Women in STEM: Dr Anna-Maria Pappa

Dr Anna-Maria Pappa is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology and holds the Oppenheimer Research Fellowship and Maudslay-Butler Research Fellowship from Pembroke College. Her research is focused on the global challenge of antimicrobial resistance. 

Cambridge University News • cambridge
Sept. 5, 2019 6 minSource

I strongly believe that through diversity comes creativity, comes progress. I qualified as an engineer in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, and went on to earn a Master’s Degree in Nanoscience and Nanotechnology from the same university. My PhD is in Bioelectronics from École des Mines de Saint-Étienne in France, and a key moment for me was when I left home to study abroad. Leaving my comfort zone for something unknown was very difficult in the beginning, but proved to be an invaluable experience. I met people from all over the world with different cultures and mind-sets, stretched my mind and expanded my horizons.

I find it very difficult to be around like-minded people; I always look for those with different views. I’m working on a drug discovery platform using bioelectronics, and my work sets out to improve and accelerate drug discovery by providing novel technological solutions for drug screening and disease management. My research focuses on the application of a new class of electronic materials and devices that could replace the in-vitro drug screening assays currently used in medical diagnoses with electronic arrays similar to the electronic chips found in mobile phones.  These could quickly assess the health of our cells, outside of our bodies. 

As an engineer, creating solutions to important yet unresolved issues for healthcare is what truly motivates me. I hope my research will lead to a product that will impact healthcare. The convergence of new technologies with life sciences will revolutionise both diagnosis and therapy. I imagine a healthcare system where the standard one-size-fits-all approach shifts to a more personalised and tailored model.

My most interesting project is one that is working to tackle the global challenge of antimicrobial resistance from a technological standpoint. We are developing biomimetic bacterial membranes on top of our devices and screening newly synthesised antibiotics. Investigating drug-bacterial membrane interactions allows us to directly test the efficacy of known drugs on bacterial resistant strains, as well as allowing us to better understand the action of novel drugs on the membrane properties, and ultimately aid the design and synthesis of target-specific antibiotics. 

I joined Cambridge as a postdoctoral researcher in 2017. My daily routine involves some lab work in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, a lot of reading and writing, and some project management. I spend time in the Maxwell Centre too, where I participate in an entrepreneurship program called Impulse, exploring all the aspects of technology transfer.

Being part of a University where some of the world's most brilliant scientists studied and worked is invaluable. Cambridge combines a historic and traditional atmosphere with cutting edge technological and scientific research in an open, multicultural society. The state-of-the-art facilities, and the openness in innovation and collaborations, along with great science, provide a unique combination that can only lead to excellence.  I also travel frequently for conferences, as well as visiting other laboratories across Europe, the United States and Saudi Arabia. When you work in a multidisciplinary field it is essential to establish and keep good collaborations; since this is the only way to achieve the desirable outcome.

To be successful in a postdoctoral role requires management, teaching, networking, proposal writing and travelling. The amount of time you get to spend in the lab drops significantly compared to the PhD research period. This is in part due to the fact that you are more experienced, thus more efficient, and since you are more independent in research you need to be on top of things.

I think it’s absolutely vital, in every opportunity, for all of us to honour and promote girls and women in science. In October 2017 I was delighted to be awarded a L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship, an award that honours the contributions of women in science. For me, the award not only represents a scientific distinction but also gives me the unique opportunity, as an ambassador of science, to inspire and motivate young girls to follow the career they desire. Unfortunately, women still struggle when it comes to joining male-dominated fields, and even to establish themselves later at senior roles. We still face stereotypes and social restrictions, even if it is not as obvious today as it was in the past. This is in part due to the fact that still, the key senior roles are predominantly male-occupied, and so there is a lack of female role models as well as female mentality. This makes it harder for women to believe in themselves and achieve their goals.

A question I always ask during my outreach activities at schools is ‘do look like a scientist?’  The answer I get most times is ‘no’! I think this misperception of how professionals in STEMM look, or about what they actually do on a daily basis is what discourages girls early on to follow STEMM careers. This needs to change. On top of that, my advice to women would be to be open, never underestimate themselves and never be put off by stereotypes especially in male-dominated industries. There are excellent examples of highly successful women – leaders in their fields - who managed to excel despite the difficulties. Importantly, many of them successfully combined career and family. 

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