Penny Gowland: Tutor, mentor and pioneer

Professor Penny Gowland

Originally published in the ebook A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention.

by Heather Williams

The memories of my undergraduate days at the University of Nottingham resemble a richly coloured tapestry. My mind’s eye is immediately drawn to the great contrasts: the vivid brights of elation that accompanied success, adventure, satisfaction and falling head-over-heels in love; the darker, sombre tones of rejection, uncertainty, fear of failure and constant money worries.

The figures in the foreground form a familiar pageant of forms and faces, the individuals who were my world for three years. Those I lived and worked with, laughed and cried and supported and grew with; some of my first true friends, with whom I shared my very self. Some have moved on to futures disconnected from my own, some maintain a courteous online connection, some even send me Christmas cards. Others still sit at the very centre of my life, amongst the select few I could call at 3am in a crisis.

Behind this immediate circle stands a great host of characters who were less intimate, but no less significant, set against the landscape of University Park campus. These are the academics who taught, corrected, advised, directed and coached me through the transformation from uncertain, homesick 18-year-old to confident 21-year-old, so that I graduated as a capable, sharp-minded young scientist who was ready to explore all that my new career in medical physics had to offer. Front and centre amongst them is my tutor, Professor Penny Gowland, a specialist in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Penny’s interest in physics was first piqued at the age of 15 by an episode of the BBC’s science series, Horizon, about Voyager and, in particular, navigation engineer Linda Morabito. Linda described how she had seen a blip on the surface of Io, one of Saturn’s moons and, rather than ignore it as a random glitch, she thought, “What was that?” She investigated and found the first exploding crater on that moon.

The process of scientific exploration and discovery, and the way Linda described it, appealed to Penny. Seeing a young woman speaking with enthusiastic eloquence about making a major contribution to such a significant space research programme probably also went a long way to demonstrating to Penny that a career in physics was not only desirable, but accessible.

Penny went on to study A-levels but wasn’t permitted to take the maths she needed to enter a physics degree, as her maths teacher mistook her untidy working for incompetence. During the following year, Penny worked as a nurse whilst taking A-level maths at college. The experience and responsibility of nursing meant she grew up quickly, but it also sparked her interest in the medical applications of physics. During her BSc in astronomy and physics at University College London, she was advised to take a final-year project in astronomical imaging, because developing her skill in analysing such data would equip her for a career in medical imaging — many of the same processes and techniques are used in both. She continued to refine and develop her image acquisition and processing skills with an MSc in radiation physics at the Middlesex Hospital, a PhD in in-vivo nuclear magnetic resonance measurements at the Institute of Cancer Research, and a post-doctoral research assistant position in the Peter Mansfield Magnetic Resonance Imaging Centre at Nottingham University. She has worked at the centre ever since.

Taking the pragmatic, sensible approach

When I met Penny, she held the Sir Peter Mansfield lectureship within the School of Physics and Astronomy. I remember her lectures on nuclear magnetic resonance and MRI well. She was logical and authoritative in her presentation but rather softly spoken; these were the days before online lecture handouts, so I had to sit near the front and really pay attention to what she said to transcribe it quickly and accurately. She was also our only female lecturer, and in comparison to her male colleagues, Penny’s slight frame seemed somewhat lost at the front of the theatre, between the imposing dark wood of the laboratory bench and the huge green chalk board behind.

As my undergraduate tutor, she would meet me and five of my contemporaries every week to talk through our progress, identify areas for improvement, and issue tasks to help strengthen our weaknesses. We met in her office at the Sir Peter Mansfield Building, home to the magnetic resonance (MR) research group, up the hill from the physics department and tucked in next to the boys’ halls (Hugh Stewart and Cripps) and the University Medical Centre.

Penny was working 80 percent of full-time at that point, and occasionally her home and University commitments collided, so that two small blonde-haired girls would be colouring and drawing in the corner of the room as we talked through the finer points of our coursework. I really warmed to them; they reminded me of life beyond the 18-21 club of the student world, of home, of family. Their presence also impressed on me at the very beginning of my own career that it was possible to be a successful and respected scientist and hands-on mother to a young family. Penny was specialising in fetal MR at the time, which I presumed was a professional extension of her maternal role; it transpires that the MR research group was developing a number of projects in this area when she joined, and Penny simply picked up the work that needed doing.

This pragmatic, common-sense approach is typical of Penny. When I managed to have not one, but two, crises during the course of my first degree and turned to her for support, her calm problem-solving was nothing short of a rock in an emotional storm.

Crisis One arose because I had taken a rather unconventional A-level in physics, which contained rather more astronomy and quantum theory than most, and had also foregone further maths A-level in favour of Grade 8 cello, much to the annoyance of my maths teacher. As a result, my understanding of mechanics — the influence of forces on objects — was behind that of most students in my year. I really struggled with the mechanics module of my first semester and failed the exam. Penny urged me not to despair with the words “That’s what re-sits are for” and set me mountains of mechanics problems in preparation. Mechanics has never been, and will never be, my forte, but by the time I had been through remedial tuition with Penny I was good enough to pass both my first and second semester mechanics exams comfortably.

