Medtech researcher reveals how passion drives her success

21 Jul 2016

Lisa Helen presents her smart needle research to the audience at Inspirefest 2016. Photo via Conor McCabe Photography

PhD researcher Lisa Helen tells us how her love for biology has formed the basis of her career in science.

Medical science is what makes me tick. How our amazingly intricate and complex bodies work has always astounded me. Asking questions, solving mysteries and confidently reaching a conclusion gives me great satisfaction in life. The fact that I could use this to help people and make a difference in the world around me gave me a passion to pursue my love for biology and base my whole career on it.

Inspirefest 2017

Biomedical science was the perfect third-level course for me and I thrived while studying something I loved at Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) and University College Cork (UCC). My course enabled me to work in a hospital laboratory for a year and, every day, surrounded by biological samples I could analyse, I was happy!

On returning to college for final year, a new challenge made itself known to me: the world of research.

The smart needle project

I completed my final-year project in the Life Science Interface group at Tyndall National Institute on the development of a ‘smart’ needle. I may have left the biological samples behind, but the prospect of making a new medical device that could be used in hospitals to help people in pain was very exciting.

Recognising my enthusiasm for this project, my supervisor, Dr Eric Moore, asked if I would like to apply to the Irish Research Council for funding to progress this project as a PhD. I knew the Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship award from the Irish Research Council was a very prestigious award, but with my enthusiasm and excitement for this project, my passion for medical science and the backing of a national research institute, there was no way I was turning down this opportunity.

In June 2013, I was elated to learn my application had been successful and I began my PhD in October of that year.

Watch Lisa Helen explain the smart needle project at Inspirefest 2016:

My PhD project addresses an unmet need for an innovative type of anaesthesia – ultrasound-guided nerve block – which is currently replacing conventional general anaesthesia worldwide for a wide range of surgical procedures.

I have developed a way to integrate an impedance sensor to a hypodermic needle tip. This sensorised needle – the ‘smart’ needle – can differentiate between tissue types, confirming a real-time needle location under the skin.

This solution addresses the clinicians’ need, and makes the process of ultrasound-guided nerve block anaesthesia administration more accurate and efficient, and lessens procedural risks for the patient.

Funding from the Irish Research Council has enabled the smart needle project to gather momentum, and allowed the delivery of key milestones of solution development and evaluation.

Research hero: Dr Susan Bullman

As an Irish Research Council Scholar, I have been able to ask so many new and unusual questions and, at times, find even more new and unexpected answers.

My PhD studies, with the support of Dr Moore and my co-supervisor, Dr Brian O’Donnell (consultant anaesthetist at Cork University Hospital and principal investigator in the ASSERT for Health centre), have enabled me to excel at things I never even knew I would like. For example, I was given the chance to experience the entrepreneurial world during participation in the SFI TIDA ‘Get Started Technology Venture Programme’ and won the final pitch-off in 2015 at the Science Gallery Dublin. I also had the opportunity to meet An Taoiseach Enda Kenny, TD, and tell him about my research.

The doors the Irish Research Council funding has opened for me are beginning to look like they are in endless supply, and I am extremely proud to be one of their scholars.

‘The doors the Irish Research Council funding has opened for me are beginning to look like they are in endless supply and I am extremely proud to be one of their scholars’

In my opinion, the Irish Research Council is doing a fantastic job of selecting and funding excellent Irish researchers. In fact, one of my role models, Dr Susan Bullman, was also funded by the Council under the IRCSET programme. Susan was an inspiration to me when thinking about pursuing a PhD. At CIT, in the CREATE team with Dr Roy Sleator and Dr Brigid Lucey, Susan helped discover a new pathogenic bacterium species – Campylobacter corcagiensis – and is currently working on micro-organisms’ role in cancer at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Boston.

It was Susan’s passion for biomedical science and research, her determination and inability to shy away from hard work, and her pure ambition, that provided me with a research hero – someone to look up to and strive towards becoming the best researcher I can be.

So go on, find your passion. Ask questions, build solutions and bring great benefits to society with your skills. Find your research hero, and #LoveIrishResearch.

By Lisa Helen

Lisa Helen is an Irish Research Council scholar and PhD Student at University College Cork and Tyndall National Institute.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Irish Research Council blog

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM.