I enjoyed the sciences (physics, chemistry, biology) and mathematics at school, and was perhaps unusual in attending a girls' grammar school where physics was the most popular A-level subject. I wanted to study medical physics/engineering, but at that time very few Universities offered the subject at undergraduate level, so opted instead to apply to the University of Oxford for its 3yr Engineering Science degree - a general engineering education with the option to specialise in the final year (it is now a 4yr degree, with options in years 3 and 4 but maintains the same philosophy of education). I was accepted to Oxford under its matriculation (non-examination) scheme aimed at accepting students from state schools. New to the degree course at that time was an Information Engineering option which concerns robotics, artificial intelligence, and computer vision (how robots analyse images to reason about the world). Fascinated by the latter, and how it was influenced by human vision, on graduation (and being the first female student in 3 years to get a First class degree), I stayed on at Oxford to do a PhD in computer vision.
My intention however was always to go on to work in industry as academic research in this area at that time was very theoretically driven and frustratingly distant from delivering solutions that impact society (this is very different today). On PhD graduation I went to work as an R&D engineer at what is now the GE Global Research Centre, in Niskayuna, NY, USA. This was an exciting time in my career where I was actively involved in developing image-based inspection systems for GE Aircraft Engines, and manufacturing processing monitoring systems and importantly, translation of technology into practice. However, at GE I could not work on medical applications and this was what I wanted to do, and so I started to look at other opportunities (including studying medicine). Wise advice given to me at the time by a senior colleague was that I would impact medicine more by being an engineer than a doctor.
A timely opportunity arose to return to Oxford as a lecturer around this time to set up a group working on biomedical image analysis. This was in 1995, right at the beginning of the creation of this discipline as a side shoot of computer vision and at a time when hospitals were thinking about “going digital”. Biomedical image analysis deals with the automated analysis and interpretation of medical images. With the wide use of imaging across medicine, there is a great need to develop tools that can ensure medical images are interpreted in a standardised way (independent of the user) as well as to extract useful information from them (which is not always visible by the naked eye). Together with my research team I have worked on, for instance, solutions to assist in the planning of neuro-interventions, improve the classification of breast cancer masses to reduce the number of biopsies, characterise the motion patterns of a heart to assess its health, identify risk factors in pregnancy, and assess the nutritional health of the growing fetus (a global health concern). Clinical translation of solutions into practice is a key part of what we do which involves very close collaboration with clinicians from day one. Delivery of solutions into healthcare practice also requires you to work with companies who take academic work, turn it into products, ensure its meets all regulatory standards, and then sell it worldwide. I have worked with most of the major players in the industry, and recently founded a spin-out company (Intelligent Ultrasound Ltd) to commercialise some of my laboratories work on ultrasound image analysis. You’ll sense this is a highly multi-disciplinary subject with engineering innovations at the heart of it, but without the other components, will have limited impact. This is what makes this area so interesting to work in.
What makes my job special? My day-to-day life involves identifying opportunities to improve the healthcare of patients, working with my research team to develop and evaluate novel solutions to these problem, working with my spin-out company on bringing solutions to market, as well as education of biomedical engineers of the future (as an aside, I have also set up the undergraduate and postgraduate taught and research training programmes in biomedical engineering at Oxford – these were the courses I wanted to do when I left school!). It’s diverse, busy, and rewarding and I would not have it any other way.
Alison Noble is the Director of the Institute of Biomedical Engineering and Technikos Professor of Biomedical Engineering, in the Department of Engineering Science at the University of Oxford. She is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and the President of the Medical Image Computing and Computer Assisted Interventions (MICCAI) Society, the international society in the field of biomedical image analysis.