• Sophie Arthur

Life Sciences Awardee 2020: Professor Claudia Mazzà

Updated: Sep 25

"My maths teacher was always telling me ‘you should be an engineer’”

Professor Claudia Mazzà is a bioengineer whose research focuses on the biomechanics of human movement, that is, how the body moves and what happens inside the body when it moves. Not only does Mazzà’s research group develop tools, such as motion capture and sensors, that help to measure this movement, but they also create mathematical models to quantify and predict quantities that cannot be directly accessed, like the force that a muscle produces during a movement.

Mazzà’s group is particularly interested in gait, that is the manner in which someone might walk, and is currently using models and tools to help people who have difficulties in walking or might be at risk of fractures because of falling. “What we are going to prove with this project (called MOBILISE-D) is that by just looking at how people move in the real world, you can predict what will happen to them in three years’ time and then after another three years and so on,” Mazzà explained. “By more accurately predicting the risk of falling or the rate of disease progression, we can help those in charge of their health in designing the best interventions.”

For Mazzà, the journey to becoming a bioengineer was a series of lucky coincidences. “It started with my teacher in school,” Mazzà explained. “In Italy, I studied classical subjects, like Greek philosophy and literature, but I excelled in maths and physics. So my maths teacher was always telling me ‘you should be an engineer’ in this very strong Southern Italian accent. At some point I thought maybe she’s right, maybe that’s what I have to do.”

“I started to study engineering at university, but it had nothing to do with life sciences at this point. It was pretty much just a lucky conversation that I had with my brother that helped me to discover bioengineering. He showed me an article in the news about bioengineers. When I started looking into what it meant, and what you needed to do in order to develop your skills in that field, I understood immediately that that’s what I wanted to do, and started to focus my studies in that area.”

“It really is something designed to bring us to the next level in the field”

After completing a final year project in a human physiology lab, where she got to work with medical doctors and physiologists, Mazzà pursued her PhD in biomechanics at the University of Bologna, where she strengthened her connection with bioengineering. Following her PhD, Mazzà moved to the Department of Human Movement Sciences at the University of Rome, where she was soon appointed Assistant Professor. Then, 7 years ago, after encouragement from a personal mentor, Mazzà moved to Sheffield to set up her research group. Now she is at the forefront of her field.

“I started discussing our current project with a colleague from the University of Newcastle, Professor Lynn Rochester, who is an inspirational role model for me. We started collaborating a few years ago when we shared a PhD student who was trying to understand the components of motion in patients with Parkinson’s disease. From that experience, we decided we wanted to take it further. At the first time of asking it was not funded for not being pioneering enough, but a month later we saw a call from the Innovative Medicine Initiative, which our project lended itself well to. This opportunity was much bigger than our original plan, and we ended up writing a proposal for fifty million Euros with thirty-two different partners. That is now the MOBILISE-D project.”

“Working with all the best people across Europe, we are developing all the algorithms and sensors we need to monitor people with Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, COPD, heart failure and through hip fracture recovery for three years. It really is something designed to bring us to the next level in the field.”

“I’ve helped those working with asylum seekers and refugees”

One thing that Mazzà has never and will never stop doing is charity work, whether that is alongside her science career, or as a full-time pursuit. “When I was in Italy, I was working for four days as a scientist and then on the fifth day I was doing charity work with an association building hospitals in war countries. Here in the UK, I’ve helped those working with asylum seekers and refugees as well as local charities that are providing the means to survive for some people. I help with the fundraising but also hosting refugees at home if need be.”

"Just like in science, it is another way to try to bring something good to the world. My next move will be trying to see if there is a way to merge these two worlds – it would be amazing if I could tell charities about my research or my life as an engineer and use my skills to help them.”

Mazzà describes how the skills she has learnt through her charity work have benefitted her research career. “Coordinating the activities of so many volunteers gave me the skills I now use in my job to coordinate the activities of my students. That’s something I really want to keep in my life.”

This passion is also something that Mazzà has instilled in her students. “It’s currently on hold, but thanks to one of my PhD students who is from Ghana, we were organising a workshop at the University of Ghana to talk about their new bioengineering and biomechanical programming. We wanted to see if we could establish a collaboration and support them to develop this programme, but also try and get some research going together too.”

“These things cannot be labelled as just a woman thing”

Collaborations of all kinds are important to Mazzà, and it was her connection to Professor Anat Mirelman, of Tel-Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, which led her to this award. “The fact that someone like Anat could nominate me for this Suffrage Science award is incredible – it is one of the nicest things that has happened to me during my career. That peer recognition is really something that empowers you.

“But there was a particular conversation about the award with a friend that disappointed me. I explained that I was supposed to go to London and get an award, and their response was ‘Oh, was it a women’s award’ - which I hated. I know they didn’t mean it in a rude way, but it did make me wonder about the inclusivity of all genders in this, and similar awards.

“There are a lot of men out there who are allies and support women in science, so maybe to raise the profile of women in science, we need to celebrate the allies as well. For me, that would be really powerful. We need to find a way in which these things cannot be labelled as just a woman thing.”

Prof Mazzà was nominated by the 2018 Life Sciences awardee Professor Anat Mirelman. You can see the lineage of this and other awards within the Life Sciences branch here, and meet the other 2020 Life Sciences awardees here.

The Suffrage Science award schemes celebrates women in science for their scientific achievements and for their ability to inspire others. Each recipient nominates the next recipient of their award, creating a network of inspiring and supportive women.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 Life Sciences awards event will now take place virtually alongside the 2020 Maths and Computing awards event later this year. More details to follow.

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