Crisis Two broke as I was putting the final touches to my revision for a medical physics exam one sunny morning in my second year. I glanced over at the timetable blu-tacked to the wall to remind myself of the start time that afternoon. Panic engulfed me in a cold sweat as I realised the exam was actually that morning and had already started on the other side of campus. I ran all the way there and slipped in as quietly as I could manage at the back, only for my fellow students to look up from their papers with varying degrees of annoyance and concern. I never missed a lecture, never mind an exam, but in the days before mobile phones were commonplace, no-one had been able to check up on me when I wasn’t queueing outside the room with everyone else.

The invigilators ushered me out and eventually convinced me it would be wiser to take the paper at a later date rather than trying to complete it in half the allotted time. All I needed was to confess to Penny what an idiot I’d been and ask her to complete the relevant paperwork. I headed to the Sir Peter Mansfield Building via Cripps Hall, interrupting a friend’s medicine revision with much weeping and wailing, quieted by a comforting hug. I was still quite tearful, sweaty and flustered when I arrived at Penny’s office. I could tell she wasn’t impressed with me, but she passed the tissues with tight-lipped serenity and set about sorting out the mess I’d made. I returned early the next year to take the exam and passed with flying colours.

I put myself under additional pressure by taking an additional computer programming module in my penultimate semester, spending a lot of time playing the cello, letting my heart be broken more often than could possibly be healthy, and agonising over future career opportunities. Despite two further re-sits, and having to sit a viva at the end of my degree as I was so close to the honours boundary, I finally graduated in July 1998 with a first class BSc degree in physics with medical physics. When people coax my degree classification out of me, they seem to get the impression I am a genius who sailed through university, acing coursework, exams and my dissertation en route. They don’t realise how hard I had to struggle for it and that I nearly sabotaged everything with my own absent-minded stupidity.

My degree result secured my place on the NHS Medical Physics training scheme in Manchester, during which time I completed an MSc in physics and computing in medicine and biology, and undertook placements in radiotherapy, nuclear medicine, and diagnostic radiology (X-ray, computed tomography or CT, and MRI). From there I side-stepped into academia, electing to do a PhD while I had the chance to refine my research skills and keep my future career options open. A medical physicist post in nuclear medicine at Manchester Royal Infirmary became available as I was finishing my three years of research into quantitative positron emission tomography (PET) of lung cancer, and I was fortunate enough to secure it. Nearly ten years and two children later, I am still working in the same department, now at Senior Medical Physicist level. I love my job, which encompasses growing responsibility for our routine work with patients, an expanding research portfolio, overseeing trainee physicists, MSc and PhD students and a research associate, and an honorary lectureship at Manchester University.

I’m also Director of ScienceGrrl, a network celebrating and supporting women in science, and secretary to the Women in Physics Group at the Institute of Physics, Innovation and Research Advisory Group at the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine, and UK PET Physics Group (who I also represent on committees at the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine and British Nuclear Medicine Society). I’ve come a long way in the fifteen years since my graduation from Nottingham University.

A CV replete with accomplishments

In the meantime, Penny has been promoted from Lecturer to Senior Lecturer in 2000, to Reader in 2002, and Professor in 2004. Her MRI research has changed direction several times during this period. The first change came in 2004, when the European Commission adopted directive 2004/40/CE, restricting occupational exposure to electromagnetic fields. This was intended to limit health effects linked to mobile phones, wi-fi, and other devices but inadvertently threatened MRI, as it uses radio frequency pulses and both static and fluctuating magnetic fields to manipulate the behaviour of hydrogen nuclei within the body and image their distribution. The threat was particularly acute for research scanners using higher field strengths, and Penny saw that this directive had the potential to close down the 7T MRI research facility at Nottingham University, which uses static magnetic fields more than twice as strong as those used routinely in hospital scanners.

Between 2004 and 2009, Penny became a leading expert on the safety of high-field MRI for the Health Protection Agency, British Institute of Radiology and International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation, not just in terms of understanding the legislation and how to correctly interpret and apply it, but also in conducting research that answered the questions that remained concerning the safety of high-field MRI for patients, volunteers and staff. Her work has helped policy makers to understand how the small risks of exposure to electromagnetic fields compare with the considerable benefits of allowing research using high-field MRI to progress. It is hoped that these novel high-field MRI imaging techniques will eventually become routine tools for the diagnosis of a wide range of diseases.

