Welcome to Pitch Your PhD – Shownotes

Season 1, Episode 1

Medical Implants with Dr Mia Woodruff

Professor Mia Woodruff speaks to Dr Catherine Ball about her PhD journey in Bioengineering.  They discuss her PhD journey of looking into medical implants, specifically how bone cells interact with different surfaces, and how this has led her into 3D printing and creating some exciting technology in the hospitals of the future, today.

If I’m not developing something that could ultimately end up changing someone’s quality of life… then what’s the point in doing that research?

This is a “kind of, sort of, vaguely close” copy of the words from this episode.

IT IS NOT 100% accurate.  We are very sorry if we have spelt something completely incorrectly.  If it means a lot to you to have it corrected, email us at mel@ramaley.media

PYP s1e1 Mia Woodruff interview

Catherine: [00:00:00] Hi, welcome to pitch your PhD. I’m your host, Dr. Catherine Ball. And today I’m speaking with professor Mia Woodruff from the Queensland university of technology.

[00:00:11]Mia did not set out to change the world.

[00:00:13] She didn’t even have plans to do a PhD. That came about because of a connection she had with an industry partner.

[00:00:20] Mia, like me grew up in the UK. And while colder than here in Australia, she had a very happy outdoorsy lifestyle. She loved going to the beach and was always keen to understand the creatures around her.

[00:00:35] This connection with mother nature for me is all about systems engineering. And as an engineer, we work inside systems and I think mother nature is the best systems engineer you could possibly find. It is the best teacher for us.

[00:00:48]So Mia felt that she was really lucky in high school. She wanted to see the world to travel and she wanted to use her brain to get somewhere.

[00:00:58] Fortunately, her science teacher recognized that in her. This teacher influenced and inspired her to attend a university’s open day, which she loved. He really set her on a path towards university. She enjoyed science and engineering and even medicine, but being a bit squeamish, she knew early on that a medical doctor was not in her future plans.

[00:01:19]So she moved into medical engineering instead. And at uni Mia focused specifically on biomedical engineering as an undergrad

[00:01:31] Mia: [00:01:31] I like to build stuff. I’m a very pragmatic person.

[00:01:33] And so, I guess it’s no surprise that I ended up moving into medical engineering or I’ve sort of got that combination of bringing in the medicine and bringing in the engineering. And that multidisciplinarity is really important to me.

[00:01:45] So, um, my undergrad subject was biomedical engineering. So I was sort of learning, as I said before, like the medicine and the engineering sort of coming together. Cause I knew I didn’t want to do a straight science. and the PhD idea really came about because of industry connections that I made.

[00:01:59] So I was really fortunate that in my second year, in the summer holidays, Smith and nephew who are really large medical device company, were looking for interns. So when I was sort of 19 years old, I went to spend. I think two months at their group research center in York, in the North of England, just doing research with them.

[00:02:16] And so as an undergraduate, you don’t do much research until your final year. And I was really blessed because I got to do it in my second year an industry. I loved working for Smith and nephew and I’m, I’ll be honest. I wanted to go into industry after my degree to get to these weren’t really, um, it wasn’t really something I was considering at that stage.

[00:02:32] However, when I got to Smith and nephew and started to work there, all of the research scientists had PhDs and I realized that to get to the top, and I was very ambitious, to get to the top of the tree, I really needed to have all of the relevant qualifications. And so I was so lucky Smith and nephew saw in me, I guess, uh, an ambition and a passion for what I was doing.

[00:02:51] And they sponsored my PhD. So they said, look, you know, come back and work next summer and we’ll pay you a scholarship to do a PhD in an area that we’re interested in. And so I was extremely lucky in that sense. And that came from that tenacity too. Um, yeah, first of all, to work in the university holidays on something that was connected to my career was the first important step.

[00:03:12]And I think it was the opportunity. So I, I’m a big believer in everybody’s got the same ability in this world, but opportunity is not equally dealt and I think you can create your own opportunities, but also sometimes it’s just serendipity. And for me, that was sort of a combination there of the Smith and nephew opportunity and also creating that for myself.

[00:03:30]So they sponsored my PhD  and I guess, loved the undergraduate, wanted to do a PhD cause they said then come back into industry after that. So that was the plan.

[00:03:40] Catherine: [00:03:40] So the plan didn’t go quite to plan it from where you got started, but it’s interesting to think this relationship that universities have with industry and how important that’s actually going to be in Australia going forward, because the way we fund things at university is evolving and is changing.

[00:03:54]How important do you see industry as a player now that you sit as a professor with PhDs and postdocs working on research with yourself? How important is that industry connection?

[00:04:03] Mia: [00:04:03] It’s absolutely critical Catherine.   In my particular space, so in medical devices, biomedical engineering, there’s not many huge multinational companies set up, particularly in Queensland. In Europe. It’s huge. So I had that exposure during my formative years, I guess, over in Australia, there’s less of that big industry, but there’s so many amazing spin-outs.

[00:04:23] And so to answer your question relating to how industry influences PhD opportunities and research, it’s absolutely critical. So in Australia, there are big granting agencies, the arc Australian research council, and the NHMRC national health and medical research council who fund engineering research or medical research effectively.

