Biomedical Engineering Researchers Sweep International Conference Awards

Hannah O’Toole and Alba Alfonso-Garcia earn top prizes at Women in Photonics conference in Germany

A Ph.D. student and a project scientist from UC Davis Department of Biomedical Engineering received first and second prizes for their presentations given at the 2022 International Women in Photonics conference at Leibniz Institute of Photonic Technology in Jena, Germany—a global center for the study of photonics.

Graduate student Hannah O’Toole, who works in the Carney Lab, received first prize for her research on using Raman spectroscopy and chemical sensors to identify cancer at the molecular level. The objective of the research earlier-stage cancer detection than current diagnostic methods.

Project scientist Alba Alfonso-Garcia, Ph.D. took second prize for her work in using fluorescent light for noninvasive, early disease detection of brain tumors and gastrointestinal diseases. Alfonso-Garcia said she can produce cutting-edge research because the lab she works in at UC Davis, Marcu Laboratory, partners with practicing surgeons, giving her access to patients in a real-world clinical setting.

“Being here is absolutely enabling me to do the work that I’m doing at the moment because of the environment and network that’s already in place,” she said

women in photonics award - hannah
Graduate student Hannah O’Toole with conference chairs Laura Marcu (L) and Csilla Gergely (R)
women in photonics award - alba
Project scientist Alba Alfonso-Garcia, Ph.D. with conference chairs Laura Marcu (L) and Csilla Gergely (R)

UC Davis excels at preparing students to communicate their research

O’Toole and Alfonso-Garcia presented their research to fellow women scientists – both students and career professionals – from countries across Europe, as well as Turkey, Mexico and India. Both women credit UC Davis’ emphasis on teaching students scientific communication with helping them win the awards.

“One of the things I was reflecting on after the conference, and with Alba and I having both won these awards, is that UC Davis really does prepare us to be a public speaker and to be a scientific communicator,” O’Toole said. “They give a lot of opportunities to present your research and get feedback from peers and faculty. We have symposiums, seminars, chalk talks, and all of our course work has some kind of written component to communicate about your research.”

Photonics conference connects researchers working with light technology

Both Alfonso-Garcia and O’Toole said they appreciated attending the workshop specifically for women who share their particular research focus. They drew personal inspiration and career advice from fellow women scientists who not only gave insights about the industry, but also opened up about their personal journeys with balancing their work and raising children.

“As an early stage researcher, my main goal was to create a network and relationships with people doing similar research at different universities,” O’Toole said. “If I wanted to do a postdoc, I would know someone there for reference.”

Likewise, Alfonso-Garcia sought ways to expand her professional community and recruit junior researchers to the Marcu Laboratory.

“One of my goals was to see if students would be interested in coming over to work with us, and we connected with those who showed interest,” Alfonso-Garcia said. “But also I got some good advice from these advanced stage professionals on what I can do beyond research to get more involved with the community.”

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