Leila Abbas



I went to Withington Girls’ School in Manchester, then I went to Cambridge University for my degree and University College London for my doctorate


GCSEs in sciences, maths and languages; A levels in Chemistry, Biology, Maths and General Studies; an M.A. in Natural Sciences and a PhD!

Work History:

Biology departments at universities in London. For the past 9 years, I’ve been at the University of Sheffield.

Current Job:

I am a senior post-doctoral researcher.


University of Sheffield.

Me and my work

I’m working on new treatments for deafness using embryonic stem cells.

The lab I work in is looking at ways of using human embryonic stem cells to help make new treatments for hearing loss.

Your whole body is made from cells, which spring into action when you hurt yourself, or need new blood cells or anything like that.  The stem cells that live in those tissues can start to multiply to fix the  damage, but  the problem is that they can only repair their own type, so your blood stem cells can’t repair your brain. However, what’s different and special about embryonic stem cells is that they not only can they keep dividing (seemingly) forever when we grow them in the lab, but that they can become ANY other cell type if you give them the right instructions!

We’re looking at how to make new ‘ear’ cells from stem cells – we think we’ve found the instructions that they need to specialise into the cells that capture the sounds of the outside world and transport them as electrical signals from your ear into your brain. This is where the gerbils come in – by taking a gerbil that has a hearing loss, I can transplant these stem cells into its ear and show that it gets its hearing back. Pretty cool, eh?!

My Typical Day

Every day is different! That’s why science is so much fun.

The first thing I do is fire up my laptop and see what’s in my diary for the day, so that I can plan experiments around any meetings or lectures that we have. I’ll also check my email and have a quick look at the news, to see if there’s any exciting science breakthroughs. Then I’ll go and check on the gerbils to check that everyone’s okay, and I’ll do some hearing tests with them while I’m there. I’ll spend a couple of hours analysing data and results from experiments, to see where we want to go next with a project.  I also usually have some embryonic stem cells living in culture in an incubator, so I’ll feed them and put them into fresh flasks if they’re looking a bit crowded.

After lunch, I might go and look at some microscope slides of tissue samples  – we’re lucky enough to have some very fancy laser-powered microscopes, so we can get some really beautiful pictures of our work. I’ll then spend time putting these pictures together to illustrate our experiments for research papers – kind of like writing a really long and specialised essay, so that other scientists can see what you’ve been up to.

I’ll go and check the gerbils again and give them some treats before bed and then it’s time to go home for me too.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Curious, kind, clumsy

What living thing amazes you the most?

Octopuses! Those videos of them pretending to be coconuts to fool their prey are amazing. Naked mole rats are pretty cool too.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Learning to surf in Cornwall in April – absolutely freezing but totally exhilarating.

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Teachers would disapprove of all my earrings and dyed red hair, but I always handed in my homework so they couldn’t complain!

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

A music journalist.

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

Our lab had a big breakthrough last year – seeing our work in the news headlines and my boss being on the tv was all quite special.

Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?

I got a chemistry set for my birthday when I was little, I think it probably started there. Oh and Maggie Philbin and Judith Hann on Tomorrow’s World.

What would your superpower be?

Who needs one? We can talk, dance, laugh, make music…I think humans are super enough already! (though I’d quite like to make buses appear at will…)

If I could change one thing about the world...

I’d make people be nicer to each other.

My favourite CHRISTMAS LECTURE memory is:

The most Fantastic thing about Life is:

It goes on forever through the passage of DNA.

Other stuff

Show us where you work: