Meet the ‘accidental researcher’ who helped develop the Bionic Bra

15 Aug 2018

Prof Julie Steele, director of the Biomechanics Research Laboratory and Breast Research Australia. Image: University of Wollongong

Prof Julie Steele didn’t intend to become a researcher but her work in biomechanics has gone on to help countless women.

For the past 35 years, Prof Julie Steele has been an academic at the University of Wollongong in Australia, all the way from a junior lecturer to a tenured senior professor.

She founded and currently operates as director of the Biomechanics Research Laboratory and Breast Research Australia.

She is the author of more than 165 peer-reviewed journal articles and has presented more than 330 scientific talks across the world.

Not only was Steele the first ever Australian elected as president of the International Society of Biomechanics, she is also one of only 44 biomechanists appointed to the World Council of Biomechanics.

Steele was a speaker at the World Congress of Biomechanics 2018 held in Dublin in July of this year. It was co-hosted by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and Trinity College Dublin in partnership with the Science Foundation Ireland-funded AMBER centre.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I am an ‘accidental researcher’. When I was at school, I was totally naive to the concept of research and simply assumed that scientists were only men in white coats, carrying test tubes and peering down microscopes.

Typical of many women of my era, I originally trained as a school teacher in physical and health education. I stumbled upon the discipline of biomechanics when I undertook research while waiting for a teaching position to become available within a then-saturated teaching market.

Mentored by my supervisor at the University of Western Australia, Prof Bruce Elliott, my passion for applied biomechanics research was ignited, particularly when the dearth of biomechanical research investigating practical issues that affected the health and wellbeing of women became apparent.

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

For more than 35 years, my team has focused on developing innovative strategies, based on rigorous applied biomechanics research.

My research initially focused on mechanisms of lower-limb injuries caused by high-impact landings, based on my passion for netball. This resulted in the first biomechanical case study worldwide of an anterior cruciate ligament (a knee ligament) rupture during a landing.

The research also provided fundamental knowledge upon which the mechanisms of this devastating injury could be better understood, as well as providing the basis for my current research on the biomechanics of high-impact landings (eg aerials in surfing, parachuting).

My research has also included developing wearable technologies to enhance quality of life, such as the Bionic Bra as well as breast health biomechanics.

The ultimate aim of my breast health biomechanics research is to ensure that any female, irrespective of age, health status or breast size, can enjoy the health benefits associated with regular exercise without suffering breast discomfort.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

I believe my research is important because my team and I constantly explore original areas of research that have typically been ignored, particularly applied biomechanical research investigating practical issues that affect the health and wellbeing of women.

For example, we conducted the first comprehensive study in the world to systematically examine the unique needs of women living with a diagnosis of breast cancer.

More specifically, this was in terms of bras designed for exercise to reduce bra discomfort for these women. The research highlighted that breast cancer survivors who cannot find a comfortable bra to exercise in report participating in lower levels of physical activity.

This is extremely concerning because participating in regular exercise has been shown to have numerous health benefits for women living with a breast cancer diagnosis, including improved breast cancer-specific and all-cause mortality.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Because of its very applied nature, results from my team’s research have extensive commercial applications.

For example, our breast health biomechanics research has been translated into evidence-based resources to educate women on the importance of well-fitted and well-designed breast support.

We have published patents related to bra design, and our recommendations have been incorporated into commercially available products. We have also had several commercial outcomes based on our footwear research.

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

One of the main hurdles I have faced as a researcher is gaining sufficient funding to support our studies.

In the early days of my career, research funding from the main government sources tended to be directed towards basic sciences conducted in traditional academic fields. As a relatively young discipline, applied biomechanics research – particularly research related to female health issues – often ‘fell between the cracks’.

Although securing research funding is still a challenge around the world, there is a trend towards the funding of translational research, which has helped us sustain our research programmes.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

I am constantly aware that people are sceptical about whether our breast biomechanics research is ‘serious research’, particularly given the very applied nature of our approach.

However, once we explain the serious negative health consequences associated with inappropriate breast support, particularly for women with a breast cancer diagnosis, their views usually change and they appreciate the seriousness and worth of the topic.

We frequently also have to convince researchers from more traditional fields of science that applied biomechanics research is real science.

But, again, when we explain the level of scientific rigour and theoretical frameworks underlying our studies, they start to appreciate what we do.