[00:04:42] These are really competitive grants to get funding for in universities. You know, there’s a 10 to 15% success rate, which when you think about that effectively means you have to write 10 grants to get a successful one. And it’s challenging to get the funding into put students through PhDs. Industry is, uh, a leverage in that space.

[00:05:00]If you’re connecting well with industry partners, there are so many more grant opportunities available. And, you know, at the end of the day, basic fundamental research is really important, but in my line of work, I’m very applied. So if I’m not developing something that could ultimately end up changing someone’s quality of life,  improve the economy, then what’s the point in doing that research.

[00:05:18] So I’m very translatable with what I do and to get grant funding, to support these projects it’s critical to align with an industry partner who can see a path to market or who is giving you, I guess  the drive to develop something that’s going to disrupt the way that hospitals or medical device companies are functioning.

[00:05:34] So absolutely critical. Industry is so critical to research to universities and certainly to a group like myself, where I’ve got, you know, sort of 20 researchers who need to fund the next project. Advanced Queensland is an amazing scheme. Advanced Queensland is a, an opportunity to bring in industry partners into a research project and to leverage their money quite substantially, to work on something that’s important to them, important to the university.

[00:05:59]But everybody’s sort of funding gets leveraged through the Queensland government to get more funding for the projects.

[00:06:05] Catherine: [00:06:05] So if we look back at your PhD, knowing that you’d got that experience, knowing that you kind of knew where you wanted to climb up that ladder in terms of the industry scale of things, what was your PhD topic?

[00:06:14] What was your thesis all about?

[00:06:16] Mia: [00:06:16] So my PhD was looking at different types of resorbable, polymer materials as medical implants. So  it was in the orthopedic space. So I was looking at how bone cells interact with different surfaces. So if you have a resolvable polymer implant,  that’s implanted into the bone, how do cells grow on that?

[00:06:33] How do they attach, how do they form new tissue? If we’re trying to look at regenerative medicine, if we’re trying to heal defected bone, what is it about that surface that makes the bone cells attached to it? I was also looking at metallics in combination with that. So specifically for hip and knee replacements. If you’ve got a titanium surface, if you’ve got a stainless steel surface, if you’ve got a poly capralactone polymer surface, what makes those surfaces different? How do cells attach? You know, what do the cells look like morphologically and how does that influence an implant that you’re going to design to go into a patient to either heal the tissue or support their knee, or to give them a hip replacement. So it was very much molecular biology driven. What kind of proteins? The bone cells expressed on their surfaces, how they attach, what they look like, how they multiplied. So lots of materials, engineering and lots of biology.

[00:07:19]Catherine: [00:07:19] We all start PhDs thinking we’re going to change the world. What were the major findings that you got from your PhD?

[00:07:25]Mia: [00:07:25] I’d love to say my PhD changed the world. It changed the world that I live in, in that it set me on a path, but I, I think I didn’t come up with any Nobel prize winning Science in that. But it taught me a lot about how to properly use scientific characterization and imaging methods.

[00:07:40] So I developed a protocol to be able to look at a surface under fluorescent microscopy and be able to count cells automatically on that surface and have that connected back to how we can predict what a surface is like based on how many cells attached to it. So really basic fundamental stuff, but stuff that meant that you didn’t have to sit in front of a microscope for hours on end counting cells.

[00:08:00] Cause we could create this computer vision algorithm if you like… um, that sounds much more fancy than it really was definitely. But we could just, we could calculate things a lot faster.

[00:08:11] Catherine: [00:08:11] How many years ago was this? Cause we’ve got to put some context behind the science by the field actually was, I mean, I mean, if you were cutting edge leading edge bleeding edge, people might say is this 20 years ago, you did it.

[00:08:21] Mia: [00:08:21] So when I started my PhD in 2001, so yeah, exactly 20 years ago.  And it doesn’t seem that long ago, but yeah, gosh Finished it in 2005. So I’ve  really been in the field since undergrad, so 23 years. And I think I’ve been lucky and unusual that I’ve stayed in the same field, because lots of people jump between different disciplines and I’ve been fortunate to enjoy mine. So I’ve, I’ve stayed in biomedical engineering, but it’s been revolutionized recently.

[00:08:44] Catherine: [00:08:44] Just to go back to the idea of implants, you know, so we think about hip replacement, right?

[00:08:47] We know that that’s a piece of metal going into the bone and orthopedic surgeons are more architects and constructions specialists than they are anything else really isn’t it. They need to understand the biophysics of what you’re dealing with.

[00:08:58] So did you find that the metal surfaces or the polymer surfaces were better?

[00:09:02] Is this, has this changed? You know, the types of materials that are being used inside hip replacements.

[00:09:07] Mia: [00:09:07] We didn’t find one better or worse than the other. I guess what we were trying to show is, look at the mechanisms by which cells attached. So I think there’s a real drive now in, um, medical device development to find alternate materials or to find better materials that are not permanent.

[00:09:20] So metallic implants are fantastic. They’re very strong. The bone in our body is very strong as you know, but metals are stiffer than bone. So the challenge with a lot of orthopedic implants is when you implant them, they to something called stress shielding. Oftentimes, which means that they’re so Steph they’re Young’s modulus is so high, which basically means they’re stiffer than bone.

