Working from home: Week 9

For the past nine weeks I have been working from home – something I never thought would happen during my PhD. I have been quite busy since the last blog post and this is definitely the longest blog post so far.

Working Remotely

There are definite perks of working from home. I am enjoying being able to wear comfy clothes all day, not that I ever put much effort into my outfits anyway. And it is nice to be able to wake up ten minutes before I intend on starting the day. The mornings are more relaxed as I can have breakfast while checking my to-do list and emails. I have spent some sunny mornings working outside as well, which is not as productive as working at a normal desk, unfortunately, but is a nice change of scenery.

Outdoor desk for sunny mornings

In addition to this, I was a teaching assistant for a module this semester and I was scheduled to teach eight tutorials for this. I had only delivered three tutorials by the time that UL closed, so I had to record the remaining five at home. This actually took less time than it would have to deliver these in person. Since I usually pause to give student a chance to take down solutions in class the tutorials last for 50 mins on average. Recording tutorials at home took less time as I could talk through without pausing. Students could then rewind to parts that they were struggling to grasp. In addition to this, I only had to record my tutorial once instead of delivering the 50-minute tutorial five times a week.

Don’t get me wrong, there are definite drawbacks to this situation as well. It is difficult to stay as focused as I would be in my usual office space. I have found it difficult to be at my desk by 9 and I am taking more tea/coffee breaks than I would at work, mainly because it is so convenient. I have been meeting most of my goals during the lockdown, however all too often I feel that I have not been productive enough, and find myself working a few hours over the weekend to make up time. This is something I am trying to avoid, though. I really have got used to my diary and this does help me to keep focused and complete the key tasks each week. Working at home while my partner and other housemates are in the house was always going to be less productive than a quiet office space. I’m sure this is something everyone has to deal with, not to mention sharing laptops and desk space.

PhD progress

There has been a lot of different areas of progress for the PhD in the last two months. Firstly, in April the IRC, who are funding my research, approved my first year progress report so I am now officially in the second year of my PhD.

Possibly as exciting, the first paper that I have written has been accepted to a major 3D printing journal, with minor changes. I will do a blog about this paper when it is finally published.

Last month I also submitted an abstract to a conference. This conference is due to take place in July, but I cannot see this actually going ahead. I am expecting this to be postponed. I likely will attend the conference whether I am chosen to speak at it or not.

Also last month, my research group (Design factors) held update presentations for all the PhD students. I presented my work and received good feedback. This presentation took place during 65 Roses week and I used my last 30 seconds to promote this event. Many researchers actually did donate to the cause.

Taught modules

This semester I took two modules; ‘Writing Science and Engineering’ and ‘Immunology and Microbiology’. I was due to take exams in both subjects during May. Obviously, these exams could not go ahead as scheduled. Instead, both lecturers decided to give assignments and quizzes to make up the marks. I am more used to sitting exams rather than end of term assignments but I actually preferred doing assignments. There was more time to answer the questions, meaning more time to think, less stress and less cramming. I do feel that assignments are more practical than sitting exams. It really tests how a student would solve a problem in real life, rather than learning off pieces to regurgitate in an exam.


One thing I did not expect at the beginning of lockdown was that I would be returning to the campus before the lockdown had been lifted.

Mid-April I was asked if I would help some of my colleagues with 3D printing, cleaning and assembling parts for the Rapid Innovation Unit (RIU). I was given permission to access the campus by the Dean of Science & Engineering and the President of UL. RIU was set up this year to create solutions for problems in the local hospital, University Hospital Limerick. The first month since RIU was set up was mainly focused on developing solutions for the COVID-19 crisis such as PPE and adapters, as outline in this video. The video currently has almost 40k views, which is impressive since RIU was first set up in March. You can follow RIU on twitter under the handle @RIU_UL for updates.

Skype a scientist

At the beginning of lockdown I thought I could be quite bored without lab work and signed up for ‘Skype-A-Scientist’. This is a website that pairs teachers and their class with scientists and they can have a chat about science. In the first month I was matched with 12 teachers, which I was a little overwhelmed by. I had organised two calls, with classes in North Dakota and Virginia. Neither call went to plan. During the first call my presentation froze and we just had a discussion about 3D printing. I was completely unable to connect to the second call and after 30 mins we decided to leave it. I recorded the presentation instead and emailed it to the class.

