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Claire Walsh wins the 2022 ESRF Young Scientist Award


Claire Walsh, a bioimaging scientist at University College London (UCL), has been awarded the ESRF Young Scientist Award 2022 during the ESRF User meeting. She received the award for “her outstanding contribution to the study of human organs by hierarchical phase contrast tomography, and her contributions to understanding the microvascular architecture of lungs in severe COVID-19 cases”.

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Two years ago, right at the beginning of the pandemic, in a meeting of Walsh’s group at UCL, her former boss asked whether someone would be interested in analysing the images that were coming out of a new technique that was being developed to look into organs affected by Covid-19 using synchrotron radiation. The request was initiated by Peter Lee, who had joined forces with medics in Germany and Paul Tafforeau at the ESRF, to try to visualize soft tissues like human organs with unprecedented resolution.

Claire had been working on image analysis during her post-doctoral fellowship but had never set a foot in a synchrotron source. She quickly jumped on the opportunity: “It was an exciting project, something completely new”, she says.

So she spent the first six months of the pandemic learning as much as she could about synchrotrons, having endless zoom calls with Paul Tafforeau, re-analysing images as the technique developed and writing proposals for external funding of the project under the guidance of Peter Lee. In parallel, Paul Tafforeau continued carrying out experiments at ESRF to refine the new Hierarchical Phase-Contrast Tomography (HiP-CT) technique, albeit with lots of difficulties due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Today, her role in the team is to create an image analysis pipeline, i.e. to be the interface between the medics and beamline scientists to find the best way of processing the images and interpreting the results for the benefit of the medical and biological community.

Winning the ESRF Young scientist award is a big accomplishment for Walsh: “Before Covid-19, I had never used a synchrotron but in less than two years we have achieved so much, that getting this recognition now means that all the work is worth it”.

The jury of the ESRF Young Scientist Award stated of her work: “It is novel and exploits the imaging capabilities at the ESRF, bringing together a very diverse and multidisciplinary team of medics, biologists and X-ray imaging experts, as well as leveraging the power of AI methods, to give new insights into complex hierarchical problems in biomedicine.” She adds: “I love the fact that the work in this project is really collaborative, everyone brings his/her expertise and we make it work”.

Almost two years after beginning to work on the project, Walsh finally managed to come to the ESRF at the end of 2021: “My first beamtime onsite was three months ago, although we already had our Nature Methods paper, based on our first experiments, practically published.”

Two high-impact factor publications in Nature Methods and the Blue Journal (a reference in the medical field) confirmed that the work was very scientifically relevant. More good news awaited: their proposal to get funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation, run by the Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, was successful. This grant, of 2.75 million dollars, will take the project to a new level, with the aim of completing a human organ atlas. It will also enable the team to expand the team hiring additional post-doctoral researchers and PhD students.

Text by Montserrat Capellas Espuny.