton system I am working on) have the potential to automate the rehabilitation of post-stroke patients by providing a controllable platform for both diagnostic measurement (e.g., the range of motion, single joint strength and multi-joint coordination) and personalised training (e.g., unilateral training, bilateral mirror image training).

“Powered robotic exoskeleton devices have the potential to automate the rehabilitation of post-stroke patients.”

What can your field of research contribute to the world? Global ageing is an inevitable trend. Take the data in the United States (2013) as an example: every 40 seconds someone has a stroke. The disabilities brought on by stroke will not only affect the patients’ own activities of daily living but also leave a considerable burden on their families and on society. Using robotic exoskeleton devices in physical therapy, a traditionally experience-based field, could automate post-stroke rehabilitation and make the related analysis quantitative and informative. Like automation in other fields, automation in physical therapy may make large-dosage post-stroke rehabilitation affordable to everyone and eventually change rehabilitation medicine, academia, and industry.

“I feel proud that as a research engineer I am making machines to help stroke patients recover.”

Why are you a scientist? I once spent one summer in the Los Angeles area, visiting post-stroke patients’ support groups to recruit experimental subjects. Watching the elderly sitting in wheelchairs and touching/moving their weakened/stiffened arms was heartbreaking. I feel proud that as a research engineer I am making machines to help them recover — I have been training some patients using the exoskeleton in my lab. Outside of research, I serve as a feature editor for an ACM magazine, the audience of which are young computer science students. Both experiences give me internal tranquility.

“Conferences are great opportunities to make friends and build connections with potential collaborators.”

What advice would you give to younger students regarding attending a conference? Before attending the conference, do some research on the speakers so you can have more efficient interaction with them. Bring your business cards to the conference and prepare a printed version of your work (such as a one-page abstract) if you are to present your paper. In this way, if someone is interested in your work s/he may easily contact you later after the conference. Although conferences are great opportunities to make friends and build connections with potential collaborators, most of the attendees could be quite busy talking to their acquaintances. Therefore, try to ask smart questions and save time for both of you. As a young researcher, there is a lot to learn even without talking to others. For example, other presenters’ poster design or presentation techniques should be noted down and used next time if needed.

Read more about Yang’s research here.


Fane Mensah

PhD Candidate, University College London, U.K.

#immunology #haematology #disease

Fane spoke at the British Society for Immunology Congress in Brighton, U.K.

How would you introduce your research to a non-expert? I’m an immunologist and I work on B cells, which are a type of white blood cell that play a very important role in immune responses by giving rise to different types of antibodies that protect us from pathogens like viruses and bacteria. I mainly focus on the way they reinforce the body’s protective strategies, focusing on the way they interact with different signals and how this is influenced by their energy requirement. But the main contribution I have to this project is that we are helping to understand the different types of diseases related to B cells.

What can your field of research contribute to the world? B cells play such an important role in different diseases — not only autoimmune disease but also cancers, allergies, etc. — but their energy pathway has not been fully described. I’ve developed different assays to test the metabolic ability of these B cells in different stages, and this hopefully contributes to understanding the mechanism these cells should have in, for example, cancers and autoimmune diseases, and maximises the potential for drug efficacy. For example, if we find a certain marker that’s very important for metabolic activity in B cells at a certain stage and target that, we can start treating some patients.

“Even if you simply speak to one or two people and get feedback, you will grow in yourself and develop skills that are required to be successful.”

Why are you a scientist? The most important thing is that as a scientist, I always want to do something and have a direct impact. It’s also a privilege to connect with people, through international collaborations and funding opportunities. When people understand what you’re doing and they appreciate it, I get very proud. I’m so attached [to my work] it doesn’t feel like working!

“Everything starts with networking, and I think young scientists should be aware of that.”

What advice would you give to younger students regarding attending a conference? Make sure you’re asking good questions. What do you think is very important to develop your skills? What are you missing? I make sure every time I go to a conference in the world, I take one thing away from it. Even if you simply speak to one or two people and get feedback, you will grow in yourself and develop skills that are required to be successful. So just make the best out of it when you go to a conference. Because if you’re going to the same or similar conferences every year, it’s great: it shows you how you’ve grown, which can be hard to see when you’re just interacting with your colleagues on a day to day basis. Public speaking is a really good opportunity to show your progression as well.