I blame my laptop for these issues, but I don’t think I will sign up for any more skype calls. I had contact with some of the other teachers that I had been matched with but I don’t think teachers want to do skype calls until the classrooms are back to normal.

Overall, I have has a busy few weeks since the campus closed. I am missing my colleagues, lab space and frustrated I cannot continue with important testing, but the closure is completely necessary to keep everyone safe. I had been uploading blog posts monthly, but I feel that uploading once every two months from now on might make for more interesting posts.

To-do lists and how COVID-19 will affect my research

I am now officially into the second year of my PhD. For the first year of my project I had been keeping my to-do list on my computer and deleting tasks as they were completed. This method had me feeling that I was not achieving much and forgetting what I had accomplished in the previous weeks, and therefore feeling that I was not getting enough done. Last week I got a diary for planning work. Each evening I have been making a to-do list for the following day, ticking each task off as they are completed. The main reason for getting a diary was to have the satisfaction of ticking a task as being complete rather than just deleting it. I now feel more satisfied that I am achieving my goals each week. 

On a completely different note, yesterday all UL staff and students received an email to say the campus would be closing due to the COVID-19 virus. To start with, the campus is closed from now until the 29th March (10 working days), however, it seems that the university could be closed for a number of weeks.  

How will COVID-19 affect my PhD work?  

For the next month I was not planning lab work or clinical work, so the main difference is that I will be doing my planned ‘desk work’ from home rather than on campus. I always prefer to work on campus as I enjoy the routine of getting up, going to work, doing all my work there and getting to relax when I come home in the evenings. I am usually more productive on campus, but I will have to learn to keep my usual routine while working remotely.  

One of my main research goals for this year is to conduct a clinical study on feeding tubes, as the problem needs to be fully identified before thinking of a solution. This work will be delayed if this situation continues for more than a few weeks, which is looking likely. In the meantime, I am still working on the ethics application. Ethics applications can take months to get approved so the sooner we can submit this the better, even if the actual clinical work will be delayed.  

Another difference is that I won’t see any of my work colleagues face-to-face for a few months. Any meetings will be over the phone or skype, which I don’t think will be as productive as face-to-face meetings, but we will make do for this short-term restriction.  

This semester I am taking two modules (microbiology & immunology and academic writing) and teaching tutorials for one module (industrial organisation). Lectures will be delivered online for all three and I will be doing voice recordings of my tutorials from home. The lab work for microbiology & immunology looks like it will need to be cancelled/postponed. At this stage, lecturers are trying to come up with alternatives for the end of semester exam in the possibility that we will still not be allowed on campus by May. The only advantage I am seeing to teaching from home is that I now only have to deliver my tutorials once, rather than five times a week. This will hopefully give me some more time for my own work. 

Most of this blog is about how I reckon the next month to six weeks will work out for me. I will do a follow up blog about what working from home was actually like, and whether I was able to keep to my regular routine during this time.  

My first journal paper & academic writing

In October I submitted my first paper to a 3D printing journal. This is the first paper in which I was able to plan experiments, carry these experiments out and write about my findings. I had previously been involved with a paper as part of my masters project, but I did very little work on my own for this. I was constantly under supervision in the lab due to UL’s rules in relation to taught masters students. This time I was working as a PhD student and was allowed to work independently. If/when this paper gets published I will summarise the results in a blog post of its own. As it is still not guaranteed to be published I cannot go into the specific details yet.

At the start of January we received an email from the editor of the journal to say that major revisions were required for the paper before they could consider it for publication. We were invited to make changes as suggested by their reviewers and re-submit our manuscript. Most of the requests were asking for more data to support what we were saying. And in most cases, these images/graphs already existed and just needed to be dug out and cleaned up before being added to the paper.

The deadline for returning the revised paper was last week and this was definitely one of my busiest week since starting the PhD. My ordinary work schedule is usually from 9am to 4-6pm, depending on my work load that day. I usually don’t do any more work in the evenings or weekends unless I have a presentation or an important deadline. However, the last two weeks have been hectic trying to get the paper finished on time. I worked all of last weekend which was the first weekend that I have worked since starting the PhD (last March). I also worked longer hours during the week to get the paper finished. Even though last week was a tough week, it is satisfying to finally send off the updated and definitely improved paper. Hopefully it will be accepted!

