From homemaker to PhD: How one email changed the life of this researcher

1 May 2019

Dr Wenyue Zou of RMIT University, Australia. Image: RMIT University

Dr Wenyue Zou of RMIT University in Australia never intended on becoming a researcher, but now she is one of Asia Pacific’s rising stars.

After receiving her PhD in applied chemistry from RMIT University in 2018, Dr Wenyue Zou joined the university’s Sir Ian Potter NanoBioSensing Facility as a postdoctoral research fellow.

With a research focus on light-active materials to make colour-based sensors, she co-founded NexGen NanoSensors to develop and patent a personalised, wearable UV sensor.

She was recently named among the top 10 innovators under 35 by MIT Technology Review in the Asia Pacific region in 2019.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I arrived in Australia from China in September 2014 to support my husband when he was pursuing his PhD in Melbourne. I didn’t plan to work and spent several months at home as a housewife. I read about Prof Vipul Bansal’s [director of the Sir Ian Potter NanoBioSensing Facility] nanotechnology research when I was browsing the web one day. I was impressed by his high-quality work and was eager to learn from someone with his research expertise.

It was at that moment that I decided to do a PhD and become a researcher myself. I sent an email to Bansal and asked if I could join his research group as a PhD candidate. I was anxious as it was the first time I had sent out my CV. To my surprise, he replied to my email only 17 minutes later and told me he was willing to be my supervisor. That day meant a lot to me. That one email changed my life.

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

I’m currently working on the commercial translation of a low-cost, personalised wearable UV sensor that I developed during my PhD. Overexposure to UV radiation (UVR) in the sunlight is the major cause of skin cancer, while underexposure may cause vitamin D deficiency, making UVR very important to monitor.

UVRs are classified into UVA, UVB and UVC, each of which has a remarkably different impact on human health. UVRs are neither visible to humans nor related to temperature. Sunburn effect, which is caused by UV damage, may occur more than 12 hours after UV exposure, making it extremely difficult to determine the sun-safe exposure limits.

We developed a photoactive ink that can generate a unique colour response to specific UV wavelengths. We then used this ink to fabricate low-cost wearable sensors that provide naked-eye monitoring of UVR, even at low doses typically encountered during solar exposure.

More importantly, our UV sensors can be customised to meet the specific needs of different skin phototypes. These low-cost, personalised wearable UV sensors offer remarkable potential in managing the impact of UVR in our day-to-day life.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

My research aims to apply chemistry principles to solve real-world problems. I am working to develop novel photoactive materials that could have direct implications for our communities.

Australia has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world. Every year in Australia, skin cancers account for around 80pc of all newly diagnosed cancers and more than 90pc of skin cancer is caused by overexposure to UVR in the sun. But we can’t live without the sun as solar UV is our major source of vitamin D, so we need to be aware of how much sun exposure we get every day.

Having learned that this is a significant problem and realising there were no cheap UV sensors that consumers can buy, I felt that this was a major gap, scientifically as well as socially. My work on the UV sensor could fill the gap in the wearable health monitoring technology by providing an easy and inexpensive way of fulfilling the day-to-day needs of our society.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

The novel UV active ink that I developed has the potential to be applied not only in UV sensor technology but other applications, including defence and coatings. During the concept development, I was encouraged to work with our industry partners from early on in the project. This ensured that the technology would be practically feasible for scalable adoption – low-cost, easy to fabricate and with a colorimetric readout for simplicity. The technology has potential to make remarkable social contributions.

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

Up to this stage, we have done a comprehensive investigation of our UV sensors and have already patented the technology. I think the biggest challenge for us is to find appropriate investor(s) to transfer this from a scientific breakthrough to a commercial product that benefits our society.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

I feel the biggest misconception is that people are not aware of the effect of UV and people often don’t even realise it’s damaging their skin until they get sunburned.

As UV is not related to temperature, people can still be sunburned when the temperature is cool and the damage cannot be erased, which increases the risk of skin cancer. Moreover, sun exposure that doesn’t result in burning can still cause damage to skin cells and increase skin cancer risk. Access to a wearable UV sensor can remind people to care about UV and understand UV damage.

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

I am truly inspired by the value of applied science and the potential of using scientific knowledge to achieve practical applications. I’d like to continue my work in this area in the future, especially in nanotechnology and biosensing.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.