First, a little bit of background on how I got to where I am..
I have been studying in UL for the past 6 years. I began my undergrad in Applied Physics in September 2013. I graduated in May 2017 and went straight into a taught masters (Biomedical Device Materials).
My favourite elements of both my undergrad and Masters were the research projects (both materials related – one was on printing a material for orthopaedics that would stimulate bone growth once grafted, the second was developing a material that bacteria could not adhere to). I enjoyed beginning a new project, immersing myself in all of this new information and slowly becoming familiar with this new area of science. I enjoyed the lab element also – running a multitude of tests and again, building up the knowledge of this relatively new field. It was quite satisfying to have built up a project and compile all of the project background, experimental data, results and conclusions in one neat document. This feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment is why I decided to pursue a PhD in material science. I am excited to start a new project, immerse myself in it fully and eventually become an expert in this field.
As I was coming to the end of the Masters I decided I would like to remain in research and I began looking for possible projects. During the material science masters I had done an assignment on an area of my own choice. I chose to write about ‘3D Printing in Medicine’. As part of this assignment, I learned the variety of areas that 3D printing can be used. I was surprised at the range of areas that 3D printing was already being applied to in medicine, such as anatomical models for planning surgeries, explaining procedures to patients, educating medical students, prototypes for medical devices, small medical devices, and of course, prosthesis.
I had decided that this (relatively) new and exciting area that I was now fascinated by was the area I wanted to study. I was shocked to find out that there was a research group in UL that had a multi-material 3D printer (it can place 2 materials at the same time, building components within other components). As a long shot, I emailed the head of the research group and asked if he had any material science related projects that I could get involved with. To my disbelief, he scheduled a meeting with me for the following week. I met up with the head of the research group and a second member of the group. I was given a tour of the lab and shown the printer and a variety of printed components – extremely exciting stuff! They had a project that they thought I would be a good fit for – suspending additives in the liquid 3D printing resin to change the properties of the final components. The property they were trying to enhance was radiopacity (making the component show up on x-rays, wheres the ordinary ink does not). I also felt that I was a good fit for this, given my background in physics and material science (along with my new found love for 3D printing). I was offered a research position working on this project for the summer. Needless to say, I accepted!
At the end of the summer, it was decided that we would apply for PhD funding for me to continue working with 3D printing and with the same research group (https://designfactors.ie/), but in a slightly different area. This time, instead of enhancing the radiopaque properties on the 3D printing ink, I would be making the printed components antimicrobial. Specifically, these antimicrobial components would be small accessories for PEG feeding tubes, specifically for children with Cystic Fibrosis. PEG tubes are supposed to be a short-term feeding solution, but often are left longer than this (if the child is too sick to go for surgery to replace the tube). This long-term use can result in degradation which leads to leaks/cracks in the PEG line. PEG feeding tubes are basically ideal incubators for micro-organisms (37 degrees Celsius, humid conditions) and are outside of the reach of the patient’s immune system, which increases risk of infection (which poses an extreme risk for patients with Cystic Fibrosis). The idea of a repair accessory/ device which is inherently anti-microbial was crafted to combat these two issues with PEG tubes.
I applied for funding from the Irish Research Council (under the Irish Research Council Enterprise Partnership Scheme) and this application was successful! Our enterprise partner is the National Children’s Research Centre – who have a high quality Cystic Fibrosis research team and have ongoing research in infection and immunity. I look forward to working alongside this partner.
So, we have been working on the radiopacity project since June (my summer internship was extended to Christmas, and then until the end of February). My PhD official start date was 1st March 2019, and I am now in between wrapping up the radiopacity project (hopefully publishing a paper on the key findings shortly) and kicking off the PhD project!