I have definitely noticed that a lot of the corrections from my supervisors are relating to how I am phrasing sentences rather than the content of that sentence. Apart from a handful of lab reports, the undergraduate final year project and the masters project, I have not done any other scientific writing. I have decided to take an academic writing module this semester as I feel that I need practice in this area. I have already missed two weeks of this but the lecturer has allowed me to register anyway and catch up with material in my own time.

This module only has one compulsory hour per week, along with two online lectures. In addition to this, I am taking a module called ‘Immunology & Microbiology’ and I am teaching tutorials for a third module. Even though I am involved with three modules this semester, I have been very lucky with my timetable. All three are on Tuesday to Thursday only. This leaves me Monday and Friday to do any clinical work at the hospital when it comes to it. I hope to complete an ethics application this semester and begin the clinical side of the CF work as soon as this gets accepted.

Science week, NCRC annual research symposium and progression to second year

Science week this year was in the middle of November and UL’s Research Week was the first week of December. I have been quite busy so I am only getting to finish the November/December blog now.

Science Week 2019

As part of science week 2019 I spoke to a local sixth class about 3D printing and also got involved with the SOPHia project (indirectly).

I spoke to the primary school class about 3D printing in general. I had prepared a short presentation (mainly cartoons, images and time-lapses) with the intention of talking for 10 minutes and then having a 10 minute class discussion. I was pleasantly surprised that the class grasped the concept of 3D printing very quickly and were blown away by the models I brought to pass around. The students had plenty of intelligent questions and the class discussion went on for 40 minutes.

The SOPHia project student science competition final also took place during science week. A school group that I had visited in September had been shortlisted for the SOPHia project final in UL. This involved doing a physics project and presenting the project in a poster which was then judged by researchers from the UL physics department. The girls did a project on the uptake of physics among students in their school and highlighted that less girls were taking physics despite girls being as interested in the subject as boys. They also included my visit in their poster as I was brought in as a female role model to promote physics. I was genuinely delighted that the girls ended up winning as they had put so much time and effort into this project!

NCRC Annual Research Symposium 2019

In December I attended the NCRC Annual Research Symposium. The NCRC (National Children’s Research Centre, based in Crumlin) is the organisation that part-funding my research. I did a poster presentation which was my first time presenting my PhD research. The posters were judged by a researcher and a lay person at the same time so it had to have a balance between technical and non-technical language to convey the main objective and goals of the project. There were prizes at the end of the day but I did not win any. The projects currently funded by the NCRC are all so diverse and so interesting. After I had been judged I walked around to look at the range of projects.

Research Week @ UL

This year was UL’s second research week. I was definitely less involved in this year’s research week compared to the previous year. Last year I attended talks and workshops as part of the research week. However, this year I was too busy with my postgraduate progression. Usually this is done by filling a form with all the courses taken, papers published and accomplishments in the previous 12 months. A committee then decides if you have done enough to progress to the next year of research. However, this year has been the first year of including a presentation as well as the standard form. The week of the progression presentation was the same week as the NCRC research symposium. I was very busy preparing for both presentations.

I presented first out of the five PhD students in my department. I was very happy with my presentation and received an email the following week to say that I had progressed into the next year of my research!

Introduction to my PhD topic

I have mentioned in previous blogs that I have been writing my first paper. I am glad to finally announce that I have finished writing and my paper has been submitted to the journal ‘3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing’. We are not expecting to hear back from them for a while. It has been 2 weeks since the paper was submitted and we have not heard anything back which means it probably has not been rejected (most papers get rejected in the first 10 days if they are going to get rejected).

Now that this paper is finished, I can really focus on my PhD topic. The paper was not entirely separate from my funded research, as I was still getting to know the 3D printer, as well as the 3D printing material. It was sort of like a training exercise. I have also now got a taste of what it is like to be involved in writing a journal article. This paper took much longer than I thought it would, but it was my first and I now understand how to better approach writing for next time. I will write a blog post on this paper when it gets published and go into greater detail of the paper content and my main findings.