[00:09:39] And so the bone that you attach that to sometimes goes well, I’m not really doing much of a job here supporting the body. So I’ll just give up and it erodes away. And that bone fracture plate that’s metallic can actually have a detrimental effect because there’s stress shielding happens, the bone resolves, and you can get a refracture.

[00:09:56] So what the drive now is, is to develop really high strength, composite materials that aren’t necessarily metallic, but there might be a polymer. That’s got some ceramic particles included in that that makes them much tougher than polymers are quite soft. But if you put particles in there, you get these composite materials that they’re stronger, they can be bioactive.

[00:10:14] And we’re trying to get those to sort of displace the metallic implants.

[00:10:19] Catherine: [00:10:19] When you say bioactive, what do you mean?

[00:10:20] Mia: [00:10:20] So bioactive means that they’re causing . A biological effect in the body. So our bone is made up of collagen. It’s made up of hydroxyapatite, which is basically a ceramic that contains lots of calcium.

[00:10:32] That’s why we have to drink milk when we’re growing up, because it incorporates in the bone. And we can get particles of hydroxyapatite with that calcium in it that are artificially made, and we can embed them into an implant that goes into the bone. And then the bone feels like it’s got its natural environment.

[00:10:47]So biomimicry is what we try to do as biomaterials engineering. We try to biologically mimic the human body by creating substances that the body believes is the same as the bone. And so that’s what you really fun is cause you can make sure materials engineering, you can design your implants.

[00:11:03] You’ve got biology at play and that’s, what’s fun about my job is because I work with clinicians. I work with biologists. I work with materials, engineers, physicists, blah, blah, blah. And it’s it’s this fantastic multidisciplinarity that makes it so yeah, so exciting.

[00:11:18]Catherine: [00:11:18] I think the future of applied research is multidisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity.


[00:11:23]  And we’ll be, be right back with more from Mia as she talks more to us about her PhD journey

[00:11:30] Music [00:11:30]So you got your PhD. What happened to you next? I mean, we, you originally thought you were going to go back into industry, but is that what you actually, did?

[00:11:41]Mia: [00:11:41] Many students will go through this in their final year. I’m sure you had a similar experience when you’re writing your thesis.

[00:11:46] It’s tough. It’s a tough time. My funding finished after three years, I had to get a job back in the UK. In the UK. The system is you usually only have three years funding. And so I went to work for rolls Royce, just to pay my rent effectively while I was writing my PhD up. And that was in the aeronautics division, nothing to do with medical, but I really enjoyed working for them.

[00:12:03] And I was writing my thesis at nighttime and then working for them during the day. And I was really,  pretty disheartened with my PhD at that stage. I was, um, was not loving the science anymore and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to stay in, in that particular area. But I got some amazing mentorship within rolls Royce.

[00:12:19] And they basically said to me, look, you know, you’ve been working with us for six months now. We have a graduate recruitment scheme, if you want to move into the side of engineering, but you know, you’ve spent seven years of your life doing a degree and a PhD in medical engineering. We don’t do medical engineering.

[00:12:33] We think that you’re just pretty disillusioned with the living in the same place and doing the same thing and working with the same people for seven years. So we’re not going to offer you a job until you’ve gone overseas and done a post-doc position somewhere because we think you’ll get your passion back for what you do.

[00:12:48] And I was like very, very annoyed with them for that, because I just wanted to work at rolls Royce and great advice. It was the best advice ever. It was the best advice either, because I had to finish my PhD. I did, I got my thesis in. They promised me rolls Royce, or come back in a year, the jobs open on the graduate recruitment scheme, but we don’t think you’re going to come back and I’m like, I’ll be back.

[00:13:09] And then I’d at the same time I’d gone to a conference actually in Sydney. So from the UK, I’ve gone to Sydney. I’d met this incredible professor who was in Singapore and the national university of Singapore. And I’d said to him, look, I’m looking to come out for a year. To work in this space. He needed not just a skill set that I had in my background in biomaterials engineering, but he needed English as a first language,  as a recruit in his group because a lot of students were international and he himself was, was German and everything was written in English.

[00:13:36] And so he needed a skillset that I picked up in my PhD, which is communication and writing as well as just the research. So he employed me as a post-doc for a year. And as soon as I started working overseas, I just got the passion back for science again. So there’s a lot to be said for not sort of leaving a discipline because oftentimes it’s the environment you’re in.

[00:13:56] And not that you’ve lost your love of your discipline.

[00:13:59] Catherine: [00:13:59] So you did your bachelors and your PhD at the same university like me. Right. So, yeah. And then I was completely feeling exactly what you were just saying then. And I had to get out and get fresh skies, get, get a bit of distance

[00:14:10] physically,

[00:14:11] Mia: [00:14:11] and that’s the best advice you can give any researcher.

[00:14:14] Um, when you see students who do undergrad, post grad and then they stay on in an academic role in Indiana university. It’s really hard for them because you know, to get the respect of your contemporaries around you, they’re looking at you as an 18 year old student, even though you might be a 28 year old post-doc and you’ve got to shake that in the best way to shake that is go move away, go and learn somewhere else.

[00:14:34] By all means, go back again with an extra skillset, but staying in the same place your whole life I think it means that your career will never necessarily smash through the ceiling. And I had to get away and yeah, my, my entire career changed as soon as I left and the opportunities grew and my life experience grew as. You know, moving countries. It’s a big move. It’s hard, but you learn and you bring with it, the experience that you had before and you grow with the next experience.

