How seeing a car crash simulation sparked a love affair with the heart

26 Sep 2018

Dr Claire Conway, lecturer in biomedical engineering at NUI Galway. Image: NUI Galway

Dr Claire Conway of NUI Galway is working to better understand how heart disease interacts with stents and other implants, for the benefit of millions.

Cardiovascular disease is regarded by the World Health Organization as the single greatest cause of death globally, with almost 18m dying from it in 2015.

For NUI Galway lecturer and researcher Dr Claire Conway, there remains much we have yet to understand about its interaction with some of its most common remedies, such as stents and other bodily implants.

After graduating with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and a PhD in biomedical engineering from NUI Galway, Conway spent the next four years at MIT in the US as part of a postdoctoral fellowship examining medical device failure.

In June 2017, she returned to Ireland to take up a lectureship in biomedical engineering at NUI Galway’s College of Engineering and Informatics.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I always had an interest in maths and physics. I first wanted to apply this knowledge by becoming an engineer and problem-solver, but one significant moment in my studies was during my undergraduate placement with a company that designed engineering computational analysis software.

I remember attending a seminar where a colleague presented an entire car crash computer simulation that compared precisely with an experimental set-up using a crash test dummy. I became hooked. The possibilities seemed endless in the predictive domain and then I decided I wanted to learn even more.

I was fortunate to be awarded an Irish Government-funded PhD scholarship to research how computational simulation could predict the mechanics of coronary stent behaviour – used to reopen blocked arteries – and the body’s response to these devices being implanted.

This cemented my goal to become a researcher. I was seeing first-hand how I, as an engineer, could make a positive impact in medicine and vascular biology from a computational perspective.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

My primary interest is in diseases affecting the heart and coronary vasculature, and designing structural implants to treat components of the malfunctioning heart.

I worked with a cardiologist for four years in the US before starting my lectureship in NUI Galway. This enabled me to see, from a clinical perspective, how doctors become informed and how cardiac devices come to market.

The gap I continued to see was that often, the disease is not sufficiently represented in experimental testing of devices. This is a challenge as a common disease can present in numerous ways in different patients.

So, the question becomes: how do we design treatments without fully understanding disease presentation? My particular focus is understanding the mechanics of these diseases and their interaction with engineered implants such as coronary stents and replacement heart valves.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Globally, heart disease is the number-one cause of death for both men and women. We are living longer, and this also means the proportion affected by heart disease is increasing. Now, more than ever, we need to ensure that we have treatments to meet the needs of our healthcare systems.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

I foresee my research being of benefit to the medical device industry, which has substantial presence in Ireland. With ever-increasing demand for treatments and means, we need to better understand how the heart functions in health and malfunctions in disease.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

I am starting to grow my research group, and one big challenge is getting funding as an early-career researcher. It is quite a competitive process and requires significant grit and determination to succeed. One needs to be relentless and pursue all avenues to get funds and hold firm that the research questions being asked are important and need answers.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

Cardiac disease progression can be highly influenced by genetic disposition but also by diet and lifestyle choices.

I believe education is key to improving health and wellbeing. Not only can we design treatments for patients, but we can also empower patients to understand the effects of diet and lifestyle to improve success of their treatments.

Who is your unsung hero of science and why?

My unsung heroes are the teachers who encouraged me every step of the way to follow my scientific interests from primary to secondary to third level. They identified creative ways to get their points across, showed the value of understanding complex material, and always offered encouragement and support.

I am grateful to those who helped me every step of the way. Being involved in education now, I aspire to teach with as much passion as those who taught me.