As part of my PhD, I will be developing a 3D printable antimicrobial material in order to create devices to alleviate some complications associated with PEG feeding tubes for children with Cystic Fibrosis. There are multiple parts to this project, including Cystic Fibrosis, 3D printing, PEG feeding tube complications, material science and microbiology. All of these components are completely different to one another.

In college I studied physics and material science, so the materials portion is the part that I am most prepared for. I have spent a year and a half working with the 3D printer that will be used for my PhD project. I am now confident 3D printing and hacking the 3D printer, although by no means an expert. I have attended 3D printing conferences, and have been reading literature on how 3D printers are currently being used in hospitals. The areas that I feel that I need to brush up on most are Cystic Fibrosis, PEG tubes and microbiology. I am currently taking a microbiology module which will hopefully give me an insight to design an experiment to test antimicrobial properties of the material that will be developed. I have been reading about Cystic Fibrosis and PEG tubes, and chose this topic for an assignment as part of my summer school modules, since I knew it was the area that I was least knowledgeable in.

This week I spoke to my microbiology lecturer about my project and he gave me a list of people around the University that would be good to talk to in relation to testing the material against particular microbes. It looks like I will be able to use some lab space on campus to test antimicrobial properties of the material. This will speed up the testing of the material, as doing these tests off campus could take up a lot more time. When I complete this module I should have the skills required to work independently and grow bacteria myself for testing.

Next week I am meeting a doctor in the local hospital, along with my supervisors. The aim of this meeting is to hopefully allow me to spend a week or more in the Cystic Fibrosis unit to get to know the local CF team and eventually spend time studying what the real-life PEG tube complications are. This will give me a better insight into the issues associated with PEG tubes in order to design devices to alleviate these issues. It is already known that scar tissue and infection at the site where the tube enters the body are issues, but maybe there are other problems that do not appear in the literature. This should form the basis for the devices I design to alleviate some of the PEG tube related problems.

As it stands, everything is running smoothly and the project seems to be coming together nicely. However, this is research and just because everything is going well now does not mean that I won’t encounter a road block in a month’s time.

September Blog: My busiest month since starting my PhD

Writing these blogs is a catch-22. The more time I have to write the blogs, the less I have to write about. When I have loads of updates and events to write blogs on, I barely get a chance to sit at my desk to write them. This was definitely the case during the month of September as I have been so busy and am only getting around to writing the September blog now.

Since my last blog at the end of August, I have started studying a new module, teaching tutorials/labs as a teaching assistant, attended a 3D printing workshop, travelled to a manufacture exhibition, I did a school visit and set up an Instagram page for our 3D printer. September has definitely been my busiest month since starting the PhD!

I will start with the college-related updates. As I am doing a structured PhD I am required to study and pass exams for two taught modules (at least two, and more if I want to). This semester I am taking ‘General Microbiology’. I haven’t studied biology since the Leaving Cert and at that, we only spent one week studying microbiology. I am actually enjoying the module more than I anticipated. The lecturer does his best to make the classes interesting (which I imagine is difficult with 200+ students in the lecture) and the labs seem easy so far with a focus on understanding core concepts. I think this is important as many students (including myself during my undergrad) don’t understand ‘the basics’ of modules they take in college, even though they can pass the exam.

As part of my contract, I can teach up to six hours a week. This semester I am assisting with the materials half of a product design module. I sit in on the classes and give thoughts on student’s assignments that were assigned the previous week. As part of this I am delivering two lectures; one on ‘environmentally-friendly alternatives to plastics’ and a second on ‘Additive manufacturing/3D Printing’. I have been preparing the presentations for these and my lectures will be delivered in the next two weeks. I have been collecting samples from different 3D printing technologies this month to pass around the class as I talk through the different types.

Tensile samples printed on an Ultimaker FDM 3D printer

I really feel that I have been away from the office for the majority of September. I attended a ‘Point Of Care 3D printing’ in St. Thomas’ Hospital London. This event was sponsored by Materialise. I flew from Shannon to London the night before, stayed in a hotel and flew home again straight after the conference. I met some very interesting people at this event, some were in early stages of their career, like me. It was nice to chat to people in the same boat as me at a conference as I have felt much younger/much more inexperienced than others that I have chatted to at conferences in the past.