[00:14:59] And I’ll never change that. I I’m very happy and grateful that

[00:15:04] happens.

[00:15:04] Catherine: [00:15:04] So in terms of what you’d call like transferable skills or even personal development skills from doing the PhD. How do you feel your resilience or your tenacity or your ability to focus on getting things finished? What do you feel that you look back at it now 15 odd years since you finished it?

[00:15:22] What is it that actually the gifts that it keeps giving outside of the technical side of things?

[00:15:26] Mia: [00:15:26] I think a PhD teaches you. I mean, gosh, the time management is absolutely critical. And I think,  in a PhD you’ve got to learn too. There’s no strict deadlines, right? It’s different to industry research. It’s sort of ongoing, it’s this perpetual cycle of, you know, we’re learning more, we’re bolting on where, you know, there’s no kind of clear end in sight.

[00:15:47] And so you’ve really got to learn time management. You’ve got to hit your milestones,  and  manage yourself. I was in a group that I was very self-managed. I didn’t have a huge research team around me. And as I said, that’s influenced how I now run my team because I’m the exact polar opposite of that.

[00:16:01] That’s a, you know, you learn science communication. You, you learn how to communicate to all walks of life. So you have to talk to the best professors in the world who know your discipline better than you, but you also have to be able to tell your grandma what you do. And so the words that you choose and the, you know, not using jargon is really important.

[00:16:18] So science communication. You know, scientific writing’s really important, but then writing scientific articles for, or talking to journalists is very different. The PhD itself teaches you a lot, I think.

[00:16:30] Post PhD, when you have your own group that has, is working towards PhDs.

[00:16:35] For me, that was the biggest learning curve.  And that’s where I’ve sort of learned the most since coming to Australia.

[00:16:41] Catherine: [00:16:41] So Singapore was how many years ago now

[00:16:44]Mia: [00:16:44] I got there in 2006 to 2008. So a couple of years I was there

[00:16:49] Catherine: [00:16:49] couple of years there. And then what

[00:16:50] happened?

[00:16:50] Mia: [00:16:50] So I just got this opportunity over in Queensland.

[00:16:53] So someone I knew had started a lab here inviting me to come and have a look. And I’d not, I’d been to Australia once before for a conference to Sydney. I’d never been to Brisbane. And then, you know, I got, I mean, you get this where English, right. We chase the sun. And so, um, we’re used to miserable long days.

[00:17:08] And I think when you come to Queensland, it’s, it’s literally, there’s no better place. I just feel like

[00:17:13] I’m on a permanent

[00:17:14] summer holiday. Exactly. And I think what I love here, what I love about Australia is, is even the Australians believe that. And it, it, it shines through. And I think I feel that positivity here that I, I, I missed a lot when I was back in the UK.

[00:17:28] And so I just, I just, I love the sunshine. And so, but you know, the reality here is the opportunity and that everything’s so new. So the research institutes, the universities, everything’s so new in Australia, it just felt very cutting edge for me. So when I came to visit this brand new Institute at QUT, I was just like, wow, this is, this is incredible.

[00:17:47] I. You know, I’m, there’s no way I’m going back to rolls Royce. I love science again, and now I can see an environment where I want to be and the people were just so nice. So it was, um, yeah, it was, that was a big turning point for my career and landing here at QUT. I was supported to grow very quickly into my own niche to establish my own research group.

[00:18:09] Quite young, being in an engineering division was hard cause I’m a definitely a minority there. So I still had to persevere with that resilience and unconscious bias exists all the time and women find it really hard, I think, to climb the ranks for a lot of reasons.

[00:18:22]But I had a great support network, great mentors, and I’ve just built this absolutely amazing team here. And my team. Are there any reason that I’m here.  They’re fantastic. They’re smarter than me. They’re multi-discipline. We support each other and I just, I’m extremely happy and lucky to be in this position here and.

[00:18:41] We’re doing good stuff. I think so. It’s nice to, I like going to work.

[00:18:45] That’s a winner. Okay. So you have a research team you’re working in applied research.

[00:18:52] Catherine: [00:18:52] Give us in a nutshell what it is that you’re doing now.

[00:18:55]Mia: [00:18:55] I guess my official job title now is I’m professor of biofabrication.

[00:18:59] So biofabrication is the ability to use 3d printing or advanced manufacturing to create biologically relevant tissue subsidies.

[00:19:06] Catherine: [00:19:06] Hang on. So this is like 3d printing human organs is what we’re talking about.

[00:19:10] Mia: [00:19:10] Yeah.  So eventually it will be organs. so we’re still a bit away from organs yet, but we can 3d print tissues and we can 3d print different types of structures that eventually will become organs.

[00:19:20] We’re still a few years away from that yet. I mean when you contextualize that. So it’s always about, what’s the motivation for what you’re doing. What’s the why? And I always tell my students, or my post-docs now always start with the motivation slide when you’re presenting your work.

[00:19:33] And I think that’s very, very obvious in this space when we think about organ shortages in the future and the aging population, and the fact we’re getting more unhealthy obese diabetes is on the increase. There’s always going to be a demand for people to  heal their bodies. Fractures will increase as we get older.

