Challenging the status quo and collaborating across disciplines in the IMAXT team #IWD2021

9 March 2021

Flaminia Grimaldi, Sara Vogl and Laura Kütt are members of the IMAXT team, working on Theia, an immersive interface to interact with 3D tumours in VR. Their broad range of expertise – a VR artist, a designer and an economics major-turned-microbiologist, respectively – highlights the importance of diverse skillsets and perspectives when taking on cancer’s toughest challenges.  

For International Women’s Day 2021 and our Cancer Grand Challenges Women's Week series, we caught up to find out who inspires them and why they #ChooseToChallenge. 

Sara Vogl

Sara Vogl, virtual reality user experience designer, Suil, Dublin, Ireland 

When I learned about Theia (IMAXT’s VR platform) and its aim to support cancer researchers gain a new, deeper understanding of cancer, I knew immediately that I wanted to contribute. My background is in communication design and interactive media, and I’m a big advocate of VR and its capabilities in visualisation, simulation and data analysis. As VR user experience designer, I focus on the way people use and interact with VR environment, as well as implementing new features, like new data analysis methods. 

Working in a cutting-edge technology industry, for me it’s absolutely essential to challenge the status quo regarding diversity and inclusion. In 2016, I co-founded the non-profit organisation Women in Immersive Technologies Europe (WIIT), with which we are building a supportive, inclusive network of women and gender-marginalised groups, as well as their allies, working in the immersive technologies sector. Through our regular events, inside and outside the virtual space, we celebrate the achievements and shed light on the amazing, underrepresented talent in our community. One significant issue we are addressing is the lack of diversity on conference speaker line-ups – organisers often use the excuse that ‘there are no women working on this’. We’ve started an open access speaker directory on our website, listing highly qualified female and diverse speakers, from various areas of expertise in the fields of immersive tech.  

One of the most inspiring people I admire for their innovative approach to inclusive and interdisciplinary collaboration is Lizbeth Goodman (Professor of Inclusive Design, School of MME, College of Engineering and Architecture). The way she enables individuals to work towards their most pressing questions, aims and dreams is way ahead of her time. 

Laura Kutt

Laura Kütt, PhD student in systems biology, Bodenmiller lab, Department of Quantitative Biomedicine, University of Zurich, Switzerland  

During my first degree in economics, I found an interest in science that I could not let go of – so I decided to undertake another undergraduate degree in microbiology. Now as a PhD student, after completing my five-year degree, I can finally focus on my goal – science.  

It was the imaging technology we use in our lab that drew me to this project – I work specifically on imaging mass cytometry, to generate detailed 3D tissue models – and my motivation to work in cancer biology has evolved through my work. It’s especially motivating seeing how interested other people are in our work, for example my grandmother, who had cancer herself. Something that really stands out about the Cancer Grand Challenges community is being able to work alongside our patient advocates. It’s easy to get lost and forget the larger picture – but the advocates always ground us and remind us of the ultimate goal of our work.  

To me, #ChooseToChallenge encourages us not to be afraid of challenge, to do things even if they are hard and difficult. It’s about the range of emotions that challenges bring from disappointment to joy of achievements, and from self-doubt to confidence. I really think that if things were easy, then it would be boring. And by experiencing such challenge, one becomes more empathetic towards others.    

I’ve had the chance to work with some fantastic people as part of the Cancer Grand Challenges community – other biologists, astronomers, software developers. But what I’m especially grateful for is the opportunity to work with the designers developing the VR software – bringing together scientists and artists is a unique part of the IMAXT team, it doesn’t usually happen in scientific projects. I enjoy working with creative people, like Sara and Flaminia, and admire their work a lot.  

Flaminia Grimaldi

Flaminia Grimaldi, lead VR artist, Suil, Dublin, Ireland 

Before joining the IMAXT team, I’d never worked on software that wasn’t for entertainment purposes – my background is in 3D art and game development, and I never would have expected my career path to take me here! It's been very rewarding to use the tools and techniques I know from the world of videogames and apply them for vastly different goals: while some things translate easily, others have definitely been a learning curve – and continue to be so, for sure. But if you're not challenged, you're not growing, right? 

As lead artist of the VR team, I have two main responsibilities. First, I work with Sara and Owen [Harris], our designers, to make the tools and interface as intuitive and easy to use as possible. Second, I make the VR environment a pleasant and comfortable space to spend time in, as VR is generally still a bit fiddly to use compared to simply sitting at a computer. The good news is with VR we're not tied to the rules of the real world – we can even make a user fly inside a sample if they wish!  

I think the keyword in #ChooseToChallenge is ‘choose’. In what were slightly less turbulent times, a slightly more popular US president helped to popularize the notion that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice’. I think this is a beautiful concept. We can and should be optimistic about how far we've come in terms of equality and inclusiveness; but it can be tempting to interpret change as something that will happen no matter what, and to go about our daily lives without thinking about our individual contribution to history. We must not rest on our laurels. Change, like love, is something that you choose and commit to every day, so we must all choose to challenge the status quo and help build a better world. 

I strongly believe in problem solving as a group effort, especially when it comes to really complicated challenges, and this sort of work can only happen in an environment where everyone is sufficiently different from each other. When I joined the IMAXT team, aside from high school biology I didn’t have any relevant scientific knowledge – it’s been no small challenge to understand the terms and techniques our scientist colleagues use. This journey has been deeply rewarding, though. With our unique expertise and understanding of how people use tools and interfaces, we on the VR team can help build better tools for science to happen faster, and I continue to be amazed every time I see a researcher use our tools in an unexpected way, or make a suggestion for a tool that we didn't think of.  

We learn from each other all the time, and this is my biggest inspiration. 

Flaminia, Sara and Laura are members of the Cancer Grand Challenges IMAXT team. Find out more here.  

This year's International Women's Day theme is #ChooseToChallenge. We're joining others raising our hands in solidarity of an inclusive world and choose to challenge inequality. 

As told to Emily Farthing.