Credit: New York Academy of Sciences/ Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists
Eleanor Stride has taken an unconventional path to becoming one of Britain’s leading scientists. She tells Sarah Whitebloom how she moved from dance to design and onto biomedical science, but being a 'woman in science' is not one of the identities she seeks.
When is a woman in science not a ‘woman in science’? When she is a woman in science.
At the risk of generalisation, women in science are hard-working, dedicated, cutting edge…scientists. Call them ‘women in science’ at your peril. Women in science will tell you quite firmly that they do not want to be treated differently or feel they do not deserve their place. Any hint of tokenism will be greeted with a frosty response.
Although science needs more women, it needs more people, a diverse range of people, with different perspectives and ideas.
And Professor Eleanor Stride is an uber scientist, which is nothing to do with mini-cabs but everything to do with dedication, hard-work and world-changing ideas. It is hard to imagine that she has ever felt she is making up the numbers.
‘You’d be surprised,’ she says. Sometimes, it is felt that there has to be a woman involved and no one wants to be that woman. Professor Stride maintains there is, of course, a need for more women in science and is infuriated at the idea that girls are still told that Maths and science is not for them. She is, quite literally, furious at the ‘Mummy wasn’t any good at Maths’, sort of parental advice. And, she says, the counter-balance needs to start early, at Primary School, when girls start to drift away from the sciences and Maths.
Professor Stride, herself, had not intended to go into science or engineering and certainly not Biomedical Engineering. She actually started her education in a ballet school and progressed through school without a thought of going into sciences. It is a life she has not quite ever left behind and even now Professor Stride is involved in dancing – as a teacher of swing dancing in Oxford.
You’d be surprised how many scientists are involved in dance. I think it’s something to do with being very technically focused and frankly a little bit obsessive.
Thanks to a series of chance events - and a lot of obsession - today, as well as a dance teacher, she is also the Professor of Biomaterials, with a joint position between Engineering Science and the Nuffield Department of Orthopaedics, Rheumatology and Musculoskeletal Science - and there is a real buzz around her work.
It is a few years off, but the work being done by her team may just revolutionise cancer treatment – using tiny bubbles and ultrasound to deliver targeted treatments inside the body. And the self-effacing Professor Stride has won so many prizes for this work, most recently the Blavatnik award (her ninth), she is almost embarrassed. While grateful for the recognition, she emphasises she is part of a team and muses on an idea in circulation that Nobel prizes will not continue in their present form, because science now is so collaborative that individual prizes do not make sense.
Thanks to her unconventional route, Eleanor Stride is something of a one-woman collaborative team. Unsure at 18 what she should do, young Eleanor was taking science ‘A’ levels, but also Art and Latin when she underwent a Pauline conversion to engineering. So impressed had she been by a chance visit to a design exhibition, organised by her Art teacher, she promptly decided her destiny lay in making things. She was inspired to take a degree in Mechanical Engineering at UCL and she intended to follow up with a Masters course in industrial design at the Royal College of Art.
As with all best-laid plans, though, it did not happen. In her final Undergraduate year, Eleanor became interested in the impact of ultrasound on bubbles – in oil pipes. From there, thanks to a meeting in the senior common room between her supervisor and a senior radiologist, she ended up abandoning her plan to be an industrial designer and did something completely different - a Biomedical PhD on the use of bubbles in ultrasound imaging.
‘Bubbles in pipes are like bubbles in the bloodstream,’ she says. If you could use those bubbles and ultrasound, to deliver cancer treatments to the place it is needed, rather than injecting the whole body with heavy-duty drugs, you could revolutionise the battle against tumours, even hard to reach ones.
Although it seems a long stretch, to go from wanting to work for Aston Martin to drug-delivering bubbles, Professor Stride insists it is an engineering delivery problem.
‘The bubbles are just like very tiny cars,’ she says. ‘And we are working on the delivery process.’
It was not quite that easy, of course. Professor Stride did have to play catch-up during her PhD years, taking classes in anatomy at the medical school and learning, for the first time, about biology.
‘It is more complex but the approach is not that far-fetched,’ she maintains.
As a Mechanical Engineer with the know-how of a Biomedical Engineer, Professor Stride’s background is attuned to solving the problem - along with a host of experts from other disciplines from Physicists to Biologists and Chemists. As a team, they bring together the broadest range of experience and expertise. And Professor Stride laughs as she admits there is some truth to the science hierarchy portrayed in the American TV series, The Big Bang Theory, where the engineer is the butt of jokes.
At the top are the pure Mathematicians. Some way down are Theoretical Physicists and some way below them are Astro-Physicists. Next come Electrical Engineers and then come Mechanical Engineers, then Biomedical Engineers!
So you went down the ranking when you transferred to Biomedical and took your PhD?
‘Yes,’ she says, with amusement. ‘But then come Civil Engineers and Architects … only joking.’
Professor Stride laughs at the stereotyping, especially as her father-in-law was an architect.
‘Engineers are looked down on because they are dealing with real world problems. They make things work and sometimes that means making compromises,’ she says wryly.
Having engineers on board has brought closer the possibility that work of Professor Stride and her team will result in real advances that could save lives. The irony is clearly not lost on her. But now, she admits, the really hard part begins. The team is very close to being in a position where they will be ready to begin clinical testing. This is her next big challenge, her next career shift.
Turning herself yet again into something else, the good Professor is currently becoming accustomed to giving presentations to groups of venture capitalists and people who might possibly donate money. Without this, all the positive lab results will come to nothing.
‘The cost is phenomenal,’ she says, describing the arduous and complex procedures that now have to be gone through before their work has a possibility of reaching patients and making a difference.
‘Some people have been very generous, but there is a lot more money to raise,’ she says.
It is a lot to ask, Professor Stride realises it is a risk for an investor, when there is only a one in ten chance that it will work. And there are vested interests in it not working, given the existing treatments that could be undermined by tiny bubbles.
But, says Professor Stride, for all the prizes, she will not feel as though she has succeeded until all this work has helped someone.
Hear Professor Eleanor Stride speak about the future of science
When: Thursday 5 March, 2020, 11am–6pm
Where: Banqueting House, Whitehall, London, UK
Event: Hosted by BBC News Science Correspondent Victoria Gill, this public series of short, interactive talks from early-career UK scientists, including Professor Eleanor Stride, will provide a forum for science enthusiasts to discover cutting-edge research that is shaping the world. Following the talks, a discussion will explore trends and insights influencing the future of science in the UK. Attendance is free and open to the public, but registration is required.
Register for free: www.nyas.org/YoungScientists2020