STEM Ambassador Spotlight: Michael Stringer, Research Fellow in Magnetic Resonance

Tell us a fun fact about yourself

I was almost on University Challenge - the producers suggest student unions hold a mock match (complete with buzzer) to finalise the team. Unfortunately I was graduating that day, so only made it to the filming as the reserve.

Tell us about your career journey so far

After studying maths at the University of Glasgow and Heriot-Watt I started looking for PhD posts. I was accepted for a project at Aberdeen analysing brain scans from patients with stroke-like symptoms, which heavily depends on maths. The idea was to explore whether minor stroke patients' brains were connected, or 'wired', differently than in patients with other conditions (like migraines) which may be misdiagnosed. Towards the end of my PhD I was lucky to find my current job at the University of Edinburgh, also analysing scans from stroke patients, but which has allowed me to be involved with aspects of medical physics (working on the scanner etc) and different scans that tell us about blood flow, how well blood vessels react to increased demand and more.

What was your favourite subject in school and why?

Maths - it provides a window into other subjects and the world around us, even if it is not the first thing that jumps to mind: from the patterns of snow drops and shells to the harmony of music. I always enjoyed the challenge and satisfaction of understanding and solving problems. It helped that I had some very enthusiastic teachers as well.

What subjects/qualifications are useful for your role?

A degree in maths, physics, or a numerate discipline is a great place to start. For research you often need to complete a doctorate, but imaging involves people with an incredibly diverse range of backgrounds: medical doctors and nurses to read scans and recruit patients; radiographers to run the scanner; physicists and engineers to maintain it; and depending on the study anyone from psychologists and musicologists through to mathematicians and statisticians to make sense of the results.

What is a normal day in your role like?

It is quite varied. A lot of my time is spent working at a computer either processing data, coding or running analyses. I meet regularly with colleagues to give updates on studies, and help supervise student research projects. I also get to spend some time at the scanner helping with scans or setting up new scans for studies.

What's your favourite thing about your job?

My favourite part is being able to work with a wide range of people with different expertise and backgrounds in Edinburgh and internationally to try to understand what things cause or make disease worse. It also gives me the chance to meet with other scientists from across the world at conferences to discuss new results and learn about the latest scanning techniques - but for Covid I should have had trips to Sydney and New York this year.

Can you suggest an activity that could be done at home that illustrates an aspect of your work?

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is based on the magnetic properties of water - which makes up about 70% of our bodies. An MRI scanner has a very strong magnet (c. 60,000 times stronger than the earth's magnetic field) so when someone lies in the scanner more of their water molecules align in that direction. During a scan we apply energy (in the form of a short pulse) that disrupts this alignment, after it stops they return to their stable position at different rates which releases signals we can detect which tells us about the amount of water that is there. That is not obvious in a bucket or sink because the positive and negative charges balance out. We can see that water is magnetic however by using static electricity and a comb or balloon

For more on how MRI can be used to explore the brain

If you're a STEM Ambassador in Scotland and want to complete a Spotlight you can download the form here.

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The UK-wide STEM Ambassador programme is managed by STEM Learning Limited, which operates the National STEM Learning Network, alongside other projects supporting STEM education. To find out more please go to the STEM Learning website