Maheen Siddiqui

Learning so much each day of this competition!

Favourite Thing: Computer programming and coding! A small part of my PhD work involves creating baby brain models and although this is difficult and challenging, I really love trying to come up with new solutions for problems I encounter while trying to create these models!



St Patrick’s High School (A levels; 2007-2009 ), King’s College London (Undergraduate; 2009-2012), Imperial College London (Postgraduate; 2012-2013)


9 GCSE’s, 3 A levels, BSc Mathematics, MSc Applied Mathematics

Work History:

Team Up Hub, Heritage Summers

Current Job:

PhD Student


Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, Birkbeck College

About Me

I’m a PhD student in Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering, at Birkbeck College in London.

I got married last September and live with my husband in London.

Before moving to London, I lived in a number of different cities and countries. I was born in Ireland and I grew up in the Middle East. During my GCSE’s and A levels I lived in Pakistan and then I moved to London to start University. My mixed accent always confuses people as to where I’m from, many people think I’m American!

I am deathly afraid of the dark. And lizards.

When I’m upset about something, I like to bake to calm myself. I can bake some reeeally good cakes.


My Work

I use brain imaging to understand how babies brains develop.

Different things in our environment cause different parts of our brains to switch on. For example, if you are trying to solve a maths problem, the part of your brain that is in charge of problem solving is switched on. Similarly, we all have a social brain which is the part that is on when you are talking to a person face-to-face or looking at faces on your TV.

Has your teacher ever spoken to you when she is cross with you (because you have been talking too much in class)? How do know when your teacher is cross with you? It is the social brain which, when you look at a someone’s face, can help the rest of your brain understand when someone is angry or happy or sad. For most people they don’t even need to think about whether someone is happy or angry. But sometimes, in some people, the social brain can develop differently and those people are not able to make sense of the world like everyone else. They can’t tell when someone is happy or sad, they can’t understand what it means when someone smiles at them and they find it very hard to make friends. Such people are said to have autism.

I use a brain imaging technique called Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) that can tell us how the social brain acts when we show babies (who don’t have autism) certain faces and objects on a screen. I can then use this information to try and understand the difference in the brain development of these babies who don’t have autism with those who do.


My Typical Day

I usually spend a good part of my day preparing to perform experiments on babies (and playing with them!), attending meetings and spending time on my computer looking at the data I have collected.

I don’t have a typical day as such, each day is different!

On the days where I have a family coming to take part in an experiment,  I spend a large part of that day preparing my equipment to make sure everything is ready. Once they arrive, I spend time talking to the parents about my experiment, what we will be doing, what we are hoping to achieve through the experiments and so on! We usually spend time playing the babies to make sure they are happy and comfortable before starting the experiment. After the experiment has finished and the family has gone home, I spend a bit of time on my computer analysing the data I have collected.

On other days, I am usually doing a number of different things. I am currently trying to develop a model of a baby brain in a computer program, so sometimes I work on that with a colleague. Other times I am busy doing some reading for our monthly book club, attending a scientific talk given by someone in the department or in meetings with my supervisors to update them on my progress!

What I'd do with the money

I would use the money to organise science workshops, activities and shadow placements for students from schools that lack facilities and money to carry these out themselves!

I really dislike educational inequality. If you don’t know what that is, its basically an important issue which means that if a student is from a low-income background or from a poor area, they are much less likely to do well at school, even less likely to enter university and therefore have less chances of getting a good job, in comparison to people who are from better backgrounds. To me, that’s extremely unfair because nobody chooses whether they are born rich or poor and that should not stop someone from progressing in life!

If I won £500, I would go into schools in poorer areas, that lack facilities and resources, and organise workshops and activities to get students excited to learn about science as well as the many different STEM careers and opportunities available.

I would also organise “shadow placements” where students would get to shadow researchers or PhD students in their labs to see and engage in lots of different applications of science and learn new things which they wouldn’t in a classroom. I think this is really important because taking part in such activities helps you think outside the box and can inspire you consider different career options.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Friendly, hard-working, positive

Who is your favourite singer or band?

One republic

What's your favourite food?

Peanut butter and honey sandwiches.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

I went scuba diving in Greece!

What did you want to be after you left school?

I wanted to be a medical doctor.

Were you ever in trouble at school?

No, not really. Maybe just once when our entire Year 10 class decided to stay home from school on the same day.

What was your favourite subject at school?


What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

I introduced the use of a new, previously unused technology into experiments happening at the Babylab (where I work) and now I get to train people on how to use it too!

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

I did research projects during my undergraduate and postgraduate studies and really enjoyed research work. Thus my mind was settled on doing a PhD after university.

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

A medical doctor, I was always interested in becoming a neurosurgeon.

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

1. To be able to fly or teleport anywhere at any time. 2. To have the answer to any problem in the world 3. To eat whatever I want and never get fat.

Tell us a joke.

What do you call a mountain of cats? A meow-ntain!

Other stuff

Work photos:

This is the reception of the Babylab where welcome parents and babies, its filled with toys!



After taking part in an experiment, we provide these Babylab bags to the parents.



This teddy is wearing an EEG cap, which is also a type of brain imaging technique that is commonly used in the Babylab!



We provide all our baby participants with t-shirts that say “I’m an infant scientist” – our science would not move forward without them!



This is baby Leah after I did an experiment on her last month. She was so sweet and did very well!