Griffith Centre of Biomedical and Rehabilitation Engineering (Griffith University)
Digital foot models paving the future for precision healthcare
As a researcher at the Griffith Centre of Biomedical and Rehabilitation Engineering and a Podiatrist, I challenge clinical practices and advocate for precision healthcare approaches. My dream is to equip medical professionals with tools to precisely measure and signal areas of stress in the foot to facilitate precision medicine and behaviour modification.
I took the first steps towards this goal, during my PhD where I developed and validated a computer model of the foot to quantify the motion of its intricate bones. The model has been downloaded >3160 times in 30 countries since its publication in October 2021. I currently collaborate with other STEM experts to integrate the model to innovate additive manufactured (3D printed) medical devices to reduce diabetic foot ulcers and amputations.
Beyond research, I create opportunities to inspire Australia’s next generation of women in STEM and to support STEM women to sustain a professional culture of inclusivity.
As one of the few female podiatrists to have obtained a PhD in Queensland, I am in a unique position to advance the state of foot health through advancing knowledge about foot function and technical innovation to mitigate disease and injury.
Problems arising with feet can cause a significant burden to our economy, both in healthcare costs, reduced work capacity and reductions in physical activity. An example of my research that has had a direct impact on how we consider footwear influences children’s risk of foot and ankle injuries. By using my foot model and precise measures of muscle and tendon strains we illustrated that contrary to the advice of many health professionals, flip-flops might not be as bad for children’s feet. The research received a lot of media attention and was able to provide reassurance to parents all over Queensland. It was aired on Channel 7 and ABC radio across the state and was also published in The Courier Mail (page 3), Innisfail Advocate, Weekend West, Northern Territory News, Geelong Advertiser, Townsville Bulletin.
My current research in preventing diabetic foot ulcers and amputations is ongoing. Nevertheless, the project is being performed in close collaboration with two Queensland-based industry partners, Gold Coast Health and Health Services and Healthia and has led to the creation of 2 part-time jobs in Queensland over the last 2years. Through collaboration with our partners, we aim to create an innovative product/service that incorporates feedback from end-users. To do this, we are engaging people with diabetes from Queensland through a participatory co-design approach to identify and solve, by design, barriers to medical insole use in Queensland including, for example, product aesthetics, seasonal use in hot/humid climates and ease of product use.
One of my proudest contributions to Queensland has been the co-development of the Biomechanics Research Innovation Challenge (BRiNC). The aim of this initiative is to engage 100 Australian high school girls from diverse backgrounds through a 100-day design thinking program through the mentorship of 25 early-career women researchers in STEM. The project aims to increase the participation of girls in STEM subjects through the inclusion of hands-on practical activities that make STEM subjects more exciting and accessible, the provision of female STEM role models, and showcasing of diverse STEM careers. By providing such opportunities, girls gain confidence and develop skills that will serve them well in STEM subjects and careers. While the program is run Nationwide, we have had 10 mentors and 7 schools from Queensland participate in the program, including 2 regional schools from Rockhampton and Mackay. In addition, our current iteration of BRiNC showcases women STEM professionals and Olympic and Paralympic athletes to illustrate the integral role that STEM plays in competitive sports and in preparation for Brisbane 2032. At the completion of the program in 2022, girls agreed more strongly with statements regarding whether they saw themselves as scientists and engineers, and they had significantly improved attitudes toward engineering in general and biomechanics specifically.
Firstly, I believe I am a competent STEM role model, particularly in the field of biomechanics. I completed an undergraduate degree in Health Sciences (Podiatry) and a PhD in the biomedical engineering field of biomechanics. I have performed and published some important research in my field. But I do not portray an image of a perfect person with exceptional grades or having attained huge success. In my short research career, I have also performed some research that has had a greater contribution to my development than the field. This makes me not only competent but a relatable STEM role model for young girls and early-career women. As I am not scared to share my mistakes and weakness it makes me approachable to many women. It helps them feel safe, to be open and forthcoming with their feelings and emotions.
Secondly, as a local who went through the Queensland education system, from kindergarten to PhD, I can explain the concentre steps in how Queensland girls can pursue STEM careers. I can demonstrate through experience the prerequisites of such careers, what they involve and all the future opportunities. For example, after completing my PhD in biomechanics, I spent 6 weeks in a Biomedical Engineering lab at Queens in Canada and 5 weeks in a Biomedical Engineering lab at Stanford. Sharing clear steps and future possibilities makes engineering and STEM less confusing and more attainable for Queensland girls and women. Through my current role as an educator and lecturer in Biomechanics to over 300 students in sports and exercise science in South-East Queensland, I illustrate that Queensland women can hold strong professional roles in STEM and academia, in fields traditionally dominated by males.
Finally, I believe I share demographic and psychological similarities with many Queensland women. Demographically, as an Indian Australian, I demonstrate that STEM is a place for people of diverse backgrounds. I was one of the few women completing a PhD in biomechanics at the University of Queensland and the only non-white person. Whilst having role models that are similar in colour and culture are important, I believe connections to role models can also be made at a much deeper level. For example, by sharing similar values, beliefs, and motivations. I believe I share similar beliefs, and motivations with many girls and women in Queensland and around the world – I love to help people! Rarely do girls and women associate their passion for helping people with careers in ‘science, engineering or technology’. I took this passion, first into health sciences and then to engineering where I developed my true love for STEM. When I commenced my PhD, I had no background in engineering, coding or any of the methods I was going to be applying in my research. Nevertheless, through hard work and persistence, I was able to complete my PhD in a similar time frame to my male colleagues despite not having the same experience or knowledge of the area.
I hope to encourage women through the stages of the STEM pipeline as I believe we need to not only inspire our next generation of engineers and STEM professionals but also retain talent to create and sustain a professional culture of inclusivity.
Specifically, I target the following critical points, where women disengage with STEM and engineering pathways:
1. The final years of high school, where a 1:2 female-to-male ratio in year 12, leaves girls underprepared and underqualified to apply for engineering courses at university.
2. Post-PhD (early career), where a staggering 40% of early-career female engineers transition into a different career path within 3-5 years of completing their PhD.
To address these critical points, I co-developed the Biomechanics Research and Innovation Challenge (BRInC), with 6 other women Biomechanical Researchers and in collaboration with BrainStem. The hands-on program exposes girls to the creative, applied field of biomechanics and increases their awareness of associated STEM opportunities. Concurrently, early-career mentors have access to peer-to-peer training and support to develop their expertise as STEM mentors and future engineering leaders.
Not only that, in 2020, I co-founded the International Women in Biomechanics (IWB), a not-for-profit organisation with the mission of also fostering an environment for women to gain support, visibility, and allyship. Today we have a community of over 700 members from over 300 universities/organizations and 33 countries, supporting each other, sharing their experiences and soliciting advice online. In 2022, the organisers and I published an evidence-based call to action to continue addressing gender bias in biomechanics. I was the senior lead author of this publication.
I have also been involved in general STEM promotion and engagement activities including:
1. 2018 to 2022, co-organised STEM activities and a technology showcase for high school students as part of National Biomechanics Day. Since 2018, I have exposed more than 300 student participants to STEM across 15 different schools. In 2018, our STEM-based activities were awarded ‘Best content’ by the National Biomechanics Day organisers (International)
2. Organiser of a 2-day Postgraduate conference at the University of Queensland. The aim of this conference was to bring together PhD students in STEM to gain experience in presenting and networking.