An illustrated portrait by Molly Stevens

Molly Stevens is Professor of Biomedical Materials and Regenerative Medicine in the Department of Materials and the Department of Bioengineering and Research Director for Biomedical Material Sciences at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at Imperial College London, UK. Her work uses heavily interdisciplinary approaches to drive improvements in biosensing and regenerative medicine, and has led to translation through spin-out, industrial, and nonprofit partnerships. In 2020 she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

My first degree was pharmacy. It appealed to me a lot because it had so many different themes in one. In a way, I would have preferred medicine, but the thought of spending five years at university put me off. I thought it was too many years. It’s so ironic because I’ve been at a university most of the time since.

After graduating, I worked in hospitals in many different areas. And then I traveled for a long time, especially in Southeast Asia. In my travels, I decided to do my PhD, mainly as an intellectual challenge. I chose single molecule biophysics because it sounded really difficult. It was really fun – it was very basic. I learned a lot.

By the end of my PhD, I had a strong motivation to work on something that I could see the outcome will directly help people. I went to a conference abroad that was a Millennium Celebration that had many different topics at one conference. I passed an open door and saw a very impressive picture on the screen of this little boy with liver disease. I went in and Bob Langer gave a lecture. I found it so amazing that you can work to develop science on the basis of great scientific principles and that it can be applied in such a way to help people. When I saw his lecture, I knew that I wanted to do a postdoc with him. And luckily he took me with him.

Really, much more should be done to facilitate access to health care around the world

In my group I have a combination of basic and applied work. I still find it very interesting and motivating to look at the mechanisms behind our work, but I also like to see how we can connect and advance these with the end uses. You can do both, although most groups will choose one or the other. We all have many opportunities to shape science in the directions that interest us most.

Our society is enormously unequal and much more really should be done to improve access to health care around the world. I think engineering is one of the ways we can help with this problem. Of course, many other areas of society also have to help, and from different directions.

Since I’ve traveled a lot in developing countries myself, I find it very rewarding to be able to work on issues that could also affect poorer people in our population. We are thinking about how we can use principles of biotechnology, materials science and chemistry to develop new types of biosensor approaches that are not only very sensitive, but also in more remote environments and at prices that make sense for those environments, can work. For example, we now work a lot with diagnoses that can be read from cell phones. Even if people do not have access to health centers, they may have access to cell phones, and this is one way of providing these people with access to medical care.

I have an incredibly collaborative laboratory. We have people from all over the world and from many different disciplines, from surgeons to chemists and cell biologists to engineers and physicists. I firmly believe in teamwork. By bringing these skills together, I can foster a very creative environment. I think it’s so important that people are excited and feel supported at work and that their colleagues will be friends for many, many years to come.

Having people in the group who are not only great scientists but also wonderful people is enormously motivating, and that makes my job fantastic. So much fun making sure they are fine even after they leave the group. It’s very different from producing paper, but I think it’s just as important.

I am a very social person I also spend a lot of time with my three children. Although I live in the city, I am also a great nature lover. I am not materialistic at all. I love camping and hiking outside and things like that. I run several times a week, no matter how busy I am, it’s a constant in my life.

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