Please tell us about yourself
Young scientist Harshita Sharma, 29, from India, is a Postdoctoral researcher in biomedical engineering at the University of Oxford, UK.
Her current research focuses on medical image and video analysis using advanced computer vision and artificial intelligence methods in obstetric ultrasound. Enjoy the interview with Harshita and get inspired!
What inspired you to pursue a career in science? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
I am a postdoc with an interdisciplinary background in biomedical, electronics, electrical and computer engineering. I was inspired to pursue a career in science through biomedical engineering mainly because I feel motivated to utilise my technical and research skills towards advancements in physiology, medicine and healthcare, directly benefitting humanity. Moreover, I was excited to explore the latest trends in medical technology because I grew up in a scientifically inclined family as my parents are medical doctors. In high school, I was keen to learn physics, biology and maths, and I achieved very good grades in these subjects. So, when I got selected for a bachelor’s in engineering in a government institution in India, I decided to work on research projects combining medicine and technology, such as medical image analysis and speech processing, and in this way, I was introduced to this interdisciplinary field of biomedical engineering, where I could get the best of both worlds.
Who are your role models?
My parents have had the biggest role in shaping my career path and in introducing me to the fascinating world of science. My mother made substantial sacrifices in her career to build a firm foundation of mine. My father always encouraged me to pursue my ambition irrespective of any circumstances. My role models in science are my academic mentors who have advised, motivated and guided me towards achieving my goals and aspirations. These are my current mentor Prof. Alison Noble at the University of Oxford, my PhD supervisors Prof. Olaf Hellwich at TU Berlin and Prof. Peter Hufnagl at Charité University Hospital Berlin, master’s supervisor Prof. R.S. Anand at IIT Roorkee, and bachelor’s supervisor Mr. Akash Tayal at IGDTUW Delhi. Also, I greatly admire the work of Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace and Rosalind Franklin as pioneering women in science. I am inspired by the contributions of Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam towards science and technology in India.
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
From 2006 until 2010, I studied BTech (Bachelor of Technology, ECE) at Indira Gandhi Delhi Technical University for Women (IGDTUW) in Delhi, India and became an engineer. In my third year, I completed a research internship at the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) which was my first external research experience. After this, I presented three research papers at national conferences, that made me further realise my interest in scientific research and development.
After my bachelor’s degree, I received multiple job offers from private and public sectors in India. But I wanted to pursue higher studies, so went for MTech (Master of Technology) in Instrumentation & Signal Processing at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Roorkee, where I was competitively selected via the GATE exam. During my master’s degree, I achieved the opportunity to perform my dissertation research in Germany via the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) Master Sandwich Scholarship Programme. I applied at the Technical University (TU) Berlin in the Computer Vision group headed by Prof. Olaf Hellwich and expressed my interest to pursue research in medical image analysis. In September 2011, I travelled to Germany, which was my first trip outside India. I worked in a joint research project at Charité University Hospital in Berlin to analyse breast cancer biopsies in digital pathology for the next year and also wrote my first journal publication.
Upon my return to India in 2012, I graduated from my master’s and started teaching as a Lecturer at Jaypee Institute of Information Technology in Delhi-NCR. However, my curiosity to perform more research further increased, so I decided to apply for a PhD and in 2013. I was awarded the DAAD PhD scholarship to pursue my doctoral studies in computer vision and medical image analysis in the research group of Prof. Hellwich at TU Berlin. My PhD was a growing, exciting and rewarding experience, as I engaged myself in diverse research activities such as collaborating with Charité University Hospital Berlin and UKSH Kiel, travelling and presenting work at conferences around the world and publishing papers in scientific journals and peer-reviewed conference proceedings.
In April 2017, after 3.5 years, I completed my PhD at TU Berlin. Subsequently, I joined the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Oxford as a postdoctoral researcher. This has been an incredible opportunity where I analysed rich real-world data to develop novel computer-aided techniques in medical ultrasound. I perform my own research and collaborate with colleagues and students. I am also involved in teaching, organisation and volunteering activities.