A few months ago, a science/physics teacher that I am friends with asked me to visit her school and talk to some of the students about 3D printing and what I do. I feel that the visit went really well, with loads of interesting questions from the class. I was actually surprised at the level the questions were at – it showed that they had understood majority of what I had been talking about and were genuinely interested in the technology. I hope they enjoyed the visit as much as I did.

Last week I attended the TCT show 2019 (Design-to-Manufacture Innovation). This exhibition was not just for 3D printing but Majority of people there were demonstrating their 3D printers, new 3D printing materials as well as launching brand new 3D printers. For this event, I travelled over to Birmingham and back in the same day. This is really only possible because the event is in the NEC, which is a two minute train from Birmingham airport. I flew back to Dublin and stayed in Dublin as I had three training days in the National Children’s Research Centre (NCRC, Crumlin) directly after this trip.

The NCRC part-fund my PhD, along with the Irish Research Council. My PhD mentor is the Research and Operational manager for the NCRC. She organised these training days for me and the other students that receive funding from the NCRC. As part of the training we covered grant writing, GDPR, health research regulations (HRRs), lay abstract writing, biosample storage, media training and good clinical practice training. I have mentioned this in previous blogs, but I really think now is the best time to get these training sessions done as I am just beginning my research project and these skills will be so important. I got to meet the other students who all had completely different PhD projects to mine. This was a great networking opportunity as well as being able to compare what is different in each of our universities. The others were from UCD, Trinity, NUIG and RCSI.

As well as everything else, this month I have also set up an Instagram account for our 3D printer/ my PhD project. We decided to name the printer Grey, so the Instagram account is simply named ‘Greys3DPrinting‘. I find the best way to explain the technologies are with time-lapses of parts being printed. As well, 3D printed models are so easy to understand when you can hold them and look at them from a range of angles. For this exact reason, I think it is worth setting up an Instagram account to upload relevant photos and videos of my project to. I will document interesting prints here (as well as trips to conferences and events) in real time but I will continue to write a blog once every month or so.

Summer School 2019 (Update)

Just over two months ago, I wrote a blog about the summer school I attended to receive the Certificate in Generic & Transferable Research skills as part of my PhD. I had completed the residential week just before writing the first blog. This involved workshops for the six modules I had opted to take, as well as a few extra talks in intellectual property, research funding, grant writing and entrepreneurship. At the time of writing the first blog I thought I had most of the summer school work done by attending the residential week, however, the assignments turned out to be the bulk of the work.

Since writing the initial summer school blog, I have completed all of these assignments. We had six modules (3 credits each), each module had assignments to follow in order to complete the module. The modules are pass/fail and no grades are given. If you fail a module you must repeat it the following year. The 12 weeks following the residential week were split into three 4-week blocks, each block allowed time to complete assignments for two full modules. These assignments had a nice amount of variety including group project presentations, short essays, creating opinion posts on a forum and responding to others’ posts, completing online courses, filling in a research ethics application and writing a brief literature review. I found the assignments relevant to the course and genuinely really useful for us early-career researchers.

At the beginning of the residential week it was stated that two days a week should be devoted to completing the assignments. I have been lucky enough that I have not had a very busy summer in terms of my own project, and I have mainly been focusing on the summer school assignments. I am also fortunate enough that my supervisor realized the level of commitment needed for the summer school and let me prioritize these assignments. I found myself spending at least half of each week completing assignments. I know that others have really struggled to meet deadlines and have been juggling their own research work as well as the assignments.

I would advise new PhD students to sign up for summer school in their first summer if possible. If you are thinking of taking the summer school, be prepared to give 3 days a week to complete the assignments. As well as being prepared for this yourself, make sure your supervisor realizes that, by permitting you to attend the summer school, this will be your priority for the summer (12 weeks out of 4 years is not that much when you think about it). I definitely recommend all PhD students to at least attend the residential week as there was an enormous amount of valuable information provided. The UL summer school is obviously run with the intentions of creating better researchers by preparing them early on in their careers, rather than just making up 18 credits in order to graduate.

