Blog posts

The Future is Fungal

illustration of fungi

Jenny Shelton takes us through the incredible potential of fungi and how this diverse, yet often overlooked, species may hold many of the answers to global challenges, from climate change to food insecurity. 


Fungi play important roles in nature, food production, medicine, industry and bioremediation yet we have only discovered ~150,000 out of a potential 6.3 million fungal species. Just recently, a PhD student found undiscovered fungal species in seeds stored at the Millennium Seed Bank and estimates the whole collection might contain up to 1 million new species! You might be surprised to learn that fungi are more closely related to animals, and therefore humans, than they are to plants, and that the combined biomass of all fungi on Earth is 200 times greater than the entire human race.

The responses I often get when I tell someone I’m a mycologist is “Eurgh, I hate mushrooms!” or “Can you cure my athlete’s foot infection?”. It’s no surprise that this is their reaction given how little fungi feature in the U.K. school curriculum, or even in most biology and medical degrees, but it is such a shame given how magnificently diverse the Kingdom of Fungi is. (These responses also, unknowingly, capture the yin and yang of fungi: while this article is about the good that they can do it is important to acknowledge that fungal infections cause misery to millions of people around the world every year.)

Keeping in mind the challenges facing us – climate change, global food insecurity and infectious disease pandemics –I hope you will agree with me that the solutions to many of our problems could be fungal! (more…)

From Brazil to Westminster: learning from a community health worker model

On World Health Day, Dr Matthew Harris reflects on what we can learn from Brazil’s community health worker model.

Back in 2011, I was telling a senior consultant in Public Health about Brazil’s extraordinary primary care system which is based on an army of over 250k community health workers (CHW). It had been established in the northeast of the country in the mid-1990s, in response to a cholera epidemic, and since had scaled nationally, now serving over 70% of the population.  The principles seemed simple enough. Individuals from a neighbourhood are recruited and trained on a wide array of health and social care issues for a few weeks and then spend their working days visiting all the households that they are responsible for.  Not many households, just around 200 each, but each CHW makes sure that the households get at least one visit per month. (more…)

A week in the life of a Clinical Research Fellow

Dr Francesca Conway takes us through a typical week as a clinical research fellow and how her previous time at Imperial contributed to her developing an interest in a career in clinical academia.


Monday

6am. I’m awakened by the horrifically jolly alarm tone on my phone. It’s still dark, it’s still raining, and it’s still cold. Hedgehogs have the right idea hibernating over winter, I think, as I haul myself out of bed.  Must consider this hibernation proposition in my next supervisor meeting. 1 shower, 1 yoghurt and 3 smoothies later and I’m in the hospital.

Today I have a patient coming to see if she is eligible to be recruited to the clinical trial which forms part of my PhD. Mrs X has travelled from 300 miles away. She greets me with a smile and tells me how pleased she is to be here. I immediately remember why I love my job, and scrap the idea of hibernation. I offer her a coffee, she gratefully accepts and whispers, could I have an extra shot in that? I assume she means coffee. I wonder what time she woke up, but am pretty sure it was before 6am.

I am researching a potential new treatment for Chronic Cbstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) for my PhD. Mrs X suffers with COPD, a disease affecting the lungs most commonly caused by smoking. More than 3 million people die from it each year. Targeted Lung Denervation or “TLD”, is a non-surgical procedure where we deliver energy to the airways using a system made by Nuvaira, a US-based company. The idea is that the energy disrupts the nerve supply to the lungs, so the airways relax and open. With initial data looking promising, we hope that this will lead to improvements in health for patients like Mrs X. More information on the Airflow website. (more…)

Masked: uncovering an unseen issue

For Imperial’s Sustainability Week, medical student Urvi highlights the environmental impact of abandoned face masks.


This pandemic has unexpectedly impacted the entire world in more ways than one. Despite a whole year having passed in what feels like the blink of an eye, so many historic moments have occurred over the past year, ranging from huge political changes to unrest and activism. It’s given us a lot to reflect on and I know that I personally have realised how there is so much we can do to strive to make this world a better place.

