We met in her office at Charing Cross Hospital in London, a familiar spot where I had spoken to her many times before about my research. It has a nice view, with the London Eye visible off in the distance and the buildings of the city sprawling out toward the residential area of Hammersmith.
Alison began her career as a physiotherapist (read: physical therapist for all the American readers) and quickly realized that doing only clinical work was not for her. “I enjoyed finding out what was wrong with people, but I found the way you treated them very repetitious and tedious,” she says, laughing. She first realized she was interested in research during her Masters degree in bioengineering. “When I first started bioengineering it was a bit of a baptism by fire… ‘Oh my god this is much harder than I thought it was going to be’”. During her Master’s degree, Alison was tasked with modeling the lower limb during a sit-to-stand task as well as examining the use of a machine for the disabled that was hypothesized to be damaging their joints. “I realized there was a published paper that had made an incorrect assumption and I couldn’t believe it. I kept thinking, ‘Oh I don’t understand this’. But my supervisor at the time said, ‘When you come to me with solutions I’ll help you.’ So I got quite aggressive about it…and he realized by the end of the project that I had found an error in previous peoples’ work. That is one [project] that sticks out and kind of got me addicted.”
Alison finished her Masters and went on to complete a PhD in bioengineering, taking her parents by surprise. “When I said I was going to do a PhD I think they were horrified, ‘Oh my god she’ll be 27…28…29 when she finishes.’ They didn’t expect me to take my education quite that far.” Now Alison is a Professor of Musculoskeletal Biodynamics at Imperial College, as well as the Director of Undergraduate Science for the Faculty of Medicine and Campus Director for Charing Cross Hospital, amongst various other titles.
My question is: how does she do it all? Her research, teaching, and administrative roles? And in addition to that have time for an outside life? As her student, I was able to pop in her office almost any time and chat. So, she gave me a little insight into her day. She leaves the house at 6:30 am and drives to Charing Cross Hospital, where she does an hour in the gym. She tells me, “It just totally wakes me up and makes me ready for doing a day’s work”. Then she spends an hour sorting through urgent emails and has her coffee around 9:30 AM. From that point, the day is completely variable, a blur of different campuses for meetings, teaching, grant writing, and sorting out studies. She finally heads home around 6:30 or 7 pm, crawling through the traffic-heavy streets of the outer boroughs of London in her Mini Cooper.
This is particularly important in the academic world, where grants and reputation reign supreme. Even Alison, who by every measure is a successful researcher, sometimes has her doubts. “Often as an academic, and especially at somewhere like Imperial, where it’s very elitist, you start to think, ‘They made a mistake…I shouldn’t be here,’ or sometimes you think, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to pull this project together.’”
Alison studies the biomechanics of the musculoskeletal system, specifically the mechanisms and management of injury. This is achieved through a variety of studies, including clinical trials, musculoskeletal modeling, and the design of wearable diagnostics. The project she has always found most interesting is her work with the British Olympic Rowing Team. For a number of years the lab has been testing athletes using an instrumented rowing machine, looking to improve performance as well as the health of these elite athletes. “You are working with such motivated people that it makes such a big difference…you see some of the changes in people through the interventions you put in place. 2012 [the London Olympics] for us was quite a lovely year. Watching those athletes, some of whom have been in and out of this lab for years, actually achieve their gold medal was quite nice.”
In addition to improving performance, Alison is interested in developing methods to keep these athletes healthy so that their body is functional long after they leave the sport. “The next stage is understanding how you keep them healthy, trying to understand if this [sport] does or does not damage their backs.” Alison believes that if done properly, rowing is likely perfectly healthy. However, it is difficult to translate these corrections into movement that people actually execute. This is where Alison sees wearable technologies playing a major role, for both elite athletes as well as the average person. She is particularly interested in people who pursue ultra-marathons. She compared the body to, “…an Ikea bed or a chair, there are so many repetitions of this chair being bounced until it will fail. We don’t know something like that for your back or your knees…how far can you push your body until it breaks down?”
…[it's about] getting the [work-life] balance right, listening to your heart. Sometimes in your career you have to seize opportunities, [my advice is] take the opportunities... And, make sure you also do things you enjoy. If you’re not having fun, what’s the point?”
Although that may not be rocket science, Alison has had the opportunity to use a rocket of sorts in her research. When I asked her about her most bizarre career experiences, she mentions the time she rode in the “vomit comet” over the Mediterranean Sea. “We went up in the vomit comet at zero gravity to look at motion control, that has to be one of the most amazing opportunities and adventures. It was one of the weirdest but most fun things I’ve ever done.” The vomit comet follows a parabolic flight path relative to the center of the Earth and therefore, the aircraft does not exert any ground reaction forces on its contents, causing the sensation of weightlessness. This allows for the study of motion control when the human body is not subjected to typical gravitational forces.
Even with these amazing experiences, Alison says her favorite aspect of her job is seeing people ‘get it’, “when you teach people and they learn from it and they change.” I then ask her what she would do if she were given a billion pounds—would she continue with research and teaching? “What I would want is to do the bits of my job I love the best, which is the research. And I would still do bits of teaching, but I wouldn’t have to do all the management. I suppose I could set up an endowment fund and have a [PhD] studentship every year.” She wants to give others the opportunity to become involved in research. “I often think that I became the person I am through the learning journey that science took me on.”
“Every new project challenges you in a different way and it is scary, but if it wasn’t challenging it wouldn’t be fun. And for me, that is part of the attraction of research is that constant challenge. As Director of Undergraduate Studies, it’s standing in front of a noisy rabble of 300 students and calming them down and having to tell them something…can be quite scary, but I think it’s those constant challenges that keep us liking our job.”
I then ask Alison about challenges she has faced as a woman in the fields of medicine and engineering. Did she ever feel like she wasn’t taken seriously? “Oh god yes…for years I have let the grey in my hair stand out because it made me look older,” and thus more respected, she says laughing. “It’s just always about being professional and learning how to be assertive but not aggressive with people. And make it clear that you don’t tolerate that behavior but you’d like to carry on the conversation in a professional way.”
Alison also tells me about her passions outside her work, including running and walking in Richmond Park, near her house in London. She is especially fond of the packs of deer that inhabit the large former royal hunting grounds. “And I love my DIY [read: British for home improvements!] You can see change and you have pride that you’ve done that. And for me it shows I’m not just a geeky scientist, I have some practical skills as well! It’s so starkly different to what I do [for work] that I find it quite relaxing.” Above all, Alison loves to travel and has been all over the world for both her work and for pleasure. She counts India and Botswana amongst some of her favorite destinations. “It was seeing the wildlife, the shear beauty, and it was the people. The people of Botswana were just so lovely. They had such a different perspective. [They would say] ‘Why should we travel, we have such a beautiful country.’ I loved the sunsets.”
And with that, it was time for Alison to head off for the day. (She had scheduled me into her usual morning coffee and email time.) But I know I will be packing away these gems of wisdom to take home with me, for research and for life.
For years I have let the grey in my hair stand out because it made me look older,” and thus more respected.