This week we celebrate the United Nations Day for Women and Girls in Science. The day falls on Friday, 11 February and we are featuring a female working in science every day this week to honour their dedication. Today we speak to Dr. Sarah Hellewell.
I am a scientist who studies the brain (neuroscientist) and what happens to the brain when it is injured (neurotraumatologist).
What got you interested in TBI research?
I have been interested in brain injury since a childhood friend had a TBI. She recovered well physically and excelled in school and sports, but her personality completely changed. She was previously quiet and shy, and after her TBI became loud and boisterous. That was really fascinating to me and I jumped at the chance to research TBI for my honours project after I finished my undergraduate studies, and I have continued working on (and being fascinated by) TBI ever since.
What does your research focus on?
I have two main research interests: the first is to understand why some people have long term problems after TBI and others don’t. If we can work out why some people are more susceptible, we can get them the right care early after injury to improve their recovery. To examine this, I use techniques to look at brain structure and function like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electroencephalography (EEG), cognitive testing to assess memory, concentration and impulse control, blood markers, and microscopy to look at how cells change and interact with each other. My second research interest is on therapies, or what we can do to prevent or reduce long term problems. This might be in the form of medicines, or rehabilitation. We use the same techniques I mentioned to determine whether therapies are working, and how they are changing the brain.
What do you hope your research will help achieve?
My ultimate goal is to make life better for people who live with TBI. We can’t stop TBI from happening and we may never be able to cure it, but improving quality of life and reducing the burden of symptoms could make a big difference for those living with TBI.
What do you most enjoy/what is most rewarding about your job in science?
I most enjoy following curiosity and the thrill of new discoveries. For a brief moment, you are the only person in the world who knows that bit of information, and that is so exciting! I also love sharing these discoveries and talking to people about science.
What advice would you give to young girls and women who aspire to a career in science?
A career in science is not easy but it is rewarding. If you are curious, always wondering ‘why’ and ‘how’ things work, science might be the career for you. My best advice is to read broadly and try out different aspects of science to see what excites you, and where your passion lies.
What science-related achievement are you most proud of? (most memorable moment)
My most memorable moment occurred in a Chinese restaurant in Philadelphia, USA. I was nearing the end of my PhD and unsure whether the competitive world of medical research was right for me. I broke open the requisite fortune cookie to read my fortune: “You could prosper in the field of medical research”. I took this as a sign to keep going! I kept it in my wallet for years, and later a mentor framed it for me.
Is there a woman working in science you admire, and why?
I am fortunate to have worked under some very inspiring and admirable women throughout my career, who have shown me that women can be strong, smart and influential leaders. I would be remiss not to mention at this time Katalin Kariko, who has pioneered the use of mRNA vaccines for COVID-19. Her career has had many twists and turns, but she has never lost her enthusiasm or sense of fun for science.
Dr. Sarah Hellewell is a Research Fellow with a career focus on traumatic brain injury. Her research incorporates both clinical and preclinical programs spanning the spectrum of brain injury severity, enabling her to rapidly identify clinical problems and translate “bedside to bench” and back again. Dr. Hellewell’s current clinical neuroimaging research focuses on the implementation of novel objective tools to quantify and monitor progression of brain pathology in concussion.