[00:19:49] And so,  when you think about all of the millions of people that are affected by things like congenital birth condition. So where part of the body’s not formed. So cleft palate, my crochet, where part of there is not formed properly and that the tissues not. Like everyone, else’s some of it’s missing.

[00:20:05] And so how can we make quality of life improved? How can we save the lives of those individuals in some cases? And so my background in biomaterials and engineering, 3d printing enables me to create tissue substitutes that can eventually be implanted into those patients to heal that tissue or to rebuild that tissue or to augment that tissue.

[00:20:24] And so there’s congenital birth defects that we can help. Also in the cases of cancer excision. So, you know, millions of people have to have large parts of their body,  cut away because they’ve got some kind of tumor, particularly when you think about breast cancer,  having to have an entire breast removed, large tumors in the bone.

[00:20:41]Typically what would happen with a bone tumor is you’ll, you’ll cut out all of that cancerous growth and then you’ll take, uh, an autograft, which means a graft from the same person. And that will be from your pelvis. So you’ll dig out all the bone from your pelvis. You’ll implant it. Let’s say into the tibia, into the leg to heal that defect.

[00:20:57] And you end up with like two operation size. Yeah, exactly. And it’s painful. It costs a lot. There’s double chances of infections.  all of these things. So what if, instead of taking that autograph from the pelvis, we had a biomaterial or an implant that we designed externally that we could put into the, into the tibia that fits perfectly, and heals the tissue in the same way as an autograph.

[00:21:18] So that’s what we’re developing. We’re looking at ways where we can develop in the lab. And again, coming back to that story about the collagen and the hydroxyapatite and biomimicry, we can start to 3d print structures that look, feel, act like the bone, but they’re absolutely artificial, but they behave the same in the body.

[00:21:37] And the body thinks it’s its natural bone. And so if, if you’ve got a bone fracture, Catherine, and you’ve got this chunk of bone missing and I’ve got a CT scan of your bone, I can then take that scan. I can make a 3d model of that. I can perfectly design an implant that goes in and then I can 3d print it from a material that matches your bone.

[00:21:54] I can maybe add some of your own cells into that or some growth factors to stimulate the tissue. And I can implant that back into you, rather than harvesting that out with your pelvis. And so that’s what we’re working towards. It’s developing biofabrication is, is creating biological tissue substitutes that act like your own body, but can be 3d printed effectively.

[00:22:15] Catherine: [00:22:15] So would you call this field part of the exponential technologies world? So it’s, it’s just accelerating at a pace that we can barely catch our breath before we recognize the opportunities and potentially the legal implications of some of these technologies.

[00:22:28] Mia: [00:22:28] I think so. And I think what, that’s a really interesting the way you phrase that because the technology is indeed accelerating.

[00:22:34] What’s not keeping up is the regulation. So how can we regulate something that’s going into the human body? That’s not just a material, that’s a medical device, but it’s also got drugs in there. So it’s also a  pharmaceutical. And so the regulation agency is saying Australia, that’s the TGA therapeutic goods association.

[00:22:53] They’re looking at  how we can, they can properly regulate what we’re developing. And you know, it’s moving at a fast rate, look at 3d printing. So 3d printing is so cool. So I used to develop biomaterials in my PhD that, you know, I had  to subtractively manufacture them, which basically means you’ve got a hunk of metal.

[00:23:09] I had to use a drill press to cut that out and then to Polish it. Now you can just insert a 3d file into a 3d printer and print it. And so 3d printing has revolutionized every industry in the world, but particularly in medicine, what makes it so interesting is you can print things that fit into a patient.

[00:23:27] And so, and patients are still getting their head around this, and I’m not talking about a bright orange fluorescent plastic that has been implanted. We’re using materials that the body can adopt because we’ve got all of that. Decades of experience with what kind of materials can go in the body, but now we can print them so quickly, that 3d printing is just revolutionizing the industry. And so that’s so exciting and I love 3d printing. Like it’s fun and everyone can connect with it and it’s teaches you coding. It teaches you materials engineering. It teaches you, you can be creative. So it’s, it allows you a flare of just, yeah.

[00:24:01] Just you can design things to look beautiful. And so it’s, it’s very cool.

[00:24:04] Catherine: [00:24:04] So as we look forward, now you’re sitting as a professor across this research what do you see are the skill sets in your PhD students and your post-docs that you didn’t see when you were a PhD student and the postdocs that you worked with when you were an undergraduate or a PhD student. What’s changed in the last 20 years?

[00:24:22] Mia: [00:24:22] So that, that’s a great question. And I think so if we sort of just specifically talk about PhD programs now, here in Australia,  they’re very tailored towards building transferable skills, translatable skills.

[00:24:32] So, I mean, we’ve got to remember to not everyone wants to, wants to do a PhD to become a professor. Like I’ve taken a very traditional route and that suited me well, and I love it. But as I said before, I wanted to go into industry at one stage. And that door is often opened wider if you have a PhD. The skill sets that you pick up and do in PhDs and postdoc training is, it’s just incredible because you have to.

[00:24:53] you know, financial management, like being in understanding your budget and what to buy and what not to buy and being able to kind of in your life as well, to be able to manage your money properly. So you’re learning financial skills, you’re learning amazing communication. So not just science communication at the top level, but also communicating with the layman on the street.

