Human of Health Tech — Kirstie Whitaker

You know when you meet some people and they're just awesome and you want to talk with them forever and ever because they say super interesting stuff and you have all sorts of 'a-ha' moments? Well, Kirstie is one of those folks, super cool and easy going and an amazing human! We managed to get half an hour of her time and run a quick Q&A. See below what came out 🙂 

1) What do you do?

I'm a research fellow at the Alan Turing Institute, the UK’s national institute for data science and artificial intelligence. My undergraduate degree was in physics from the University of Bristol and then I went to Vancouver, Canada to study for a masters in medical physics at the University of British Columbia. That was where I first learned about neuroimaging and it really piqued my interest. I was funded by a Fulbright scholarship to complete my PhD in Neuroscience at the University of California at Berkeley and graduated in 2012. When I moved back to the UK I worked as a postdoc in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge before moving to London to work at the Turing in 2017.

2) Tell us a bit more about your research and why it's exciting.

I study adolescent brain development. That means on a day to day basis I sit at my computer and process magnetic resonance images (MRI scans) to measure our participants’ brain structure and function. I’m interested in why teenagers are particularly at risk of mental health disorders. We know that young people are likely to have their first episodes of depression or psychosis around age 17. We also know that the symptoms of these disorders can be debilitating and last for many decades after diagnosis. It’s a public health mandate and a personal goal to alleviate the suffering that can last a lifetime. There are many ways to achieve this goal, my work seeks to understand the biological mechanisms that lead young people to be at risk.

3) What is the Alan Turing Institute and what makes it special?

The Alan Turing Institute (https://www.turing.ac.uk) is the UK’s national institute for data science and artificial intelligence. The Institute’s goals are to undertake world-class research in data science and artificial intelligence, apply its research to real-world problems, driving economic impact and societal good, lead the training of a new generation of scientists, and shape the public conversation around data.

Personally, I’m passionate about the Turing’s focus on translating academic knowledge outside of the ivory tower and into the real world. I really love bringing researchers from many different disciplines together to work intensively for 5 days in collaboration with partner organisations during our Data Study Groups. To me, these 1-week events are fantastic ways to show off the power of interdisciplinary working. I love seeing solutions that no individual member could have generated on their own.

4) Go on, talk to us about Open Science, what is it all about, why is it important and why hasn't it been fixed?

Open science can mean different things to different people. Some think of open access: the right that the funders of research - in many cases the nation’s taxpayers - should be able to access scientific publications for free. Other definitions are around open data and open source software. I’m really passionate about both of these aspects. To me, they represent helping each other out and not reinventing the wheel. If someone has data that you can use, why spend so much time, effort and money to collect a similar dataset? If someone has already written code to do what you need to do, why waste time writing another version of it?

The definition of open science that I’m most passionate about though is that science should be open to all. That means it should be considerate of whose voices are not represented in scientific work, and whose careers are not supported as well as others. It also incorporates citizen science in which we break down the barriers around who can be a scientist and make research welcoming for everyone who wants to take part.

5) You recently gave a talk on culture - academia can be a funny place in this respect, what did your talk cover?

Sometimes I get up in the morning and feel the need to fight the patriarchy, white supremacy and capitalism all in one go. It’s overwhelming and exhausting. But I think it’s important work to do! I started by focusing on how difficult it can be to be a woman in science and technology, but as I listened more closely to my friends who are people of colour, LGBTQ+, disabled, on casual contracts or who come from developing countries, I started to better recognise my privilege. I learned to look for ways I can lift up the voices and efforts of others, and to amplify concerns that - on the surface - don’t immediately affect me. I hold close to my heart the fact that when we build support systems to make our world more equitable for one group, we all benefit from that action. A rising tide lifts all boats.

My talk at the Software Sustainability Institute’s annual Collaborations Workshop titled “How Far We’ll Go”  talked about some initiatives I’ve undertaken to make research more reproducible, including a list of barriers that early career researchers face. You can watch the talk on YouTube, but the take home is that the incentives in academia at the moment are anti-correlated with what we consider to be good science. We need better ways of recognising collaboration - both within a team and the work that needs to be done to share all the useful parts of our work (data, code, null results etc).

One of my favourite sayings - that I attribute to my fellow Mozilla fellow Teon Brooks - is that “You don’t need a diversity committee if you have a diverse committee”. When I talk about changes to the academic culture I talk about building a world that benefits everyone, and I think the best way to achieve that is to make sure that the people making the decisions accurately represent the people they are deciding for.

6) What advice would you give to those in tech trying to move into health and vice versa?

Do it! There are so many inefficiencies.

7) What do you want to be when you grow up?

More chill. I often wonder if one day I’ll be someone who just rolls with the punches and can take the criticism and inertia of academia a little more easily. Probably not if I’m honest. I think I’ll always be a bit of a stubborn fighter.

A slightly more serious answer is that I’d love to run a research group that contributes in whatever way it can to better understanding adolescent brain development. If that’s by facilitating data sharing, or by changing the system to better recognise the work done to make analyses reproducible and trustworthy, then that would be totally fine by me.

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