10 Questions: Interview with Professor Jem Hebden (Head of UCL Medical Physics and Bioengineering)

Jem Hebden, Professor of Biomedical Optics and Head of the Department of Medical Physics & Biomedical Engineering, leads a research group developing diffuse optical imaging technology, primarily for diagnosing neuropathology in the newborn infant brain. Recently, our colleagues in the UCL Institute of Biomedical Engineering (IBME) interviewed him...


1) What is your job title?

Head of Department, UCL Department of Medical Physics & Biomedical Engineering.

2) How long have you been Head of Department?

Since October 2008.

3) What keywords would you pick to describe your work?

‘Challenging’ and ‘rewarding’. When I started, other heads of department warned me that it is a job which gets more difficult over time, although no-one knows why. And they were right.

4) What brought you to the world of science?

I am of the generation that was inspired towards science by the Apollo moon landings. Like many other small children in 1969, I wanted to be an astronaut and go to the moon. I still do.

5) What is the most satisfying aspect of your work?

It is highly rewarding to be involved in research which has the potential to make a lasting, positive difference to people’s health and wellbeing. As a head of department, I also derive great satisfaction from being able to help students and early-career researchers launch their own careers.

6) What do you least enjoy about your work?

The least attractive aspect of working in academia is the obsession with measuring, assessing, and reporting performance, which is totally uncreative work (e.g. REF, IQR, etc.).

7) What’s been your career highlights?

During the early part of my career as an astronomer working in Arizona, I held the world record for generating the highest spatial resolution optical image of a star. Sadly my record has since been beaten. More recently, I am very proud of my team’s achievement of the first 3D optical images of functional activity in the infant brain.

8) Who has been your greatest mentor and why?

The person who had greatest influence on my approach to life is my father, a Yorkshireman and schoolteacher who treated those imposters triumph and disaster with equal contempt. He neither condemned failure nor praised success; to him the only crime was not having a go.

9) What do you do in your spare time?

Spare time? Oh yes, I remember that. I attend a monthly art class (painting and drawing), and I occasionally play my guitar while watching Newsnight. I also read a lot of books.

10) What are your favourite books at the moment?

I recommend everyone should read Paul Broks’ unsettling and profound essay on identity and consciousness entitled “To be two or not to be” in the book Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology. Meanwhile, two novels which I discovered and enjoyed recently are Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov (about an obituary writer and his pet) and The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier (about drug-induced time-travel).