[00:25:11]You’re very good at marketing. You sort of learn. How to pitch your PhD, really all students now do that. I never did that. So when I  ago thesis, and all of those of that stuff exists on existed. I was pretty bad at communicating back then. I think I could talk science, but I couldn’t communicate well to the man on the street.

[00:25:29] Catherine: [00:25:29] I was down a deep rabbit hole with mine to the point where I became antisocial. Like, if you took me out for dinner, I’d start ranting on about everything and that people would just switch off. I lost friends.

[00:25:40] Mia: [00:25:40] Oh, let’s apologize to all those friends. I’m so sorry

[00:25:42] Catherine: [00:25:42] to all my friends who suffered me during my PhD

[00:25:44] Mia: [00:25:44] years. But it’s all you, it’s all you, you dream about it.

[00:25:47] Do you live,

[00:25:48] Catherine: [00:25:48] eat, and you wake up. That’s the first thing you think about you go to bed. It’s the last thing. It’s the thing you have nightmares or good dreams of, right? It is literally, it becomes part of you, the fact that you’re doing it, it’s more than a vocational qualification. It’s literally the reason why you get out, of bed in the morning

[00:26:00] Mia: [00:26:00] and it is 24 seven, I think that’s, um, that was what was really hard in the PhD.

[00:26:04]You never switch off that’s research as well. I guess you never sort of, like I said, it’s perpetual, you’re always incrementally improving. But the skill sets that you pick up now, I think there’s, you know, these Pitch Your PhDs. My students and postdocs are amazing. They tolerate me making them put together 20 minute talks of their work that they have to give at conferences, but they also have on file immediately ready to go a five minute pitch in case we’ve got people coming around the lab.

[00:26:26] But on top of that, they also have a 30-sec one PowerPoint slide of their entire project, which is pretty big given that some of these projects have been running for five or 10 years. And there’s two reasons for that one. It makes them concisely describe what they’re doing to an audience. But secondly, I often get asked to go and present my group’s research so I can just gather 10 people’s, 30 seconds slide decks and talk easily then for five minutes on everyone’s project.

[00:26:53] So it saves me time. So it’s a selfish motivation too.  So my group is built entirely around science communication and in this team environment where, you know, they’re applying their skill sets, they’re applying marketing, because you have to pitch to industry, you have to sell

[00:27:06] yourself

[00:27:06] Catherine: [00:27:06] because your research group is very much in that applied and industry connected space.

[00:27:10] Mia: [00:27:10] I think so,

[00:27:11] Catherine: [00:27:11] but I’m seeing it in other sister research groups or other parts of the ecosystem that you’re working in.

[00:27:16] Mia: [00:27:16] I think so. I think most people try to apply that sort of industry link, but I, I definitely focus on it more than most because I know that’s  the only way our science is going to get into a hospital. University commercialization divisions are, you know, they have a tough gig and I think it’s,  they don’t always translate as well as these, you know, these startups and these incubators.

[00:27:35] And we’ve got to learn to work better as universities with those external players. I mean, there’s amazing initiatives out there. Like one of those, a great example I like to mention is Bionics Queensland. So Bionics Queensland is this amazing initiative run by some, some absolutely brilliant individuals and good friends of mine

[00:27:53] Catherine: [00:27:53] undermine your hands up to Bionics Queensland.

[00:27:55] They are amazing.

[00:27:56] Mia: [00:27:56] Absolutely. And what they do is they take, um, sort of early stage ideas and science that could become commercially viable. They get some extremely talented investors, advisors, mentors to come in and assess those projects and they seed fund $50,000 towards sort of bridging that Valley of death.

[00:28:13] Of course, it’s not enough 50,000 and it’s the first stage. Medical technologies take, you know, hundreds of thousands of dollars to translate, but getting it from a university into a, into a pitch deck that will attract investors.

[00:28:24] Catherine: [00:28:24] So even be around the table

[00:28:25] to even be having discussions with investors, VCs, government, people,

[00:28:29] Mia: [00:28:29] And we are not trained to do that., to do that in our academics, we are not trained in that.

[00:28:34] And so having those external parties coming in and teaching us how to properly pitch to industry partners and to funders is extremely valuable in my PhD. I never had that at all. So I’m really, I’m really grateful for it. organizations like that here and universities connect well with them.

[00:28:47]Time management is so critical as well.

[00:28:49] You know, deadlines in research do get pushed much more than an industry. And so when you’ve got an industry facing project, you have to hit your deadlines.  That’s a  lesson for sure.

[00:29:00] Catherine: [00:29:00] Yeah. Deadlines are literally the, the brick wall. Aren’t they?

[00:29:03] Mia: [00:29:03] Yes,

[00:29:04] yes, yes, yes they are.

[00:29:06]Catherine: [00:29:06] if you were to have your time again. I mean, it’s very difficult to unlearn what we’ve learned, right.

[00:29:10] But when you look back at, when you did your PhD, is there anything that you wish you’d done differently?

[00:29:18] Mia: [00:29:18] It, it’s interesting because I, I’m a big believer in sort of fate and serendipity and that we are set on a path and sometimes we go through a storm to make it to the other side. And so in that sense, I wouldn’t change my path cause I’m, extremely fortunate right now.