Other than grocery shopping, leaving my house for a walk is unfortunately the only kind of outing I’ve had these days. It dawned upon me how wrongly accustomed I had become to seeing masks and gloves littered and trodden into the pavement and grass near where I lived. I don’t remember there being so much litter in my neighbourhood before. I couldn’t help but think that if this is the case in our cities and towns, imagine how many masks and gloves would be littering our beaches and rivers, let alone our oceans…

(more…)

PhDs are Terminal, but learning will be lifelong

Image credit: Lubo Minar

As Lauren Headley-Morris nears the end of her PhD, she reflects on the experience gained and why learning won’t stop after she’s completed her terminal degree.


Terminal is a weird word. Usually heard on TV associated with cancer, you wouldn’t necessarily want a degree that is terminal. Some days I think my PhD is the best thing since the sequencing of the human genome; other days I think it might be the death of my love of science. But terminal is used in some less, erm, disastrous, melodramatic? scary? ways.

One of these less-morbid settings is travel. A PhD is, by nature, the end of the line of academic qualifications. It doesn’t mean you’ve now mastered your subject, sadly. There are post-doc positions and even professorships in the future perhaps.

I’m a third-year, Asthma UK funded, Clinical Medical Research PhD student based at the Guy Scadding Building, Royal Brompton campus. My work is focused on transcriptional regulation in asthma. While my day to day is obsessing about microRNA and things that are too tiny to see, I think it’s important to take a second now and then to sit back and reflect on the bigger picture of where my PhD fits in with my life as a whole. Maybe it’s the effect of spending so much time in isolation or maybe, coming to the end of my formal academic training, I’m getting a little philosophical. (more…)

From Virology Master’s student to COVID-19 testing team leader

Recent graduate Samuel Badru is part of the lab team analysing samples for Imperial’s in-house Covid-19 testing scheme  – here he shares the steps to processing a successful test.


I would have never guessed that five months into studying a Master’s in Molecular Biology and Pathology of Viruses, the world would be stopped in its track on account of a virus. Lockdown descended on the nation two weeks into my project, which for me meant more bioinformatics from home and no more laboratory work. Little did I know that I would return to St Mary’s Campus’ laboratories to assist in the effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic!

I joined the College’s in-house SARS-Cov-2 testing team in October 2020 – the day after my results day (which went well!). There are a number of steps to the testing workflow that definitely seemed overwhelming at first, but after more than two months in it is all pretty much second nature. (more…)

A breath of fresh ‘AIR’ in the study of lung repair and regeneration

NHLI researchers Róisín Mongey and Dr Sally Kim provide an insight into developing a new tool – the AIR model – for lung research and drug development.


Lung diseases represent a significant global health burden costing the NHS upwards of £1 billion annually. A hallmark of chronic and acute adult lung diseases such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF) and COVID-19, is lung damage. The lungs are usually capable of repairing damage but in some cases, this does not happen or the repair process goes awry for example going into overdrive and causing more damage. The result of this lack of repair or abnormal repair is persistent tissue damage and declining lung function.

There are almost no treatments available to repair the lung damage in these diseases. A bold, new approach to identify novel lung repair treatments for these diseases is needed. Unfortunately, there are several roadblocks to the development of curative treatments, the primary one being that we don’t fully understand how repair happens in the healthy lung under normal circumstances. The bottom line is that unless we can figure this out, it is unlikely that we will be able to develop successful new repair treatments. (more…)

This Christmas is the time to be patient, not to become one

This festive period Three Wise Women from the Faculty of Medicine will be giving us the gift of wisdom.

As vaccines bring hope, Professor Helen Ward reflects on the emotions felt and lessons learned in a year confronting COVID-19.


What a strange year. For me, it has been full of contradictions. From one moment to the next I can feel sadness, frustration, anger but also pride and satisfaction. And guilt.

