Yolanda Ohene, a PhD student at the UCL Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging, has been awarded the 2019 Jocelyn Bell Burnell Medal and Prize
The Bronze Medal is awarded annually by the Institute of Physics for exceptional early-career contributions to physics by a very early career female physicist. The award also recognises outreach in physics.
The award was announced this afternoon (Monday 28 October) at an event hosted by the IOP Women in Physics Group. Yolanda Ohene and runners-up, Alexandra Amon from The University of Edinburgh and Hannah Williams from Imperial College London, presented their research to an audience of physics enthusiasts.
Ohene received the award for the development of a new, non-invasive, MRI technique to measure blood-brain barrier permeability to water. This could provide a potential early biomarker for neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
The technique, multiple echo time arterial spin labelling (multi-TE ASL), is the first non-invasive technique able to target the polarisation of aquaporin-4 (AQP4) water channels, a key component of the blood brain barrier that facilitates the clearance of toxic proteins such as amyloid-beta from the brain. These toxins are associated with a range of neurodegenerative conditions.
Ohene developed and optimised the novel multi-TE ASL MRI sequence in high field 9.4T MRI imaging systems. Over the course of her PhD, she successfully implemented the multi-TE ASL technique in two high field pre-clinical 9.4T MR imaging systems with different operating systems. She demonstrated the robustness of the method by performing experiments in both systems yielding highly reproducible results between the two systems, and providing confidence in the applicability of the novel technique to the clinic.
After presenting her work at an international MRI conference, Ohene and her team established a scientific collaboration with leading biomedical scientists at the University of Auckland. The collaboration is to see whether the novel imaging approach can be applied to patients with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease.
Outside of the laboratory, Ohene is passionate about communicating science to the public, speaking at Cheltenham Science Festival, New Scientist Live and at the Physics Pavilion at Womad festival, as well as being featured as an expert on BBC Tomorrow's World Live and BBC1's Health: Truth or Scare.
Through her research and activism, Ohene hopes to encourage others to build a better and more diverse physics. In 2017 she co-founded the Minorities in STEM network (@MinoritySTEM) which has grown to over 10,000 followers. In 2018 she initiated the first Minorities in STEM symposium at UCL to support STEM postgraduate researchers from ethnic minority backgrounds.
Commenting on her win, she said: “I’m honoured to have been awarded the Jocelyn Bell Burnell Prize and medal. It is fascinating that we are able to use physics to try to help answer some of the toughest medical questions – that’s what attracted me to this field. I think that anyone who is curious about the world around them should consider pursuing physics.”
Dr Jo Cole, chair of the Women in Physics group which set up the prize before it became an IOP Bronze Medal, thanked the judges from the group’s advisory panel, chaired by Professor Gillian Gehring. She said she was: “absolutely delighted with the fantastically high standard of entrants this year. They’re usually very good but this year was a truly excellent field.”
Yolanda will attend the IOP Awards Dinner in November to be formally-presented with the medal.