Research update: experiments have started

Research update

My main research update from this year is that the experiments as part of my PhD have started. This year I have been focusing on the material selection aspect of my work.

To recap, the material aspect of my project can be broken into three stages: additive identification, material selection and material characterization. First, 17 additives were selected which were either metal oxides or metal nanoparticles. The material selection stage of the research involves assessing additives based on their performance and deciding which one performed best overall. The criteria that the additives will be tested under included UV curing, settling and antimicrobial properties.

The UV curing experiments were carried out in February and the data has been analysed. The settling experiments are finished with the analysis in progress and the microbiological tests are also in progress. Once there is a single additive chosen, this will be 3D printed and characterized by mechanical testing and further antimicrobial testing – to make sure that 3D printed parts can kill bacteria.

Design of experiments

One of the most difficult aspects of my PhD journey so far has been planning and designing experiments. Even though it is interesting, it took a long time to get right. Similar to the literature review blog post, the first step is to check if any other published work has been done on a similar topic. For the material selection stage of this project, I am using adapted methods found in literature for my experiments. Each experiment needed to be modified slightly for this project. An important aspect while conducting a research project is being able to justify the methods being used when defending the work.

Undertaking these PhD experiments has been my first time having to think about how best to test anything. During school, my undergraduate degree and Master’s degree, the test methods were always given in advance, for practicality. Because of this, the last three years have involved a huge amount of learning and trying to think in a way I never had to before. It is crucial to design an experiment so that you are measuring exactly what you are trying to measure, since unaccounted for factors can affect the results.

Setbacks with experiments

There have been setbacks with the material selection experiments, some of which are due to poor planning.

A few times experiments have been postponed because essential materials or supplies had not been delivered on time. This is not so bad as there is always other work to be done, such as drafting literature reviews or making literature summaries for future papers.

There were issues encountered while setting up the settling tests. For this experiment, I was taking time-lapse images every hour as the powder settled out of suspension. The main issue was that the light sources I was using as a back light were curing the resin. This resulted in the final experiment using a red LED light source and in a dark box since the ambient lab lighting was even curing the resin. This set back added a few weeks to the experiment overall.

It is important to be able to deal with and overcome these setbacks as part of the PhD process, and learn to not take issues with an experiment personally. This is something that I am still learning to do.

Literature reviews: a survival guide

A literature review is a summary of the state of the art literature for a given topic. This involves finding and searching through a range of academic papers that relate to the topic. The key points are taken from each and inform a well-written narrative which usually serves as an introduction or background to give context to a written document. At this stage of my project, I will only discuss my methods for organizing the information taken from papers, and the writing process will be discussed in a later post.

For the past few weeks, I have been reading literature that relates to my PhD and making summaries of any interesting points from academic papers. I have been doing this task on and off for the past three years and I will likely be adding to my literature review document until I am nearly finished my PhD thesis.

Up until now, I have completed two formal literature reviews: one as part of my undergraduate final year project and one as part of my Master’s thesis. The following is what I have learned from conducting previous literature searches:

  • Focus is crucial to nailing a literature review
  • Summarise your findings
  • Document anything that is interesting (or could be relevant)

For me, it is extremely important to be able to focus when reading a paper. Looking for a particular piece of information such as a specific method that was used, makes it easy to efficiently extract information from a paper. I like to do my literature reviews with an empty schedule so that I can get through as many papers as possible while remaining focused on the topic.

Usually, reading any paper front to back is a waste of time. It is much more time efficient to take notes of the relevant sections. So far, I have been adding to my literature review document in sections – which allows me to focus and skim through parts of relevant papers without reading them all in full. Reading without taking notes means that the information may be forgotten when it is the time to write. Well-documented notes are crucial for referencing the correct source of your information.

My advice to any students commencing a literature review would be to first ask why and how you are going to do this search, before ever opening a new search tab.

Firstly, why are you doing this literature search?

