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.

Introduction

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!