How I Made It: 'I'm a neuroscientist – fewer than ten people do what I do'

Welcome back to How I Made It,’s weekly career journey series.

This week we’re chatting with Dr Emilia Molimpakis, a neurologist with a rare specialism marrying linguistics and psychology.

The 32-year-old Londoner spent 10 years working in labs before starting her own company, Thymia, which is designed to help health professionals spot and treat depression more accurately.

Her career has even involved working as a scientific consultant for video game developers, applying her knowledge of psycholinguistics.

Now the technology she’s pioneering could help those with depression, Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s, autism and ADHD.

Her interest in this area was sparked in part by the tragic death of a friend at university – she suffered from depression, and died by suicide.

‘I was the one who found her and this experience left a deep and resounding impression on me,’ Emilia says.

‘I could not get my head around how her psychiatrist, who had just seen her two days before, did not see this coming.

‘This prompted me to do a deep dive into the psychiatric system where, to my surprise, I realised that the tools clinicians had to hand were still these old-fashioned pen-and-paper questionnaires that have been found time and again to be subjective, biased and non-representative of a patient’s true mental health status.

‘None of the most recent advances I was seeing in my field and in research were being translated into clinical practice to help clinicians. 

‘I wanted to do something to change the system.’

And so her career in neuroscience was born. Here’s how she made it.

What made you get into neuroscience?

I was always fascinated by the human brain and in particular how we process language, but I wasn’t always a neuroscientist.

I originally studied ancient Greek, Latin and theoretical linguistics in my undergraduate degree and it wasn’t until I took an elective course on neurolinguistics that I was exposed to this amazing discipline.

For my undergraduate dissertation I visited hospitals and mental health clinics around Greece, looking at how patients with early Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia comprehend complex sentence structures and that was it: I was completely hooked.

I’ve been looking at how our brains process language and what this can tell us about cognitive function ever since.   

What was that career journey like?

It was a lot of hard work – I completed an MSc at UCL where I learnt more about brain anatomy.

Between my MSc and PhD I worked as a Research Assistant at two of London’s best neuroimaging labs.

There I shadowed expert professors and practising neurologists, learning how to use an MRI machine and more about patients post-stroke.

I was incredibly lucky to have had that opportunity as it put me in great stead to then apply for a PhD at UCL and receive scholarships to support me. 

An average day in the working life of Emilia Molimpakis

7.30am: Emilia starts the day going through emails.

8:30am: Next she’s in meetings which take up most of the morning.

10am: Back to looking through emails that have come in while away from the desk.

11am: Now she’ll begin experimenting with designs for Thymia.

Emilia at work (Picture: Emilia Molimpakis)

12pm: Time will be spent focusing on client outreach.

1pm onwards: Emily tends to work best in the afternoons, so will spend this time working on whatever needs to be the biggest focus on that day. That could be speaking to investors, clients, recording a podcast, preparing for clinical trials, conducting new research, applying for grants or working more on the product roadmap and execution.

6.30pm: Emilia aims to be out the door by this time – though she’s often guilty of working late.

How would you describe your job to someone who has no idea about what neuroscience actually means?

This is a bit of a complex one as my current job is not the typical job that academics pick up after their studies – although it should be much more common, in my opinion.

Neuroscientists typically work in labs in universities, at pharma companies and elsewhere, trying to decipher how human and non-human brains work by tying behavioural patterns to specific brain regions.

That being said, I no longer work in a lab.

I work with technology designed to capture data on how people speak, their facial expressions and eye gaze patterns as well as their broader behaviour patterns.

This information allows us to then feed information on to clinicians to help them in their treatment decisions.

How competitive is this industry?

I would say that it isn’t as competitive as you may think, simply because the human brain is involved in every aspect of human behaviour and function, so there are many many specialisations you can choose from and so much more we have yet to learn.

There is certainly enough research to be done to keep everyone occupied for decades more. 

That having been said, if you are an academic and intend on staying in academia, then as with every other academic discipline, there are fewer positions available than there are people trying to obtain these positions.

In that sense it is very competitive trying to get a post-doc or lectureship.

What do you love about your job the most?

There are two things I love most.

One is the intellectual challenge of developing Thymia’s clinical solution – an incredibly technically and scientifically complex effort combining many scientific disciplines, not just neuroscience, psychology and linguistics (my specialties) but also computer vision, ethical artificial intelligence and multi-modal machine learning.

The other thing I absolutely love is seeing how big of an impact this solution can have on the everyday lives of so many people. 

What do you dislike?

Seeing how unbalanced the investment landscape is with respect to female versus male founders. 

How I Made It

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