Penny has since applied herself to a diverse portfolio of grant-funded MR research, developing applications to study a wide variety of structures and processes in the body. These have included how the gut and brain respond to different meals, the relationship between changes in the brain and recovering muscle control and hearing after stroke, and variations in blood flow within the placenta in complicated pregnancies. She has published her work in over 170 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters and been invited to present to, speak at, and organise Magnetic Resonance Imaging conferences all over the world. She is deputy editor of one of the key journals in our field, Physics in Medicine and Biology, and her expertise is sought by funding bodies in assessing grant applications, by high-profile journals in reviewing research papers, and by professional bodies such as the British Institute of Radiology, Health Protection Agency and International Society of Magnetic Resonance in Medicine. Her CV is long, and replete with impressive accomplishments.

Penny is currently working on chemical exchange imaging, which studies information about chemical composition that is hidden in the detail of signals detected during Magnetic Resonance Imaging. One of the molecules that has recently been studied using this technique is glucose, and the MR images which result are similar to those usually obtained with PET using 18FDG, a radioactive form of glucose. This apparent competition between MR and PET is something of a potential sore point with Penny’s husband, Professor Paul Marsden, an expert in PET Physics whom I met independently during my PhD.

Completing the work-family jigsaw

The girls who coloured and drew through my tutorials are now 15 and 18. Penny seems to have mastered the co-existence of a productive scientific career and family responsibilities by working hard at both. As Paul is based in London for some of the week, parenting has often fallen to Penny, assisted by flexible part-time hours and weekly visits from her mother. When the children were small, she would leave in time to pick them up from school, cook the evening meal and put them to bed, then pick up her University work again in the evenings. It’s a demanding schedule, but Penny noticed she was more productive for having the break from work in the late afternoon and early evening and insists that “a change is as good as a rest.” Her mother’s visits helped cover domestic duties and provide live-in childcare that enabled Penny to continue to present her work at international conferences. Watching her eldest prepare for university, Penny wryly observes that her own daughters may soon be expecting her to do the same.

The appointments in Penny’s CV specify what proportion of full-time she was working at each stage, which I found strange at first, and wondered if she felt pressure to justify her working hours. “No” she said, calm but firm as ever, “I just wanted to bear witness to it. It’s on the list of telephone numbers at work, too. If I say what hours I’m working people know what to expect and can work around that. I also wanted to show that you can be productive and work part-time.”

Given Penny’s support for flexible working and openness around issues affecting work-life balance, it is not surprising that she was the chair of the School of Physics and Astronomy’s Diversity Committee from 2007 to 2010, during which time she coordinated a successful Athena Swan Silver award submission. When I tweeted that I was writing about her, one of her current PhD students replied, singing Penny’s praises as a supervisor. I do not doubt the same could be said by all of the postgraduate students she has personally overseen, more than 40 in the last 20 years.

Penny and I both lead busy and full lives; we are in need of the transparent, flexible, and understanding culture we seek to encourage in our workplaces. Penny celebrates part-time working as enabling and fostering productivity across all areas of her life; in talking to her, I realised I experience part-time as less-than-full-time and have often felt it puts me in a position of weakness in the workplace as it is seen as indicating a lack of commitment to my career. Reflecting further, I see that this mindset has fed my natural tendency to over-commit myself. I have certainly taken on a little too much in recent years, fearful of saying ‘no’, ‘not now’, and ‘not me’ in case I miss out on opportunities or am thought lacking in commitment or enthusiasm.

I am conscious that I need to find a more sustainable pace, scheduling my workload more effectively, deferring what doesn’t have to be done now, and delegating what doesn’t have to be done by me and thus empowering others in encouraging them to participate. I also need to rediscover how to live in the moment, to appreciate what is happening in front of me right now, rather than constantly monitoring and planning and adjusting my next steps. I risk missing today because I’m too preoccupied with preparing for tomorrow.

When I interviewed Penny, I asked her if she had anything else to add, and she concluded our conversation with a very timely piece of advice: “Don’t worry about the future. When the children are at nursery, you worry how you’ll cope when they start school; when they’re at school, you worry about how you’ll cope when they’re a teenager. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but I’ve found that every time it sorts itself out. I’ve given up worrying about the future, I just think about how to get through tomorrow, which leads to a bit of chaos, but it all works out fine.”

Now I’m established in my chosen career, perhaps the key to a successful and happy future is not intensively planning and negotiating my next manoeuvre but working hard and living well, if slightly chaotically, in the present. Now I just need to work out how to put that into practice. It could take the next fifteen years.

About the author

Dr Heather Williams MBE is a Consultant Medical Physicist for Nuclear Medicine at The Christie NHS, honorary Lecturer at the University of Manchester and University of Salford, and visiting Professor at the University of Cumbria. She is a Leading Light of the STEM Ambassador programme, and secretary to the Institute of Physics’ Women in Physics Group, UK PET Physics Group, and IPEM Innovation and Research Advisory Group. In June 2012, Heather helped establish ScienceGrrl ( to celebrate and promote the work of women in science, technology, engineering and maths; she now acts as ScienceGrrl’s Director. When she’s not busy working, she enjoys running and introducing her sons to the wonders of the universe, often at the same time.

Twitter: @alrightPET

Posted in STEM Stories.