My first conference – 3D Printing in Medicine

As usual, I am just going to mention a quick update on my own work before I can talk about the fun stuff that I got up to in the month of June.

This week I have submitted the third draft of the radiopacity project paper to my supervisors (I have three supervisors and one enterprise partner mentor as part of my PhD supervisory team). It is only now that I feel that the paper is actually coming together nicely, in a coherent and easy-to-read style. Honestly, I was feeling quite unmotivated the past few weeks as I have been mainly desk-bound and trying to finish off this paper, when I would prefer to be in the lab. But, Wednesday evening I came across an interesting citation for a paper. It sounded like they were doing quite similar work to us in the radiopacity project, even with the same make of printer. This worried me, as our paper is not yet published and this paper was out since 2016 (and would take away from the novelty of our hard work). Upon reading the paper,to my relief, this other group were doing very primitive work in comparison to what we have in the pipeline, and our research was under real no threat!

To give a simple comparison, we are suspending particles that show up on x-ray within the 3D printing ink, printing components with this ink that then are visible under x-ray. This other group, were 3D printing as normal and then rubbing particles with similar properties on the outside of the printed parts. Same end goal, but their method was quite messy and ours would be much more suitable to medical devices.

Materialise Conference, Leuven

So, I was sent to my first conference last month, titled ‘3D printing in Medicine’, which was run by Materialise in Leuven, Belgium. Materialise were one of the first 3D printing companies, and began when the CEO Wilfried Vancraen realised the potential of 3D printing and bought his own printer. Now, Materialise are the largest 3D printing company, and are focused primarily on software, medical and manufacturing.

This was a two-day conference. Day One consisted of talks from the experts in 3D printing in medicine and a visit to Health House, as well as plenty of coffee/tea breaks, lunch, dinner and drinks – where all the real networking happens. Day Two was made up of a Mimics workshop (learning how to segment medical scans before they can be 3D printed) and a full tour of Materialise HQ).

The keynote speaker for the event was Dr. Jonathan Morris, who is the Director of the 3D Printing Anatomy Modelling Lab, Mayo Clinic, USA. Jonathan spoke about how 3D printing has revolutionised radiology in their hospital – mainly in terms of 3D printed models for surgeons to be able to see the anatomy before operating on a patient. Once the surgeons use 3D printed models to plan a surgery, they want to continue using these models for future surgeries, as it gives them an opportunity to literally see regions of interest (complicated vascular structures, tumours within an organ), whereas they usually would not learn this much detail until the patient was already on the operating table. Even though medical scans are of good quality, it takes skill, practice and some mental gymnastics to visualise the 3D anatomy from what is on a 2D screen in front of you – and this is where a 3D printed model makes surgical planning much easier.

Cutting guides are also frequently used. This involves looking at a 3D virtual model of the area of interest (Femur, for example), deciding where on this model is best to make cuts, and creating a cutting guide based on this. The cutting guide is then 3D printed, sterilised and taken into surgery. The surgeon already knows exactly where to place the cutting tools before the operation begins. The guides are placed in the predetermined position and the cutting process is simplified – less time, fewer tools required and most importantly, better surgical outcomes.

The evening part of day one was very interesting. Health House, Leuven, is a unique experience, looking at the future of healthcare and how growing technology will impact this future. This is an interactive, hands-on tour, following the timeline of ‘pre-conception to old age’ and the disease and illnesses that a person might come into contact with during their lifetime. The focus of this tour is how the healthcare of the future might better prevent/monitor these in the future with growing technology.

The highlight of the two days for me, was the tour of Materialise HQ. Materialise seem to have a few printers of each 3D printing technology (Stereolithography, Selective Laser Sintering, FDM, Polyjet, Multi-jet fusion, Direct Metal Laser Sintering), as well as a ‘mammoth’ SLA 3D printer which contains a huge VAT of photocurable resin (as in normal SLA) but the dimensions are big enough to print an entire car in a single print (which they have done!). We were brought on a loop around the factory, and most 3D printers had a window so we could look into the print beds and watch the printing take place. I have to compare it to being Charlie in ‘Charlie and The Chocolate Factory’ on the Materialise factory tour – I must have been annoying the tour guide with all of my questions. There is an entire room full of everyday objects that had been 3D printed; coffee tables, chairs, lampshades. The lampshades were surprisingly impressive..