  • Primarily, to check that the work you are about to do has not already been done – this could save you from doing experiments in some cases. You may also want to follow existing methods rather than re-inventing the wheel
  • To find the niche where your work fits into the existing research. You are more than likely building on the research of others, it is important to check what has been done and where your work fits among the existing work.
  • To get familiar with the writing style of the journal you are submitting to.
  • Improving your own writing style

Secondly, how are you going to do this literature search? For me, the most efficient literature review method is as follows:

  1. Decide what area of the literature you are researching
  2. Collect papers from a quick systematic search
  3. Set up an excel sheet with different headings of information that you will be interested in
  4. Go through the papers and take out information from each
  5. Record the information

I use a single excel document with a different spreadsheet for each topic of the project. I like to give each paper its own row within the relevant spreadsheet. I summarise anything that could be used for when I am writing. I highlight the cells with key papers so I know to come back to these when I am eventually writing. In the past, I used to read papers and write summary paragraphs but these paragraphs never made it to the final written draft. It makes more sense to summarise everything now so that I can easily catch up on the topics and write with a better flow when I am drafting the thesis. My PhD Literature review spreadsheet has the following topics: 3D printing with UV curable composites, cystic fibrosis, feeding tubes, general microbiology, Gram positive bacteria, and metal oxides. These topics should fit nicely to give a comprehensive background to my project when it is time to write.

This blog post describes my method and motive for doing literature reviews and my recommendations for any students that were starting a literature search for the first time. Like anything else, it is a case of trial and error to find what works best.

Radiopaque 3D printing

Our ‘radiopaque material’ paper has been published in 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing journal (and here is the link). The X-ray of the hands was printed on a full page within the journal, just before the article. If that wasn’t enough for us, they used our work on the front cover for the December edition which is still sinking in months later!

December 2020 edition of 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing journal cover showing our 3D printed hands

The term ‘radiopaque‘ describes a material that is visible under X-ray imaging. ‘Radiolucent’ describes a material that is invisible to X-rays.

Background

First, I will give some background as to why we developed this material.

In general, plastic-based 3D printing materials are not clearly radiopaque. This can cause issues if 3D printed anatomical models are being X-rayed/CT scanned or instruments are being used under X-ray/fluoroscopy.

The paper details how we created and 3D printed a plastic-based radiopaque material. This material shows up under regular X-ray imaging as well as CT imaging, and could potentially be visible using fluoroscopy and MRI, but have not checked these experimentally.

One point that I must make, is that radiopaque 3D printing is not totally new. Many papers have made anatomical models with FDM printers (that use thermoplastic filament) that have regions of varying radiopacity. However, the resolution for this technology is much less than that of resin-based 3D printers. Smallest features can be as large as 1mm compared to 0.1mm for some resin-based printers. And since resin-based 3D printers have higher resolution, they generally come with more limitations than FDM printers, making high-quality radiopaque multi-material 3D printing difficult. Some research groups are adding radiopaque material to PolyJet 3D printed parts after printing, however, the quality does not compare to printing with radiopaque resin.

For this project, we used a Connex 500 multi-material 3D printer (I have described this in an earlier blog post here) so that radiopaque material could be printed within non-radiopaque materials. This “multi-material” feature was perfect to demonstrate the new material. The base material for this project was MED610, a clear, biocompatible material. The second was TangoBlackPlus, which is a black, rubber-like material. We added radiopaque powder to MED610 in order to create the radiopaque ink.

MaterialDescription
MED610Clear, biocompatible material Rigid when cured
TangoBlackPlusSoft, black material Rubber-like when cured
Radiopaque materialWhite, rigid material when cured. Visible under X-ray.

Proof of concept

As a proof of concept experiment for this radiopaque ink, we 3D printed a hand with radiopaque bone. We could have selected any feature for this, but our Connex 3D printer came with a hand/bone demo model so we decided to make use of this. TangoBlackPlus was used for the soft tissue and the radiopaque material represented bone. These 3D printers are not made for custom material so we had to trick the 3D printer that it was actually printing commercially available material (which could actually invalidate the 3D printer warranty). Since TangoBlackPlus is visually opaque, the bones could only be seen under X-ray, forming an ideal proof-of-concept experiment:

Above: X-ray of the two hands, one with radiopaque bone and the other with MED610 bone.
Below: Photograph of the two hands. The hands are completely indistinguishable in the photograph but clearly different under X-ray.

Limitations

This project was overall successful in 3D printing radiopaque material but there were also some limitations. The temperature of the print head accelerates the powder settling out of suspension. The hand took four hours to print and so settling was not a major issue. As well as settling, the powder did block up the print heads slightly which caused some uneven layers. We developed a cleaning method to restore it after each ‘experimental print’ . Overall, this proof-of-concept experiment was successful and the material now needs to be further developed to reduce these limitations.

Applications

A radiopaque 3D printable material has potential applications in a wide variety of industries, including med-tech, aerospace, automotive and general manufacturing. Since our research group focuses on medical devices, I will go into greater detail on the medical applications for this material.

