Entry for:2020 Queensland Women in STEM Prize
My research involves developing antibacterial nanostructured surfaces for orthopaedic implants. The spreading of bacterial infection is a cause of implant failure, causing patient discomfort, prolonged hospital stays and potential revision surgery or death. Bacterial infection is commonly treated with antibiotic medication. Over-prescription of antibiotics is causing bacteria strains to evolve, resulting in “superbugs” which resist the effect of antibiotic medication. Researchers discovered that nanostructures present on cicada and butterfly wings exhibit antibacterial properties, resist bacterial attachment or kill bacterial cells upon contact. My team’s research focuses on using various materials and methods to replicate these nanostructures. We have proved that titanium dioxide nanotextured surfaces can kill certain types of bacteria, as well as increase bone cell (osteoblast) metabolic activity. Translating these nanostructures to implant surfaces will reduce the risk of bacterial infection and the global formation of superbugs, as well as improve implant integration into the body.
My group’s research is currently developing nanotextured antibacterial surfaces for implant applications. Bacterial infection is one of the leading causes of implant failure, often requiring long term antibiotic medication or even revision surgery. Inspired by the nanostructures found on butterfly and cicada wings, these surfaces are designed to kill bacteria upon contact, thereby eliminating the risk of bacterial infection, antibiotic resistance and implant failure. Following the successful fabrication of these surfaces, our group focus expanded to include creating antibacterial surfaces for general hospital surfaces (e.g. lift buttons, trays etc), and nanosensing platforms capable of detecting the presence of bacteria in the body. This device will be useful in hospital and healthcare facilities to rapidly detect bacteria in the human body. Through our team of leading researchers, as well as our partnership with Queensland industry members, we aim to develop and commercialise this technology within the next few years. The implementation of these surfaces and platforms will have the following benefits to Queensland:
Implementing antibacterial surfaces in hospitals and implants will have enormous benefits to patients and hospital staff and visitors. By creating this technology and making it commercially viable, healthcare professionals can reduce the dependence on antibiotic medication as a way of treating infection. This in turn will reduce the formation of antibiotic resistant bacteria strains, known as “superbugs”. The outcomes of this project will also help healthcare professionals detect and monitor healthcare associated bacterial infections. By using this technology, test results can be accessed within a much shorter time frame, unlike traditional bacteria detecting methods which take days to produce results. This will have significant reductions on the amount of time that healthcare staff and patients wait for results, and thus on the time spent in isolation and/or ICU due to a bacterial infection. This technology will also assist healthcare workers in making more immediate, informed decisions, having up-to-date data directly from the patient.
These projects will design products that will reduce the spread of bacterial infection in the human body and healthcare facilities and give rapid detection of bacterial infection in a patient. Reducing the length of patient hospital stays and the wait time between sample collection of the patient and infection results, leads to shorter isolation and hospital retention times for the patient. Millions of dollars can be saved through the reduction in patient hospital stays, which will significantly reduce financial implications for the patient, hospital and healthcare system. Reducing individual patient retention times also has the ability to increase patient throughput, allowing healthcare professionals to treat more patients in a given time frame.
These methods are novel ways of using nanostructured surfaces. These outcomes will promote Queensland as a global leader in bacterial infection detection and control of antibiotic resistant bacteria, and nanomaterial and biomaterial technology.
I believe that STEM is the future and as society moves forward, we will face (and are facing) unprecedented challenges in areas such as climate change, waste management, cyber security and disease control. As we move to address these challenges, work in STEM will become increasing crucial, meaning that promoting work and careers in STEM is essential, now. In my opinion, encouraging and promoting engagement in STEM is two-fold. Firstly, there is a need to promote collaboration between those currently working in STEM and those who are not. In this way, expanding research fields and fostering partnerships will lead to the generation of novel ideas, engagement of industry with research and positive outcomes and contributions to society. In my day-to-day research, I engage and promote STEM to scientific audiences by presenting my research at domestic and international conferences, as well as attending networking and alumni events to meet other researchers and to engage with local industry members.
Secondly, I believe that promotion and engagement with STEM should begin at the grass roots level: our children and youth. By creating interest at a young age, we can inspire young people to be the next generation of STEM employees who conquer the challenges of their time. For me personally, STEM has been part of my life since a young age, attending Queensland Academies for Science, Mathematics and Technology, completing my bachelor’s degree in engineering and completing my PhD in nanomaterials engineering. I have tried (and continue) to pass on my passion and enthusiasm for STEM to the younger generation in several ways. During my time as a volunteer presenter at a local community radio station, I hosted a weekly youth program where we discussed various topics affecting today’s youth. As part of this show we often included STEM topics and fun facts and had several guest speakers (e.g doctors). I chose to include these aspects in my show to create some interest in STEM topics in our young listeners.
I have also volunteered for QUT open day, where I carried out demonstrations on the fracture of various metals using a Charpy Impact Testing machine. My responsibilities on this day included performing the demonstration throughout the day, discussing studying engineering to potential future STEM (and QUT) students and addressing questions posed by school students and their families about studying engineering in general and at QUT. Furthermore, I was involved in QUT Giving Day, where I was required to interact with members of the general public to communicate our group’s research projects and encourage funding. Lastly in my previous role, I was involved in hosting primary school children at Intech Institute of Technology for robotics workshops. These workshops involved students in grade 1 spending the day at the institute, learning and creating interactive Lego robots. I find these experiences extremely fulfilling and will continue to be involved in these activities. In the future, I aim to be more involved with mentoring activities and become a role model for young women in STEM.