INWED 2018: A discussion with Serena Best

23 June 2018


Portrait of Serena Best with the words "International Women in Engineering Day" written on the right.

Serena Best is a both a Professor of Materials Science and Fellow of St. John’s College at the University of Cambridge. She co-directs the Cambridge Centre for Medical Materials, holds 9 different patents, and has produced almost 300 academic publications. Serena is a Fellow of both the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (and holds the position of Senior Vice President for the latter). She was awarded a CBE for services to Biomaterials Engineering in 2017. We sat down with Serena to learn more about her work, what sparked her career, and her thoughts on starting a career in engineering.

So Serena, tell us a bit about your background.

My first degree was in Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Surrey. After I finished that, I undertook my PhD on the development of a bioactive ceramic called hydroxyapatite, a material used for bone grafting. I then moved into industry for a little while with the Cookson Group, before returning to Queen Mary and Westfield College to head the Bioceramics activity for the IRC in Biomedical Materials.

Over the 10 years I was there, we developed a porous bone graft using the hydroxyapatite material. I moved to the University of Cambridge in 2000 and shortly after this helped to form Apatech – a spin-out company based on our bone graft research. I’ve continued working on bone replacement materials since then, but more recently I’ve focused on collagen scaffolds for a range of different applications in soft tissue repair.

Was there a defining moment that sparked the interest in biomaterials?

I remember the specific moment in my life that inspired me to pursue the career that I did. I was an undergraduate at university (already studying Materials Science and Engineering of course), and went to a talk by Professor Bill Bonfield. As I was sitting there, I became so engrossed in what he was talking about – so captivated by the research and its implications – that I immediately asked to meet and discuss the potential for me to work with him. That chat then had a domino effect – leading to my PhD and the start of a long-standing collaboration.

What are you currently working on?

My main interest is the development of 3D scaffolds used for tissue repair. Where able, I’m eager to use materials that closely resemble those in the body, as the body is less likely to have problems with something familiar. In Cambridge, Ruth Cameron and I have an international group of materials scientists, biochemists, biologists, physicists, mechanical engineers, mathematicians and medics (in a roughly 50:50 male-to-female split). Our work mostly involves developing a greater understanding of tissue repair, as developments here can have broad applications. We also undertake additional work on blood platelet production (the ‘bits’ in the blood that help with clotting), as well as creating models for evaluating cancer drugs.

You’re also a Fellow, Senior VP, editor, and more – how does that all factor in?

Indeed I am. Outside of research, I am Deputy Head for Research within our Department, the Senior Vice President of the Institute of Materials, Mineral and Mining, and am involved in the activities of the Royal Academy of Engineering. So, when you combine all of that it starts to involve a lot of communication… and travel. My more recent trips include China, Japan, Brazil, the USA, Sweden, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. During these trips, I visited universities and industry and watched surgical procedures in operating theatres. Then, of course, there’s also family life. You’ve just got to find the right balance for yourself.

There's certainly a lot going on… What would you say was the best moment of your career so far?

I find great satisfaction in knowing that a material helping to repair bones all around the world finds its origin in our laboratory. Knowing that we’ve directly helped to make an impact on people’s everyday quality of life is a reward in itself. Very little of the fantastic work that biomedical materials researchers undertake ever makes it into a clinical application. We’ve been extremely fortunate to have done so.

Why should more young females study STEM subjects?

Females constitute around half of the population and have a huge amount of talent to offer. The wider the scope for inclusion - the better the ideas we will produce! There is no reason in the 21st Century that we should have an imbalance in the number of females taking STEM subjects.

What advice can you give to someone who has told that STEM ‘isn’t for them’?

I hope that no one is ever told that STEM isn’t for them! However, I can assure anyone interested, that working in the broad STEM area gives a person the opportunity to make a direct impact on life - whether this be medical applications, energy, transport, IT or security (to name but a few!). What could be more satisfying than knowing your work is having a positive and direct impact on the world, in terms of our health, our environment and our ability to travel and communicate?

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