#TakeFiveWith Dr. Hamied Haroon
Could you tell us about yourself and your job role? And one hobby/fun fact?
My name is Hamied Haroon and I’m 42-years old. I was born in Preston and brought up in Manchester where I love living. I have a genetic condition known as 'hereditary motor and sensory neuropathy' or 'Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease'. In my younger years, I went to a special school just for disabled children. The children there had all sorts of disabilities and impairments, sometimes very severe and life-limiting.
At the special school we used to do really fun things, like taking part in local and national wheelchair dancing and sports competitions against other special schools, and learnt how to make the best of being disabled, but it didn’t give me the academic push I needed.
At the end of my primary school years, a new scheme started in Manchester to integrate some disabled children into mainstream school. I was lucky to be one of the "chosen" few! There was only one high school in Manchester that had just become accessible, called a ‘barrier-free’ school, having lifts, support workers and helpful stuff like that. Going to a mainstream high school was a big change for me, but a really good one. My mum and dad were always pushing for me to get the opportunities to be the best I can be academically.
I went to university to do a physics degree and was elected to the Students' Union Council. And during that time I found out the Union’s building was inaccessible - there was no lift to go upstairs to the council chambers for Union meetings. So people used to have to carry me up the stairs for every meeting, which was dangerous but also very degrading.
I was in a meeting to plan a bungee jump event for the RAG (Manchester Raise and Give) - which is the Union's arm that raises money for charities - and my colleagues decided that I should do a bungee jump in my wheelchair, so I went along with it. The event was on the side of the main road through the university campus, in the middle of Manchester. I did it to show that disabled people can do anything with the right support. I went 180 foot up high in the sky - but couldn't see the scene below me without my glasses - and screamed the whole way down!
[Pictured above - Hamied being fitted in his harness and then bungee jumping. He was featured in newspapers for his brave act, including the Times Higher Education]
Right now I am a research scientist at The University of Manchester working on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain and other parts of the body. MRI scans are routinely carried out in hospitals. We develop how those scans could be improved, take the images, and analyse them using computer programs that we write. The main aim is to try and get much richer information out of MRI images than just a pretty picture and understand how our body works in health and what happens when diseases strike. It’s pretty awesome being able to work with medical doctors and other scientists from all over the world, and hopefully having a positive impact on people's lives. I love what I do.
A major research project I have been involved with is to do with dementia. Dementia is the shrinking of specific parts of the brain that have to do with memory, so you lose the ability to remember important things. However, by the time someone suspects that they’ve got dementia they come for an MRI scan and you can see clearly on the images just how shrunken their brain is. By that stage it’s too late because the dementia has already gone so far and the brain has shrivelled up so much that there’s no treatment to reverse it.
We are developing exciting new imaging techniques on the MRI scanner to look at the brain on the microscopic level. This is because we believe that years before somebody actually shows signs of dementia there are very subtle changes happening on the microscopic level of the brain that we need to be able to detect.
In the very early stages of dementia, the endings of neurons in the brain start disconnecting from each other which means that they lose the ability to carry nerve signals to where they are stored, particularly memories. Eventually disconnected neurons die off because they are not being used any more leading to the brain itself dying off and shriveling in those areas. If we can catch dementia before that happens, when the neurons are just starting to disconnect, and if we can capture that with our techniques on an MRI scanner, then that would be amazing. We would be able to save so many people’s lives. Even if we can’t stop the disease, because there’s no cure right now, if we can capture it early enough then there’s so much else you could do to support those people who are going to get dementia.
I have set up a new spin-out company with my colleagues from the University called Quantima Limited and I’m leading the academic side of that. Useful research usually just stays in academia, but we’re trying to translate the research we’re doing into hospitals where we can benefit patients and their loved ones directly.
What is a typical day like for you?
I love working as a University researcher because every day is different and the challenges are different. My day is made up of answering a lot of emails – they are the bane of my life! (hahaha) There was a time when I loved emails and I told everyone I loved them - I wish I hadn’t done that because it’s backfired and now I get tonnes of emails everyday! I still think it's great though because it means people want to talk to me! It’s just that answering emails takes ages so it’s a big part of my day.
My day job is writing computer programmes and running analysis on images. I write documents and try to write papers - I’m not very good at writing but it’s a part of my job. I am also involved in teaching and tutor medical students on their problem-based learning and portfolios of personal and professional development, which I enjoy a lot.
In my own time I try to look after NADSN (the National Association of Disabled Staff Network). I launched NADSN almost 5 years ago and I think it’s a great community that we’ve built up. Working with so many inspirational disabled leaders, living with a variety of impairments, who are striving for the same goal and working together feels so good. So yeah, I spend a lot of time trying to push that forward, doing the website for NADSN, and talking to people.
Could you tell us how you got into your role?
