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Amy Howard setting up an escape room activity

My name is Amy and I am currently in the 4th year of my DPhil which I am due to to complete in Autumn 2020. I work between the Physics and Analysis groups at FMRIB in the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging where my research centres on imaging brain connectivity with both microscopy and MRI.

What are you researching?

My research has two main focuses: data acquisition and analysis. During my DPhil, I have spent a large amount of time acquiring and curating an extensive dataset, ’The BigMac Dataset’, which combines MRI and multi-contrast microscopy data in a single postmortem brain. I have been involved in every stage of this project: working alongside collaborators to optimise the MRI protocols, acquire the microscopy images and process the gigabytes of data we have collected. I also develop novel programming algorithms and software to analyse data from both MRI and microscopy. 

Can you describe a typical day?

I’m not sure I have a ’typical’ day per se. Normally I can be jumping in and out of meetings, imaging slides in the lab, debugging code or preparing a presentation at my desk, designing public engagement activities or relaxing at an after work social.

What were you doing before coming to Oxford?

I was based in Manchester, first completing a Masters in Physics (MPhys), then working briefly as a Laser Production Engineer. Having grown up in the North East of England, Oxford seemed a world away from my own, but during my year in industry, I buckled up the courage and applied to the Centre for Doctoral Training in Biomedical Imaging. For my DPhil, I was looking for a project where I could apply my physics background to neuroscience, while keeping a toe in microscopy research. To me, my project at WIN is an excellent fit.

What’s the best thing about your DPhil?

The people I work with. My supervisors and the team at WIN have been very welcoming and supportive. Our Centre is multi-disciplinary and collaborative in its nature and there’s always someone you can find to chat with about some interesting result, or how to do XYZ. Plus, there are lots of activities to get involved with outside of your main research. Through the public engagement ambassador scheme I have developed an outreach day of brain discovery for girls aged 11-14 years which aims to increase their scientific confidence and curiosity through a series of interactive workshops. This includes a neuro-MRI themed escape room (!) which combines challenging topics from MRI physics, image analysis and neuroscience with ticking timers, kinetic sand brains and table top puzzles.

I also teach MRI physics and neuroscientific analysis methods to graduate students through FMRIB's graduate training programme, am active in various member networks (LGBTI+ & allies, women in engineering), have co-run a '3 minutes of science' competition and help organise various study groups.

I think the experience of being a graduate student in Oxford is different for everyone. Some people get highly involved with their colleges, others with the sports teams. For me, Oxford is hanging with friends in a park in the summer, or crowding round a fire in one of the historic pubs in the winter - and of course, battling with code somewhere in between.

As I said, everyone has a unique experience at Oxford. Speak to a range of students from different backgrounds to get a sense of what it can be like.