Sadness at the loss of life and the chronic ill-health that COVID-19 has brought, and for the loss of livelihoods and bleak futures for even more people. Frustration at the response of political leaders when vital decisions have been delayed, and anger that the pandemic has resulted in worsening social inequalities. Pride at my small part in the response, as an advocate for public health action when needed, a researcher co-leading one of the largest epidemiological studies (REACT), and an educator delivering a rapid online course to share the science of the COVID-19 response with over 100,000 learners. But also guilt that I have a secure and well-paid job that I can do safely from home, and that I have found research this year the most stimulating and satisfying of my career. Sometimes that enjoyment seems wrong.

My research career has focused on infectious disease epidemiology, particularly the control of HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STI), alongside teaching public and global health. I look back now and see how much of my career has been training for this pandemic challenge, and has taught me lessons that are very relevant for COVID-19.  From my HIV and STI research and clinical work, I learned about the complexities of controlling these infections. Understanding these “social” diseases requires a range of scientific approaches from basic immunology through mathematical modelling to anthropology. (more…)

Finding ‘me’ in the fight against inequality

This festive period Three Wise Women from the Faculty of Medicine will be giving us the gift of wisdom.

Dr Sarah Essilfie-Quaye, Project Manager in Research Strategy, discusses how we can all do more to address structural racism in academia.


I used to describe myself as an ‘early retired scientist’ – I left the lab not because I no longer loved research, but due to a series of challenges and roadblocks. However, on reflection, regardless of any career choices I made, it was unlikely I would become a professor. Because I am a woman; a woman who is Black; of African descent – Ghana, to be specific (#GhanaJollof!).

The harsh reality

To have a successful career in academia, I saw becoming a professor as the top of the achievements list, and while this is a tough goal for anyone, it is much, much tougher for some. I looked for Black women professors at Imperial. I think I was looking for my role models. Unfortunately for me ‘computer said no’, the answer was there were none. Zero. Nada. Zilch. This hugely influenced my decision to move away from academia and towards university administration, as I thought I was more likely to be able to achieve a stable and successful career that way. This was a decade ago, and despite now finally becoming part of a supportive team, I am still on short-term and part-time contracts. For this to happen I had to leave a permanent (albeit part-time) post elsewhere at Imperial – due to the toxic environment and lack of allies.

During my career, I have come to understand several key issues around race, and these include how under-represented Black women are at Imperial. There are still no women that look like me as professors. Nor in any permanent academic roles. In the whole of the UK there are only 35 professors who identify as Black women out of 21,000. And as I currently keep trying to highlight, while 25 per cent of Imperial staff are from a Black, Asian or ethnic minority (BAME) background, only 9 per cent are in senior positions, and how many of those are Black…? (more…)

Be the change you want to see in medicine

This festive period Three Wise Women from the Faculty of Medicine will be giving us the gift of wisdom.

Our first wise woman is Dr Sonia Kumar, Director of Undergraduate Primary Care Education and MEdIC (Medical Education Innovation and Research Centre).


My drive and motivation have always been underpinned by a strong and unshakable desire to make a difference, to try my best to make the world a better place. As you age you start to question where your underlying values come from, where and when did they start and from whom.

My father was a child of the Partition

Caught on the wrong side of the Indian border, my father as a very young child was forced to flee his then native country and travel with my grandmother, aunts and uncles, in the dead of the night on a train where children were muffled, and babies thrown overboard so the train could safely and silently make its way across the border. Years later he arrived in the UK in his twenties in search of new beginnings and despite the discrimination and racism of the 60s, he and my mother like many other immigrants of that time, showed untold strength and sacrifice to give us the next generation a better life.

Being a second-generation British Asian growing up in 70s and 80s Britain, I have not always had an easy ride. However, I am constantly reminded and humbled by the resilience and determination of my father and his forefathers and the opportunities and equality they fought for. It is an absolute privilege to honour those sacrifices and continue their legacy by ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’  in all aspects of my work. (more…)