[00:29:31] I have a rockstar team. I’m very happy, I enjoy going to work. So I wouldn’t change it in that sense. However, let’s imagine that wasn’t the case. What would I change in my PhD? So what tips would I give, I guess, to people who are about to embark on a PhD and what they should look out for in terms of good things, bad things, et cetera.

[00:29:49] I think the first thing is, you’ve got to absolutely focus on a topic that you’re passionate about. Passion is the key to every single career. Everyone who’s successful. Anyone I know who’s successful in any career is passionate about what they do, 100%. With the PhD it’s really important to get a great supervisor.

[00:30:05] And when I say a great supervisor, I don’t mean we discussed this earlier. Catherine, not a Nobel prize, winning scientist, necessarily. Someone who interested in the team and they’re great at what they do. They’ve got the resources to support you. They need funding, check these things out, check that they’re a well-funded group, mine wasn’t in my PhD.

[00:30:22]I’m now in a position where I don’t start projects, unless I know it’s well-funded for my team in my PhD. I didn’t have much funding at all. And it really did sort of stem the tide of creativity that I was able to run with. So that’s,

[00:30:35] Catherine: [00:30:35] it took up so much time of mine because they were like, I remember it’s a mind.

[00:30:38] mine was 20 years ago. So they used to have DNA extraction kits. But we were doing soil microbial ecology. So I couldn’t use those DNA extraction kits because we didn’t have the budget in my PhD to use those kits. So I was doing phenol chloroform, DNA extractions, and drift flow hood, which is just, you know, 1970s methodology, because there was no budget to pay for the DNA kits.

[00:30:58] The extraction kits

[00:30:59] Mia: [00:30:59] I can, I can imagine that I can know exactly what they made me months.

[00:31:03] Catherine: [00:31:03] I mean, that would have saved my time months.

[00:31:05] Yep.

[00:31:05] But because there was no budget line for, it just didn’t happen.

[00:31:08] Mia: [00:31:08] So it’s important. Yeah. That’s really, it’s a really good story that. And I can envisage exactly what you mean and it’s, I think you do have to ask those questions as a student, also look at talk to their team.

[00:31:18] So great professor, great track, record publications, speak to their postdocs, speak to the PhDs. Look at the attrition rate. Look at who stayed in the group where they are now. If you’re talking to a group leader, ask them about past members. Cause they should remember them. If they’re an engaged team.

[00:31:33] And I guess, I mean, I am biased because I’m a team driven, I guess, individual. And so I know that. You know, the power of the teams, much more powerful than the individual. And that’s, you know, not everyone works like that. Some people like to work in silos. I don’t like that. I prefer to have people around me.

[00:31:48]And so building that team is critical because if you’re in a group where, as you just described there, you know, you’ve got the biology side of things, but someone else does have the budget for that kit and you’re working with them and you’re pulling them into your research onto your papers. You can use consumables from other groups, you can sort of share things.

[00:32:04] You can share ideas. There’s nothing more valuable than expertise. And so you don’t need to pay for that. You do that by collaboration. So having a maths brain brought into an equation where the engineer’s struggling with coding, you know, collaborate with a mathematician because they will love applying their brilliant theory to an applied real world situation.

[00:32:23] And so I think that’s what’s great about doing a PhD. If you, if you find yourself in the right team it’s a family.

[00:32:28]Catherine: [00:32:28] So people have just been listening to everything you’re talking about. And they now think that they want to be part of a 3d printed hospital set up in the future. They want to get involved. They love engineering. They love the idea of biofabrication. They love the idea of biomimicry and biomimetic design.

[00:32:42] If they were looking at doing a PhD, what are the kinds of skills that you’re going to be looking for in the next sort of five, 10, 15 years in terms of growing your particular discipline?

[00:32:51] Mia: [00:32:51] So what’s cool there is the answer is almost any skill. So at the moment, one thing that we’ve really started expanding into, which is definitely in the hospital of the future and where we’re recruiting from are gamers.

[00:33:03] Ah, so that’s got nothing to do with engineering really, or medicine violation, right? It is. And it’s augmented reality. It’s virtual reality. It’s putting hospitals into an environment where they can visualize surgery ahead of time. They can take patient data sets from a 2d x-ray image into an augmented reality 3d environment that they can overlay on the patient.

[00:33:24] So we can scan you. We can look at your bone fracture, we can put a  Microsoft HoloLens, two glasses on. You can visualize that data, the surgeon can on top of your body while they’re doing surgery. So they know exactly where to do the surgery incision site and they’ve preplanned it cause they’ve seen it all in 3d.

[00:33:40] And so gamers  developed that, you know, developers. So these skillsets bringing those into my domain, three PhDs are really, really important. So almost anything. So mechatronics is an extremely interesting area because of the advent of robotics and how that’s disrupting everything too.  And you know, my degree was medical engineering and those degrees and all hospitals in the future will adopt 3d printing and they will need biofabrication technicians.

[00:34:06] They will need people who can code they’ll need people who can understand materials that they’re printing from they’ll need regulation. They will need people who understand rebates. So I think it’s, um, it’s a growing area. So the hospital of the future who will engage with those engineers and those gamers is really exciting.

[00:34:22] Cause hospitals tend to be inherently conservative and clinicians are brilliant and time poor. So if those clinicians could walk into a lab and say, here’s my 3d scan, print me a 3d anatomical model. I want to practice the surgery. And so we’re doing that already now, so that we, we work with the clinicians and we say, Oh, we’ve got a really complicated kidney tumor here.

