12 February 2019

The University of East London (UEL) put the spotlight on some of its leading women researchers to celebrate United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science on 11 February. 

Cynthia Fu (pictured), professor of affective neuroscience; Sally Cutler, professor in medical microbiology; and Heba Elsharkawy, senior lecturer in architecture came together to discuss their motivations, career highlights, and words of advice in a series of short videos.

Using AI to help people with depression

Professor Cynthia Fu is working with researchers across the globe to analyse MRI brain scans to identify depression and to predict clinical outcomes using machine learning which is based on artificial intelligence.


People with and without depression experience images of sad faces in different ways. During this part of our research, we took brain scans of both people with depression and healthy people while they looked at sad faces. We used machine learning to see whether we could identify depression at the level of the individual based on the brain scan.

"Machine learning is now helping us to identify the patterns of brain activations and brain regions that make up a diagnosis for depression and other types of mental health problems like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia,"

Cynthia Fu, professor of affective neuroscience at UEL, said

Professor Fu said this research is important, as we don't have any biological markers to identify any mental health disorders, including depression, bipolar and others.

She said, "It means this research is transformative. There are likely different types of depression and varieties of brain patterns that underpin these different types, so different treatments could be more appropriate depending on the person and their illness.

"It'll be really important for those who don't recognise they have depression or who have a type of depression that requires more intensive treatment so that we make a more accurate diagnosis and provide the best treatment right away to prevent unnecessary suffering."

Pioneering work to prevent animal-to-human illness

Professor Sally Cutler was the first scientist to successfully cultivate the microbiological organism which causes animal-to-human louse-borne Relapsing fever, an acute infectious disease which causes high fever headache, and muscle and joint aches, and was once a major global epidemic cause of deadly disease.

In some African countries the disease causes death in 2-5 per cent of adult cases and up to 20 per cent in children under one year old, and carries a 30 per cent risk of pregnancy lost for mothers-to-be.

Professor Cutler's pioneering work has meant scientists across the world have been able to study, research, and develop ways of preventing and eliminating such diseases, and dramatically reduce the adult and child death rate.

For Professor Cutler, it has been the highlight of her career to date. She said, "I remember travelling to Ethiopia early in my career, with the aim of helping people living in extreme poverty and suffering from tick and louse-borne diseases like Relapsing fever.

"I'd travel to the charitable hostels for the homeless, and each morning there was a pile of dead bodies outside. That, and the screams of sick babies, all suffering from things like Relapsing fever, remain very much with me."

She is the author of six book chapters, and 135 journal publications which have been cited over 1,800 times. She is considered a leading authority in her field.

Professor Cutler said, "It's rewarding to be teaching students, and see those reading books and articles that their lecturer has authored; the relationship between research and teaching is vital.

"And I'd say to anyone wanting to go into science - never give up, and don't let people talk you out of it."

Sustainable homes for London residents

Dr Heba Elsharkawy, who has just completed a sustainable building design research project with partners in Egypt and Scotland, funded by a £288,000 grant from the British Council, talked about how making a real difference in people's lives is important and rewarding.

She said, "I'd say a highlight of my career is the research I do that really helps people directly, things like the work I've done with my team around social housing energy efficiency in east London, which relates to making homes more energy efficient and comfortable, helps to lower utility bills, and impacts issues like fuel poverty, and improves health and wellbeing.

"I also really enjoy inspiring students, whether that's at university or in colleges and schools, seeing them become passionate about the field, and pursuing studies and a career in the future."

Harnessing the fourth industrial revolution

The UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science was established in 2015 to recognise the critical role women and girls have in science and technology. And, much like the University of East London, UN organisers have seized the impetus offered by the fourth industrial revolution.

The UN website said, "As we enter the fourth industrial revolution, we are in uncharted waters that offer unprecedented opportunities for wealth creation to those who can help solve the world's biggest challenges…To develop the necessary skills that will be in demand in the economy of tomorrow, STEM [science, technology, engineering, maths] training must be made a priority for all females around the world."

You can watch UEL's videos on our Twitter @UEL_News and our YouTube channel. #WomenInScience

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