We love our alumni – we recently got back in touch with Giulia Di Tomaso a Post Doctoral Fellow at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, NY.
Her current research interests include the development of novel systems, sensors and algorithms for diagnostic and therapeutic applications in Emergency Medicine.
What made you want to study engineering?
I was always fascinated in understanding how things work. I remember that as a kid, whenever I was asked to do something by my mother, when possible, I’d spend a lot of time to “engineer” a device that would do the job for me. I believed that with some good imagination, tape, strings and sometimes Lego blocks you could easily reinvent things and create the perfect device to serve your needs. Of course I was wrong, but it was fun to try!
I guess the constant search for improving things and making sure that they served a purpose is one of the main characteristics of an engineer, and it runs in my family. My dad is an electrical engineer. He is an old school engineer, who knows how to do pretty much anything, from assembling the engine of a motorbike, to fixing an electrical system in the house, or designing missiles. Talking about missiles, I remember that once, one of the shelves of my fridge at home broke, and my dad replaced it with a piece of a missile wing. He said that the very light metal alloy was better than plastic and it would need to be thrown away otherwise, a pity. So, he gave the wing piece a second life, and we did not have to buy a new shelf. This of course made my fridge one of the coolest in town. Isn’t this a perfect example of applied engineering?! Finding the best solution to a problem.
Why did you chose to study in UCL?
UCL is a unique and a global university. The fact that UCL has a large number of top-of-the-field research departments in so many different fields, gives you the opportunity of being exposed to different ways of thinking. UCL is a gathering of great minds, coming from everywhere in the world, and I cannot think of a better place for a student to study at.
What undergraduate degree did you do?
My undergraduate degree course was Engineering with Business and Finance (EBF). It was offered by the mechanical engineering department at UCL in conjunction with LSE. It was a great degree, giving you the opportunity to be taught at two top universities which are leaders in their respective fields.
What was great about your undergraduate degree?
What I really appreciated was the good mixture of theoretical and practical work. I did not simply learn from books and in the classroom. During the lab and workshop sessions I had the chance to develop my team-work and my practical skills, vital for an engineer. I knew this course was going to be different from the very first day. During our introduction to the course we were given the opportunity to build a tool from scratch in the workshop. I built the jaws of a very basic calliper.
What was challenging about your undergraduate degree?
Exams! Joking..(kind of).
I wouldn’t say challenging, but what was stimulating was my “double life” as an EBF student. Studying at two different universities meant I had to play both systems, and to replace my “engineering hat” once at LSE with my “economics hat”. At a certain point I started wearing both hats together, learning how to bridge between the two disciplines. Only then I fully understood the great opportunity I was given, by being exposed to various thoughts and ideas, coming from students and lecturers from different backgrounds.
Far more young men than women choose to study mech eng. Why do you think this is the case?
In my class, during first year there were only 5 girls, and, it felt like I joined the army! The number of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) girls is growing. But unfortunately in engineering, it happens at a very slow pace. There is a misconception that mechanical engineering is all about assembling engines, and designing vehicles. Of course culturally it is believed that engines and vehicles are usually a guys things. Mechanical engineering is not just about that, and the mechanical engineering department at UCL holds on to this statement very strongly. In our department mechanical engineering is applied to a very broad range of topics, such as medicine, environmental science and marine industry, to name a few. This shows the endless career opportunities in mechanical engineering.
Do you think this should change and if so how and why could it be improved?
To bring more girls into engineering, UCL has started the UCL Women in Engineering initiative. Female Researchers, PhD, Masters and undergraduate students as well as lecturers in the faculty of engineering and across other faculties at UCL have helped in developing this initiative. They have created an opportunity for GSCE girls to come and see what the world of engineering can offer them. Through talks and guided visits to the labs, girls can explore a world that is often new and exciting to them. I represented the department of Mechanical Engineering for UCL Women in Engineering on many occasions. It was such a great experience that it encouraged me to organize a mini internship for a girl that showed particular interest. At the end she chose to do maths with philosophy at university, so I guess my internship was not a total success. Although she is still in the STEM group, therefore I keep telling myself that it wasn’t a total failure.
You have chosen to stay on and do a postgraduate degree, what prompted that?
I really enjoyed my undergraduate course at UCL. Thanks to Dr Vanessa Diaz, my undergraduate final year project supervisor, I discovered the world of computational modelling and its applications in medicine. I enjoyed working for the Multi-scale Cardiovascular Engineering (MUSE) group at UCL, and found my final year topic of research so interesting and stimulating, that when offered the opportunity to continue my research with a PhD I could not resist.
How has your experience been studying for a phd?
The working environment within and outside my lab was great. All of the researchers, from PhDs to Postdocs would share ideas and debate over them. I have been very lucky as my working environment was “healthy”, and the expertise we were developing during our research was shared freely. Everyone was trying to help and support each other. I know it sounds very utopic, but that is the PhD environment at the UCL department of mechanical engineering for you.
What are some of the highlights and low lights of this?
Let’s start with the low light: doing PhD research can be very though. You are being trained to become a scientist, and like during all training, you need to stretch your abilities. Very often you think you won’t make it. PhD work can be stressful, lonely, hopeless, tiring. You spend half of your time thinking that you won’t find the answer to your problem, the other quarter thinking that you have found the answer, and the last quarter thinking that “those calculations are actually wrong”, and that you still have to find the answer. The cycle then starts again. But working in the right environment makes all of this much more bearable. Having the right supervisors helping you and guiding you, is also very important, and I was one of the lucky ones to have both.
The highlight is definitely the work you are doing. The buzz that you feel when you achieve something, you manage to do something new that has hardly been done before. That feeling is absolutely great, and is what makes research so rewarding!
Also, another highlight of doing a PhD is teaching. During my time as a PhD student I was given the opportunity to work as a lab demonstrator and teach tutorials to undergraduates. Teaching such bright minds was challenging. The saying that holds true here is that unless you can explain it to someone else you don’t really know the subject. It was an invaluable experience for me and I was forced to learn things again, sometimes better than what I learnt during my undergraduate course.
I believe that I developed a very good relationship with my students in class, especially because I would see some of them at the one-to-one sessions during my weekly office hours. Even though it was hardly thanks to me, it was very rewarding to see them doing well in their exams!
Please tell us about your research?
My research is focused on atherosclerosis, a chronic systemic disease of the arteries, and the major cause of morbidity and mortality in the western world.
During my PhD I developed a framework for the patient-specific computational modelling of atherosclerosis formation. I collaborated with the vascular surgery unit at the University College London Hospital, obtaining patient’s data such as arterial anatomy and blood flow values. The developed framework computationally re-creates the arterial hemodynamics of the patient considered and models the biochemical interactions at the basis of atherosclerosis formations. Aim of the computational framework is to identify the areas at risk of atherosclerosis, and model the development of atherosclerosis formation.
What made you chose this area of research?
I think computational modelling has great potential to make an impact on the clinical management of diseases like atherosclerosis. The possibility of creating an “avatar” of the patient, with its exact anatomical and biochemical characterisation, would allow doctors to evaluate the treatment of the disease before applying it to the real patient. There is still a lot to research, discover and develop before modelling frameworks like mine could be used as valuable tools in the clinical environments, however promising results suggest us that this goal will be reached one day.
What’s your immediate plan on the completion of your PhD?
At the moment I am doing post doc research at the MUSE lab. I am exploring different applications for the framework I’ve developed during my PhD.