Obstacles were there at each stage of my career, but I think determination was more powerful to overcome these in my journey till now. I have moved at different locations over the years and acquired invaluable experience, nonetheless stayed focussed on my contribution to science and technology.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
All the projects are equally close to my heart. I would say my PhD research was really my biggest career defining project because, besides working on a medically relevant topic, I was able to learn so many new ideas and gain specific technical and domain knowledge of the field. During my PhD, I developed computer-aided methods in digital pathology to analyse gastric carcinoma whole slide images using deep learning, and classical machine learning with graph-based image representation techniques. The aim was to understand how visual information captured in high-resolution microscopic tissue images can be utilised to quantitatively describe cancer properties leading to automated prediction effectively and efficiently. The constituting research projects in my PhD were cancer grade classification, necrosis detection, cell nuclei segmentation and classification and content-based image retrieval.
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself or your work?
A recent moment of overwhelming happiness was when I received my PhD degree at TU Berlin. Also, around the same time, I was offered a postdoc position at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, University of Oxford, to pursue research in my areas of interest, when I felt immense pride. As a researcher, I feel highly rewarded when I get positive results while solving research problems. Moreover, realising that my research is communicated to a large audience via publications, conference presentations and networking events, such as the Lindau Meeting also makes me feel proud. Being affiliated to renowned academic institutions of the world and recipient of prestigious awards such as through two DAAD scholarships and prizes for best performance during my bachelor’s and master’s degrees have given me great satisfaction. Last but not the least, being a woman in STEM and engineering and carving my own path and career, motivates me to contribute even more to scientific research. I am pleased to know that I can potentially be a role model to several young researchers worldwide.
What is a “day in the life” of Harshita like?
My typical day starts with waking up around 7 am, getting ready for work, cooking and packing my lunch, then usually working from 9 am to 6 pm, with a lunch break at around 1 pm. At work, I am engaged in my own research activities, have regular discussions with my mentor and colleagues, and co-supervise student projects in the research group. Also, I do some teaching with lectures, tutorials and lab demonstrations, and organise seminars and meetings. After work, I stay home in the evenings, talking to my family on video call, watching TV, cooking and reading. Occasionally, I also complete any remaining work in the evening.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
I am an early-career researcher and aim to become a successful scientist and academic in the future. I will continue to gain knowledge and experience through research and teaching and wish to have my own research group. As a biomedical engineer, I want to contribute towards science and technology by developing novel methods and solutions in healthcare and medicine.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
When not working, I like to be at home, spending time with family, cooking favourite meals and watching TV. I like to review journal articles and conference proceedings in my free time. I also like to be out for nature walks and try photography during weekends. Sometimes, I am engaged in outreach activities organised by Oxford University, such as teaching school students.
What advice do you have for other women interested in science?
My advice is to just focus on your dreams and everything will fall into place! The sky is the limit, and from my personal experience, a career in science is highly rewarding. Especially, learning medicine and physiology can be very satisfying as it directly involves the effort towards improving the quality of human health. There can be difficulties and challenges on the way, but these can strengthen and empower one to pursue even more in this field.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physiology or medicine?
It is exciting to witness the efforts of researchers who work relentlessly towards advancements in medicine and healthcare worldwide, such as eradication of communicable diseases and widespread research in cancer. This is also accompanied by the rapid progress in engineering and technology. I am fascinated to see the convergence of these two branches, especially, how artificial and machine intelligence, robotics and computer vision are revolutionising the areas of medicine, physiology and biology. Biomedical imaging including radiology, ultrasonography and digital pathology is a rapidly growing field, and in the next few years, I expect to see many more enhancements in biomedical imaging techniques and computer-aided analysis methods which can provide support and assistance to medical professionals worldwide, e.g., in surgery, diagnosis, prognosis and routine check-ups.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
I would like to encourage women to consider the career path of research and academics. We can ensure that women are equally represented in scientific organisations by introducing systematic refinements such as motivating women to apply to advertised job offers. Special fellowships could be introduced exclusively for women to support their scientific careers. Providing more exposure and networking opportunities to early-stage researchers is important to build their confidence, which can be facilitated through organising women-centred research conferences, development courses, workshops, forums and group meetings. Work-life balance could be improved by suitable arrangements for maternity leave and childcare facilities. It would be very helpful to welcome back women into work after a career breaks and provide the essential support to resume their professional life.