There is a virtual tour of Materialise HQ here.

I met some very interesting people at the networking breaks on both days. There was a huge variety of people there – from people starting out in their careers (like me) to people that have already successfully set up 3D printers in hospitals around the world and are now teaching the rest how to follow suit – and why it will literally revolutionise healthcare. There were people from a range of disciplines in attendance, including material science, radiology, plastic surgery, cardiology, orthopaedic surgery, gynaecology, software development, biomedical engineering, dentistry and medical physics. I think it is important for such diversity at these events as it keeps it very interesting and networking has the potential to lead to interdisciplinary connections in areas that you would never think of applying your own research.

The common conversation starter at the networking breaks was ‘and what do you do?’ – which I would imagine is quite common at these type of events. I ended up explaining my own research to plenty of people (and also taking in theirs). Most people seemed genuinely interested in the projects that I am working on, which is a good sign for when we are publishing this work! Overall I had a great time at my first conference, and would highly recommend Materialise-run conferences in the future.

May 2019: MedTech and summer school

May was quite a busy month. I finished a second draft of the paper that I am currently writing, travelled to Med-Tech Innovation Expo in Birmingham, and attended a week-long summer school in UL.

Med-Tech Birmingham 2019

Med-Tech was my first trip as part of the PhD. I travelled with one of my supervisors (Kevin), leaving Limerick at 6am. Our flight was 10:35am from Dublin, and we arrived in Birmingham before 12. The exhibition centre was a 2 minute train journey from the airport, allowing us to return home on the same day. We first had a look through all stands, and then went back to speak to people we were most interested in. My highlights of the event were Tritech, the Create Education project, and Paragon. All of these stands were related to 3D printing, but the applications of each group are quite different.

Tritech sell 3D printers, including the Connex 500 printer that I use for my research. It was interesting to see the capabilities of the new printers, which can hold more cartridges at once, allowing multiple materials to be printed at the same time, whereas the Connex 500 has a limit of two materials (which is still really good). The option to have more cartridges in the printer at once would save material, as a lot of material is wasted during material changeovers.

Photo of the Tritech 3D stand at Med-Tech, mostly anatomical models made from multiple materials in one single print

The Create Education Project is an initiative to allow schools across the UK to borrow 3D printers, to bring 3D printing technology to the classroom, for free. They also provide free lesson plans and project ideas on their website. This is a great initiative to give students the opportunity to learn about 3D printing and make their own parts. I would love to see similar projects set up for schools in Ireland.

Paragon had interesting samples at their stand – there were three/four samples of the same material but completely different mechanical properties due to the structure. Some were hard to compress, others compressed easily. These parts were printed using Digital Light Synthesis (DLS), and show how diverse 3D printed parts can be, even if only using one material. Each structure could be used for an entirely different application.

Photo of the range of structures printed by Paragon

Summer School 2019

I also attended summer school last month. As I am doing a structured PhD, I am required to undertake 30 taught modules (which would usually be studied in the first two years of a PhD) plus my PhD thesis. 12/30 of these credits are earned by doing specialist modules (closely linked with my PhD topic) and 18/30 credits are earned by doing Generic & Transferrable Research Skills (modules that would benefit all PhD students as they can apply the skills to their own specific research). As part of the summer school, I took 6 x 3 credit modules, which will add up to the total amount of credits for the GTRS portion of my structured PhD.

The modules I studied for summer school were as follows:

  1. Research Networking
  2. Developing Ideas & Arguments: Writing into Academic Communities
  3. Planning Research and Publication
  4. Digital Research Management
  5. Research Ethics
  6. Research Integrity

To be honest, I signed up for the summer school to get the credits I need to graduate, however, I was pleasantly surprised with everything that I learned during the week. The module I found most interesting was Research Integrity. We were introduced to a range of case studies, which showed examples of fraud, misconduct, plagiarism and data falsification in research. It is interesting to see how far some researchers have gone to increase their amount of publications, at any cause. Most researchers blamed the ‘publish or perish’ attitude in academia and the pressure to produce good results.