[00:34:41] They give us that file. We can 3d print the tumor in a different color. They can check how far they have to excise that tumor. They can measure it on a model. That’s the exact same size and shape as the patient. So then when they come to do the surgery, they’ve already been trained to do it faster. They get more of the tumor out.

[00:34:56] And so 3d printing anatomical models that don’t get implanted, but they’re used for training purposes, will be in every hospital in the world within five years.

[00:35:05] Catherine: [00:35:05] Systems engineering is what I’m hearing. People that can understand that the hole is actually sometimes worth more than the sum of the parts.

[00:35:11] So having a skill in terms of data visualization, be it through coding or through being a creative clay modeler, for example, you know, understanding materials, understanding biology, understanding how to communicate, looking at new ways of doing things who would have thought that surgeons could have something pre printed to them practice on.

[00:35:28] So when they actually cut you open, they’re going in quicker, they’re going in knowing exactly what they’re doing. There’s no exploratory part of their surgery at all. I mean, that’s going to save our hospital systems hours and millions of dollars in terms of efficiencies,

[00:35:41] Mia: [00:35:41] and the other thing that we sort of we do really regularly is we go into surgery to look at how engineering might disrupt that.

[00:35:47] And so what I noticed massively in the change, the transition in the last 10 years is you are normally going into a surgery. So spine spinal fusion, I’ll give you an example. The doctor would open four or five trays of screws and drill bits and. Those trays are cleaned. They’ve been autoclave. The nurses have prepared them before hand.

[00:36:04] There’s all this stuff that grabbing them. They’re checking what screws fit in the thrown them away. They don’t fit. Now, what we can do is that patient’s anatomy and spine can be 3d printed. They can check the length of the screws before the operation. They can 3d Prentiss surgical, jig that fits on the spine that prevents them drilling too far.

[00:36:22] Cause you don’t want to drill too far into the spine. and then when they go into the operating theater, they’ve got this tiny little box of the right size screws and the drill bits and they know everything fits cause they’ve tested it on an anatomical model. They throw them all into autoclave. And they’re ready to go.

[00:36:36] And so the time-saving from that point of view, I know it sounds, it might seem silly saying there’s less washing up, but that’s literally what’s happening. All of the surgical implements a pre-planned because they’ve practiced it already on a surgical model. So they’d go bang straight away, save time, saving time.

[00:36:50] As you know, saves money saves patients’ lives,

[00:36:52] Catherine: [00:36:52] reduces risk of infection, absolutely reduces fatigue on a surgeon and the surgical team.

[00:36:57] Mia: [00:36:57] More patients can be treated.

[00:36:59] Catherine: [00:36:59] Patients can be treated in a safer, with better outcomes. Yeah. I mean, this is just wonderful. There’s nothing bad about it.

[00:37:04] It’s just fabulous. I think it’s, I just think not enough people know about this, and this is a bit of a, a place where I get frustrated is that we need to start celebrating STEM the way we celebrate sports. And its work like the work that you and your team are doing. That will actually for our parents and our grandparents that are starting to need maybe hip replacements.

[00:37:22] So might need some kind of spinal surgery or might need some kind of cancer surgery. These will actually have tangible lifestyle and health outcomes for our loved ones right now. This is not something that’s like, you know, a movie that’s coming in the future.

[00:37:36] So if people want to know more about you and more about the group that you’re working in at the moment, where can they find you

[00:37:41] Mia: [00:37:41] so very unusual name. So my name is Mia Woodruff. And so if they want to find out about what we do, they just need to type in Mia QUT, and they’ll find you they’ll find me. We have a website that’s called Biofabrication on QUT’s normal website. And so that’s, there’s lots of information there and we love to hear from people. We do a lot of external engagement and, you know, just anyone who’s passionate about this kind of stuff. We’re very happy to talk with them. Passion is the key to everything.

[00:38:10]Catherine: [00:38:10] I think passion is the key to everything.

[00:38:12]Thank you for being inspired by your wonderful biology teacher. I feel like I need to send him some flowers and chocolates because without him, you and I would not be sat here having this conversation. So always be mindful of the influence that we have on the people around us and, uh, I just find your work so inspiring.

[00:38:27] So thank you so much.

[00:38:28] Mia: [00:38:28] Thank you so much.

[00:38:29]Outro [00:38:29]

[00:38:29]  Catherine: [00:38:33] And thank you for listening to another great episode of pitch your PhD. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have.

[00:38:41] I’m Dr. Catherine Ball, and I especially want to thank the great team at Ramaley Media.

[00:38:46]If you’d like to speak about your PhD journey, you can reach out to us Ramaley.Media/PitchYourPhD

[00:38:53]please join us next time when we present you with another wonderful guest who will share their PhD journey past or present to help inspire the future.


[00:39:02]Thank you for being inspired by your wonderful biology teacher. I feel like I need to send him some flowers and chocolates, um, because without him, you and I would not be sat here having this conversation. So always be mindful. Um, you know, of the influence that we have on the people around us and, uh, I just find your work so inspiring.

[00:39:18] So thank you so much.

[00:39:19] Mia: [00:39:19] Thank you so much.