Everything starts with networking, and I think young scientists should be aware of that. Networking isn’t always easy for young scientists: it’s very difficult to make the first initial step. But there are means other than conversation: for example, if you write a blog, someone will pick it up. There are so many ways of doing it.

Read more about Fane’s research here.


Kira Rundel

PhD Candidate, Monash University, Australia

#solarpower #climatechange #fossilfuels

Kira spoke at the Advanced Light Source User Meeting in Berkeley, California.

How would you introduce your research to a non-expert? My research is focused on next generation solar cells and developing and studying these materials to try to make them cheaper and more efficient to get to a wider audience. They have the potential to be a fraction of the cost of existing solar technology, while simultaneously offering additional benefits e.g. being lightweight and flexible so they can be incorporated into existing infrastructure. You can design whole new architecturally unique buildings due to their flexibility and partial transparency, potentially replacing windows.

For example, Samsung Galaxy phones have in their display what’s called an organic LED display. They use similar materials to other solar cells in that they can conduct electricity, but they are mechanically flexible just like any regular plastic bag. So we can print out solar cells using existing printing techniques like printing newspaper, and print them onto flexible plastic film. Galaxy phones obviously aren’t flexible, but the idea is you can make displays and solar cells that are flexible now, which is exciting.

“We can print out solar cells using existing printing techniques onto flexible plastic film.”

What can your field of research contribute to the world? There is a huge need to develop technologies aimed at mitigating our reliance on fossil fuels. Solar cells are also simultaneously very inexpensive compared to the existing technology; fossil fuels are not as efficient as storing solar cells which you can typically find on a rooftop. Where you spend dollars on a gallon of gasoline, you can spend the equivalent energy producing materials to make solar cells. It’s a very inexpensive alternative and hopefully they will reduce humanity’s reliance on fossil fuels. It’s very important that people realise if we want to continue our standard of living then it’s just impossible to ignore these problems.

“Solar cells are very inexpensive compared to the existing technology.”

What makes you proud of your work as a scientist? I volunteer with an organisation called Sisters And Science, and it aims to pair women who are working in STEM with high school aged women who lack self-confidence. They tend to be very shy and kind of hesitant to ask questions: so we do a couple of exercises and I talk about my personal experience, and with time they start to just open up and they can actually see themselves in the role of ‘scientist’. It takes away the intimidation around science and helps them to visualise themselves in those roles. Personally, it makes me very proud.

I really want to change that mindset in that regard — science and technology doesn’t need to be a male-dominated field and it doesn’t need to be intimidating to women who want to enter that field. Everyone in the classroom has potential to excel in these courses. It just takes a bit of self-confidence and a lot of hard work and effort. But in short, when the students start to see themselves as the future thinkers and problem solvers: that’s definitely something I love to see.

“No matter what stage you are at, there’s always a benefit to going to a conference, especially for younger students.”

What advice would you give to younger students regarding attending a conference? I personally really enjoy going to conferences because I think it’s a great way to get exposure to your work and to converse with people in your industry. I think it’s a really great way to practice communication skills, which are so important. No matter what stage you are at, there’s always a benefit to going to a conference, especially for younger students, even if they’re not presenting — although I would encourage anyone to present a poster at whatever stage of their research — as it’s a very good way to be able to talk to people who work in your field. And the great thing about this is that you don’t need to dumb down a request for your explanations to your problems.

I’ve had countless extremely useful conversations where I’ve been presenting a poster, and people have come to talk to me about some things that I never knew. Also it’s good practice for trying to come up with answers that you really haven’t prepared for. So I think there are just countless positive outcomes of going to conferences.

Learn more about Kira’s research here.


The above applicants are finalists in Sparrho’s Early Career Researcher Prize that awards £500 to early career scientists who are presenting their work at an academic conference. To apply, follow this link to the 5-minute application form and use the Sparrho platform to share your research. Applications close at the end of each month and are reviewed on a rolling basis.

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