When I went to high school, I started learning about science. I used to watch TV programmes like Tomorrow’s World, which was a fantastic science programme about cutting-edge technology and innovations for the future. They used to demonstrate all these new gadgets and robots and talk about the latest findings in biological sciences as well – things that could be done to enhance healthcare and medicine.
At the same time I used to watch science fiction programmes, with Star Trek being my favourite. The medical doctor on the original Starship Enterprise was Dr Bones McCoy. He would scan an ill person with a handheld probe and immediately know what their disease was and give them a pill that cured them instantly. That inspired me to think about going into medicine and becoming a doctor.
However, when the time came for careers advice, the advisor just told me to give up on the idea of doing medicine because it wouldn’t be possible for a disabled wheelchair-user to practice medicine or to race around a hospital when patients were in emergency cases, so they just put me off the idea.
So I told my mum about it and she told me ‘don’t worry, you can do law instead’ and I thought: ‘no, I don’t want to become a lawyer - that’s the complete opposite of what I want to do.’ So I carried on studying science. Having achieved the best GCSE results of my year in my school, I went to college and took A-levels in physics, biology and maths. On my physics teacher’s bookshelf I saw a book entitled ‘Medical Physics’. That was divine inspiration and I decided: ‘Yes! This is what I want to do! I’m going to get into the medical field as a physicist’ and that’s what I did. I finished college and crossed the road to the university where I read physics. I then completed an MSc degree in medical physics and then studied for a PhD degree in advanced MRI analysis techniques in cancer. It was only because of financial support from the Snowdon Trust that I could do my MSc and PhD as I had no way to pay the fees.
With brain cancer, the problem is that to be able to diagnose how bad it is brain surgeons have to drill a hole in the head, put a wire inside and take a small piece of the tumour out to have a look at it under a microscope. There are so many things that can go wrong with that procedure so we were trying to replace it with a brand new MRI imaging technique. I was really lucky to be involved in this vital work at that early time.
Once I finished my PhD I finally became a Doctor! I was lucky to get my first job as a research associate in the same department at The University of Manchester and I have been there ever since.
I work on a particular research project for 2 or 3 years and then move onto something new. So all the time it’s changing and even though I have had the same job title for 14 years, I have actually been involved in so many different projects which is amazing and have had the privilege of training students and medical doctors in our imaging techniques.
What motivates you to do a good job?
It’s the challenge of research being different everyday and knowing our research could have a real impact on people’s lives in the future because it could help improve the healthcare service in such a big way.
Being at the university also motivates me because you’re always surrounded by the energy and enthusiasm of the students. Every year a new batch of students come, so every year you get that energy and refreshing air in the atmosphere because they’re yearning to learn. Being in research also makes you strive to go beyond what you are doing.
How do you learn at work?
It’s part of my job to learn by reading scientific articles, finding out what’s going on in my field in the world and listening to people’s talks. Our university always has presentations and lectures going on that I try to attend, and from time-to-time I deliver too.
However, the best place I learn is with the students. I actually learn more than they do, when asking them questions in tutorials and listening to the answers they've found. Your own knowledge gets better from that process all the time.
I also learn a lot from my two children. My gorgeous wife and I have have a son who is 11 years old and a daughter who is 10 years old. Our son has inherited my genetic condition and our daughter has some hearing loss, so they are both disabled with their own impairments but they are both so positive and energetic. They love the mainstream schools they go to and just get on with life and let nothing hold them back. That makes their mum and I very proud of them. The way that they overcome the challenges they face and the way they look to their mum and me for support and guidance, you get so much back from that. Every one of their achievements fills our hearts with joy and hope for their futures.
What are your aims for the next year? For example, if you work in accessibility do you have any plans to help make workplaces more inclusive? If you work in Learning and Development how are you going to promote workplace learning?
Right now Quantima Limited is housed in the university as a research project, so hopefully that will take off and will become a proper company so we can start getting into the hospitals and making a difference to people. I’m hoping the next steps to accomplishing that will happen soon so we can leave the confines of the university and start doing what we need to do.
NADSN tries to organise a conference every year, which have been very successful so far. This year we are collaborating with the LGBT Network of Networks (NoN) to run a joint national conference on intersectionality in higher education.
None of us lives with a single identity. So for me, I’m disabled, but I’m also a man, a Muslim, of Pakistani heritage, and British. Everyone has a mixture of identities, so having a conference around intersectionality and sharing experiences from that point of view is important – not just for disability and LGBT, but also gender, race and belief. We’re still in the planning stages but the conference will be held on Thursday 20th June 2019 at Manchester Metropolitan University, which offers good accessibility for everyone. The focus will be on higher education but everyone interested is very welcome to attend.
Details will appear on https://nadsn-uk.org/conference2019/ as plans develop.
YOU CAN LEARN MORE ABOUT NADSN ON THE FOLLOWING PLATFORMS:
NADSN Website: www.nadsn-uk.org
NADSN Twitter Account: @nadsn_uk
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