Dr Francesca Palombo

Published on: 11 July 2014

Dr Palombo spoke at the recent Health and Medicine Research Showcase.

Diagnosing illness and disease using molecular vibrations or rays of light sounds unbelievable, but this is how vibrational spectroscopy works and why it is making a name as a reliable and non-invasive medical diagnostic tool.

Dr Francesca Palombo is a lecturer in Biomedical Spectroscopy in the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, where the department’s research looks at how we can use spectroscopy to examine biomedical changes in patients in a non-invasive way. Francesca’s research interests are in how we can develop new spectroscopic methods and applications in the biomedical sciences.

She spoke at the Health and Medicine Research Showcase, which took place on 27 June, about the recent advances made in the field of spectroscopic imaging at high-resolution microscopy.

What is your current research about?

As a new academic, I’m looking to develop new methods to provide a diagnostic tool to look at diseases in early diagnosis. I’m developing something which is a combination between medical imaging, chemical imaging and physical imaging to advance the knowledge of disease states in tissues.

If you weren’t a researcher, what would you have liked to be?

I would possibly have liked to be a teacher; I feel that we need more and more inspiring role models in scientific disciplines.

I’m passionate about doing research and gaining knowledge through discovery but, as a woman in science I have benefited from having female role models who made me more confident of my choices in terms of studies.

Who were your inspiring female role models?

My teacher for biology, chemistry and astronomy in high school back in Italy was brilliant, inspiring and motivating. She was able to get the most from every student; now I feel privileged to have had her as my first role model in sciences. Then at university I found inspiring female academics in Physical Chemistry and this led to my choice of specialty in my undergraduate studies of Chemistry.

Have you encountered any challenges, as a female academic?

I read every day that there are more challenges for female academics! There seems to be a gender bias somewhere there but to be honest, based on my experience, I’ve never had any issues with my progression.

So far, I’ve found it fair and haven’t experienced any discrimination. I feel like saying to female postdoctoral researchers to persevere and apply for a permanent position in academia if they feel this is their dream job as it is for me.

My teacher in high school back in Italy was brilliant, inspiring and motivating. She was able to get the most from every student.

Dr Francesca Palombo, Lecturer in Biomedical Spectroscopy 

You recently spoke at the Health and Medicine Showcase event; tell me more about what your talk was about?

The talk presented the results of my research on developing chemical and physical imaging applications to atherosclerosis and cancer disease. I presently collaborate with Professor Nick Stone (Physics) on developing viable methodologies based on vibrational (FTIR and Raman) spectroscopy for application in cancer research from ‘benchtop to bedside’.

I hope the talk at the Health and Medicine Research Showcase will help us build a stronger relationship with the Medical School, particularly with clinicians who are involved in cardiovascular research. I have been interested in this area since my first postdoctoral experience at Imperial College London; this is an area I’m very keen to continue with.

The focus now is on small blood vessels and the effects of diabetes, a hot topic for Medical School research.

What is the real world impact of your research?

The impact is quite substantial; we are working on developing non-invasive non-destructive methods to probe the intrinsic physical and chemical properties of biomaterials. These have potential for in vivo diagnosis of pathology and sometimes are already applied to patients in a clinical setting. Through our work we contribute in advancing global health and wellbeing.

The motivation for advancing this research comes from the people around us who are suffering from disease. It is incidental but quite astonishing that at the beginning of my postdoc at Imperial College I had a close relative suffering of coronary artery disease, and then, at the start of my lectureship at Exeter another relative suffering of cancer. These events triggered an even stronger motivation in my day-to-day research work.

What do you hope to achieve at Exeter?

I hope to establish my own research group and to develop new methods coming from optical spectroscopy for advanced applications in biomedical sciences and disease diagnostics. I am establishing collaborations with other academics in Physics who are experts in the field of Chemical Imaging, Super Resolution Microscopy and Biophotonics and with clinicians in the field of Cardiovascular Sciences and Microcirculation at the Medical School. There’s a huge need for research in this fields.

What is your background and how did it lead to this field of research?

I’m a chemist, by background - a Physical Chemist in particular. I’m now working in physics (biophysics) at an interdisciplinary level. It’s amazing when I think about how many disciplines can be involved in this research to bring new knowledge and to shape our understanding of diseases.

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