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Inspiring peoplePenny Gowland

The next revolution in MRI
Co-lead of Translational Biomedical Imaging
Penny Gowland
How would you explain your research?

I use physics to develop new MRI methods so we can carry out new types of experiments in medicine and biology. I am particularly interested in exploiting the capabilities of functional and anatomical ultra-high field MRI in neuroscience. I am also the physics lead on a unique interdisciplinary project which has developed new MRI methods to study many aspects of gastrointestinal (GI) function, which could revolutionise diagnostics for patients with GI problems.

What inspired you to pursue this area?

I love physics but wanted to do something that was immediately useful. Having an interest in medicine and biology, I started working in medical physics. When I saw my first MRI scan I knew that was the area I had to work in. It has been really rewarding to work in an area that has gone from being something that no one had heard of, and which it was almost impossible to explain to people, to something that is familiar to all of us and is now in common use in hospitals across the world.

When I saw my first MR scan I knew that was the area I had to work in
How will your research impact the average person?

Some of the things I do will change the way MR scans are used. Other things I do will change our understanding of certain diseases and the way our bodies work. I think the biggest impact of my work has probably been in developing techniques that allow us to objectively assess diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome.

What's been the greatest moment of your career so far?

Honestly? When I get the chance to do science every moment is a joy. It’s the little things that make my work so exciting, for instance looking at a print out of a set of images and noticing that the patients with Parkinson’s disease were different in one particular way. Not really physics in that case, but science is all about observation.

Beyond that? Being made a fellow of the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine (ISMRM) which is the international community of scientists who work in MRI and are a second family to me.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out?

Focus on the science, don’t worry too much about the long term.

What’s the biggest challenge in your field?
Practically: funding and time. Scientifically: the motion effects that spoil MR images. These really impact on the use of MRI clinically; this is what I want to tackle right now.
I worked for Sir Peter Mansfield — that’ll do me
Who would you most like to meet in your area?
I worked for Sir Peter Mansfield — that’ll do me. At the time, to some extent he was just “my boss”. I wish I had watched the way he worked more. I do remember he was notably single minded, so that when he was focusing on your project you got 100% of his attention.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Be more confident, take more risks. That’s easy to say and harder to do.
If you weren't doing this what would you be doing?
In the past I also considered working in rubbish recycling and meteorology. So I guess if I wasn’t doing this, one way or another I’d be working on green energy.
If you could go back in time where would you go and why?
I don’t want to go back; we know more now that we ever did. I want to know as much as possible. Why would you go back to ignorance?
What research other than your own really excites you?
Manipulation of materials based on quantum principles. It has changed the world so much in the last decade or so.
You travel 100 years into the future: what’s the first thing you look up?
How we solved global warming.
What should I have asked you that I didn't?

Do I have a family? Yes, my husband also works in medical imaging (but not MRI) in London. My eldest daughter is studying medicine and my youngest wants to study physics.



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