  1. Anatomical models: More realistic anatomical models can be produced, which would be very similar to the patient’s original body part under X-ray. This can be used to practice procedures on a patient-specific model or even teach medical students how to perform procedures under X-ray imaging such as fluoroscopy.
  2. Calibration for medical imaging: Any medical imaging technique that makes use of X-rays also causes potentially harmful radiation to interact with the patient’s body. New imaging equipment, for example a CT machine, could make use of anatomically-accurate phantoms for calibration, as well as testing new machine features. This would prevent any unnecessary radiation exposure to patients. A 3D printed limb or torso with controlled radiopacity could be used for daily calibration on existing machines.
  3. Medical training: Rare cases, such as complex injuries, could be 3D printed and used for diagnostic and therapeutic exercises for medical students. Standardised phantoms could be used to train radiologists to make diagnoses from X-ray or CT imaging.
  4. Better visibility of plastic-based devices within the body: Currently, instruments/implants that do not show up under X-ray have marker bands added so they are visible. Polymer/plastic-based medical devices, such as catheters, could be 3D printed in a single pieces including a radiopaque marker band which could allow easier manufacturing of these devices since the part is made in a single step.

Visuals

I have linked two YouTube videos here that are useful for better visualising this exciting technology.

The first is a full-scale CT reconstruction of the hand and the control hand (with MED610 bones).

The second video shows a microCT reconstruction of the experimental hand only. This video has a smaller field of view and so the thumb did not fit within the area being scanned. The microCT shows greater details such as the streaky layers that have already been mentioned as part of the limitations.

Back to Work: The New Normal

Working on campus

In my last blog post, I gave an update on the realities of working from home. I am glad to be able to say that I have been working on campus again for the past few weeks, but life has definitely not returned to normal.

Every morning I must sign in at the Main Building then walk across a tunnel to the Foundation Building where my desk and lab are. Our office has moved downstairs temporarily so that all staff that are back to work are on the same level (the basement). We must walk back to the main building to use the toilets as the toilets in our building are closed. Our building is basically closed apart from a few members of our research group. Every evening we have to fill out a contact tracing form, listing anybody we have been in contact with for 15 minutes or more within a distance of 2m. There is also a one-way system in place and plenty of hand sanitisers as in most buildings at the moment. UL students are due to return at the end of September which will change our current set up. Hopefully the Foundation Building will be opened and toilets back up and running.

I really have missed the lab over the past few months and I am delighted to be back. The social aspect is another advantage of being physically ‘back to work’. I am delighted to have a regular routine back. I tried my best to continue working Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm while working from home but this was rarely the case. I often felt guilty for not getting enough done during the day, due to all the distractions at home, and ended up working later than 5pm and a few hours over the weekend. I am glad to get out of this habit now that I am physically back at work.

PhD update

At the time of writing my previous blog, I had just submitted an abstract for a 3D printing conference. I was accepted to talk at this conference and presented remotely in July. This was my first time presenting at a conference. I was happy with my presentation but disappointed that there were no comments or feedback from the others that had tuned in. As the topics I am working on are all medical-based it might be best to stick to 3D printing in medicine conferences only in future as I believe people attending these conferences would have more interest in my work.

Nanotexnology tweeted this during my presentation

Before returning to work, I completed the paper that I had been working on during the summer months. This paper was submitted to a journal but unfortunately it was rejected (I received the rejection email this morning). There was less scientific data in this paper than the first one we submitted and this was the primary reason for rejection. This paper is a material selection paper on how we chose the additive for radiopaque 3D printing. This is the second paper submitted as part of my PhD, the first paper was accepted for publication but has not yet been published.

The next step in my research is choosing a single additive for antimicrobial 3D printing. I have now narrowed down the search to 10-20 additives based on a list of criteria. I am currently working on a lab work plan for the PhD and mapping out what experiments need to be done. Each round of testing should eliminate additives so that we are left with the best candidate for antimicrobial 3D printing. I reckon that I will have approximately one year of lab work, a few months of clinical work (this is highly dependent on the covid-19 situation in 12 months time), and a year to write up subsequent papers and my thesis.

During the first research project (radiopaque 3D printing) I made lots of mistakes, which is probably fair for the first project that I have led myself. The biggest mistake was not taking good enough notes and not documenting some experimental conditions. This meant that a lot of work had to be repeated, wasting time and materials. I have learnt from what went wrong with the first project and I am writing short reports for each experiment with a method section to avoid any repetition at a later stage. This will hopefully make writing papers and my thesis easier when the time comes.

Overall, I am definitely excited to be back to work and I am quite happy with the research plan for the remainder of the PhD. I reckon that I am well on track to finish within the four years (currently half way through year 2).

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.

COVID-19

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.