Another module that I enjoyed was research networking. In the past, some of the most successful academics were the people best at making connections and collaborations in interdisciplinary areas. Now, there is a huge focus on teaching up-and-coming academics how to network effectively, from the very beginning of their career.

I know I will make use of (at least parts of) all six modules during my PhD and even later on in my career. The summer school was definitely worth doing, and I would recommend it to non-structured PhD students also.

Research plans vs reality

This week I have done the final few prints for the radiopacity project. I have been working on this project since June and it is satisfying to see how far the project has come since then. The paper is also coming together nicely, and I am excited for when I can post the results of the project.

In research, things rarely happen as originally planned, often due to completely unforeseen factors. I have decided to focus this blog on how real timelines are often quite different to the plan. This week was my second time ‘hacking the printer’ on my own, and this time I was much more confident. This week, I had three things to print:

  1. Print a hand with radiopaque bone (within TangoBlack, a black rubber material to represent the soft tissue of the hand)
  2. Samples for mechanical testing the material (5 of each)
  3. Samples for a second mechanical test (5 of each)

The hand was the biggest job (4 hours) and I originally planned to get the two mechanical testing samples done in a second print job (1.5 hours). Here is my original plan for the two days:

This plan wasn’t being super optimistic, either. I gave myself extra time to make the material and set up before printing, with an hour between prints to clean and setup for the next print. Friday was block booked for cleaning and getting the printer back to full working condition for Monday morning. ‘Test and clean’ from the timeline means checking how badly the printer had been blocked up while printing the radiopaque material, unblocking the print heads and making sure there are no issues before beginning the next print. This is the part that I had rushed in previous prints, cutting corners and continuing with the print even though heads were blocked, because I thought that ignoring one or two blocked heads (out of ~100) would not affect the end results. This was a huge lesson for me, as I now know that this step is crucial. One or two blocked heads at the start can ruin an entire print and result in repeating the entire job, which in the long run, is more time consuming, and also a waste of material. I made sure to mix my material after any break in printing – as I had not done this last time. This time, after mixing well before every print, there were hardly any blockages.

So, this time I did not cut corners with the cleaning step, but the real timeline was still quite different from the planned timeline:

The ‘reality’ timeline was going perfectly (almost too perfectly!) until 13:30, when I realised the hand part was printing but no bone was showing up. I cancelled the job and checked the printer for blockages, but there were no print heads blocked. We had this problem a few months previously, and to be honest we are still unsure what went wrong. The 3D hand file (consisting of two parts – the bone and the surrounding soft tissue) successfully printed with clear ink as the skeleton and black rubber material as the soft tissue, but would not print the radiopaque material. Eventually, I decided to swap the cartridge tag to trick the printer into thinking that it was printing just clear ink (as I knew it had already successfully printed the skeleton from this cartridge earlier in the week). I tried a tiny hand first – ‘Test print’ in the ‘reality’ plan (shown below, the hand is less than 1cm long). This print was successful so I started the print of the hand at 18:00 and went home while it continued to print.

Print 3, during printing

While trying to resolve the hand issue, I split ‘print 2’ from the plan into two parts. I thought two smaller prints would make more sense because if the print failed again, there would be less material wasted. The first small print (Print 2 in the reality plan) was successful but the second (Print 3) was cancelled as parts did not reach the correct height. By 16:00 I had the idea about swapping ID tags so the hand skeleton could be printed, so I abandoned print 3 and printed the hand.

The following morning I saw that the hand was printed successfully. I removed the hand from the print tray, made up some more material, and attempted print 3 again – the final print. Again, this print did not reach the height that it was supposed to. I tried again, and this time the print was fine.

Overall, I was very happy with these two days of work. Even though the printing took nearly twice as long as I had planned, I still managed to get them all done before the weekend. Most importantly, there was very little blocked heads during the print – I am going to credit this to the fact that I took more time to set up/ clean the printer before plowing ahead and printing as I had done previously. I also think that mixing the ink before every single print helped to reduce blockages, and was worth the extra time as this reduced the clean up time after each print. I look forward to getting the hand x-rayed next week to show exact radiopacity of the print!

Life-size hands:
The hand on the left is the failed attempt, as the radiopaque ink never printed (you can see the print is incomplete as it was cancelled).
The hand on the right is the successful print with visible bone inside