Rhyme pays for ‘Thesis in 3’ winner Jennifer Gaughran

14 Nov 2014

Jennifer Gaughran, PhD student and researcher at Dublin City University

Dublin City University (DCU) researcher Jennifer Gaughran delivered a three-minute poem about her work on point-of-care disease detection to win Ireland’s national ‘Thesis in 3’ title.

Suppose you are feeling a bit off and your doctor wants to get your bloods done. You roll up your sleeve, endure the needle, the vials are packed off to a lab and several days later you come back for the results. There has to be an easier way.

Enter ‘point of care’, a model where the patient gives a drop or two of blood from a pinprick (or another sample, such as urine), the material is analysed on the spot at the clinic and the results are back within about an hour.

That’s the model DCU PhD student Jennifer Gaughran is looking to enable, and the audience at the recent ‘Thesis in 3’ final didn’t have to wait long to find out what she was doing either: Gaughran scooped the award with a three-minute poem describing her research and why she is doing it.

Spinning discs to detect disease

When a sample is being analysed, its components need to be sorted and mixed with factors that can detect biomarkers of specific diseases, and Gaughran’s PhD is developing CD-like discs with built-in microfluidic channels. When the discs are spun, the sample gets whisked through the specifically designed channels and the reactions can take place.

“I make and test spinning disc devices that can be used to test for certain diseases – breast cancer or infectious diseases,” she explains. “And I design these devices for use in point-of-care settings, which means they work there and then in a doctor’s office or clinical setting. So we are talking about getting a result within a time scale of about an hour.”

Gaughran, who is working on her PhD at DCU’s Biomedical Diagnostics Institute with Prof Jens Ducrée, believes point of care isn’t that far off on the horizon, but notes it needs substantial industry partnership to get the devices into the clinic.

A roundabout way of explaining research

For now though, she is spreading the word and helping people understand more about what she does through useful analogies. For one, she compares the centrifugal force she uses in the disc system to the feeling of driving around a roundabout.

“I was in the car with my brother and we went around a roundabout,” she recalls. “I was leaning against the door, and saying this is the thing I do every day.”

Putting the science into such practical terms helped her towards first place in the ‘Thesis in 3’ competition, which she was awarded last month at the finals in the Sugar Club in Dublin.

Thesis in three minutes

The competition invited PhD students around Ireland to explain their research to an audience in a clear and understandable way in just three minutes.

Gaughran felt nervous about taking part, but decided to overcome the fear. “I get nervous about talking in public, but I know it’s a big part of what I will have to do for the rest of my professional life so I just forced myself into it.”

And the poetic approach? “I have been writing poetry since I was a kid, just for fun, and I thought it would be a different angle to take for this presentation,” she says.

Since winning the title, Gaughran presented at SFI’s annual summit in Athlone earlier this month, and she would encourage other PhD students to take the plunge and enter ‘Thesis in 3’ if they get the chance.

“It is a great experience, and it forces you to move out of your comfort zone a bit, but for the right reasons,” she says.

Physics opens doors

Originally from Ashbourne, Co Meath, Gaughran traces her interest in physics to an enthusiastic teacher at school who imparted a love of the subject. 

“If you have any interest at all in figuring out how things work and if you like being completely amazed by the universe, I would say physics is the way to go,” she says. “And physics also opens a lot of doors – I did a physics degree and now I work on biomedical research. I didn’t see that coming but it happened. You are not limited with a physics degree at all.”

Thesis in 3 was organised by Phil Smyth, Aoibheann Bird from the Insight Centre for Data Analytics and Will Fitzmaurice from Systems Biology Ireland, sponsored by Science Foundation Ireland’s Discover Science and Engineering programme. The finals were hosted by broadcaster Jonathan McCrea and the judging panel included Margie McCarthy from SFI, Will Goodbody from RTÉ and Claire O’Connell.

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication