Biomechanics and Spine Research Group (QUT)
Medical engineering improving care for children with spinal deformity

Are you eligible for Breaking Barriers Category:

SUMMARY

My research uniquely brings together the best of medical engineering and paediatric spinal orthopaedics to improve our understanding of the development and treatment of chronic spinal deformities in children. At the QUT Centre for Children’s Health Research, I lead the Biomechanics and Spine Research Group (BSRG), managing and mentoring staff, undergraduate engineers and higher degree research students to undertake pivotal translational research augmenting clinical practice for spinal consultants at the Queensland Children’s Hospital. As Research Director, and a keen advocate for enhancing female engagement with STEM, I created, lead and mentor the Faculty of Engineering QUT STEM Immersion Program. This Program mentors Year 10-12 females from backgrounds of lower socio-economic advantage, cultural diversity and First Nations heritage, to take part in hands-on STEM projects at QUT. The program provides them with real-world experience of University learning, as well as foundational research literacy and comprehension, to achieve a career in STEM.

BENEFIT – A description of the benefit of your work to Queensland (max 500 words)

Scoliosis is a deformity of the spine, causing a side-to-side curvature. Often the patient will also have uneven shoulders, a prominent ribcage and uneven hips. Idiopathic scoliosis is the most common spinal deformity, affecting approximately 3% of children in Queensland. It has no cause or cure, and is most frequently severe in females during adolescence.  My research group is the only dedicated children’s scoliosis research group in Queensland, and we are Australian leaders in developing new engineered approaches to understanding possible causes for idiopathic scoliosis and innovative methods to assist surgeons to improve patient’s lives and mobility. While grounded in Queensland, my work has impact across Australia, through collaborations with other leading Children’s Hospitals to contribute expertise on new approaches to detect spinal deformity early, when treatment may be more effective.    

My applied research focuses on clinically-relevant challenges faced by spinal surgeons at the Queensland Children’s Hospital. I develop new digital technologies to assist with non-surgical treatment of scoliosis in young children. My research also uses engineering principles to create new devices that assist surgeons carrying out life-changing deformity correction surgery. My fundamental interest is to improve the clinical management and treatment for children with idiopathic scoliosis, as this sometimes debilitating deformity affects primarily females and affects girls who are otherwise healthy.  Likewise, my research technologies provide benefit for children with all types of scoliosis, including congenital (deformity from birth) and neuromuscular (e.g. Spina bifida, cerebral palsy) deformity.

My research with scoliosis patients has:
- contributed new knowledge on scoliosis deformity, in terms of how bones in the spine progressively deform as the child with scoliosis grows, and the spine develops into adolescence. This information has been used to develop new understanding of how to predict whether a child will develop a deformity that needs treatment.
- pioneered use of computer engineering models (finite element) to enable the virtual simulation of the anatomy and biomechanics of individual scoliosis patients spines. This advanced modelling resulted in an improved understanding of surgical correction for children with scoliosis and how the young, deformed spine biomechanics is augmented by surgical correction.
- led the early use of 3D physical anatomical models (ie. physical 3D printed model replicas of the actual patient’s spine). These models help surgeons plan complex spinal deformity surgery and understand the best treatment solutions for children treated at Queensland Children’s Hospital.
- developed novel patient-focussed technology enabling spinal surgeons to safely position scoliosis patients with complex neuromuscular pathologies so they can safely undergo spinal correction surgery. These surgical mattresses are custom-designed to fit the very unique anatomy of individual patients and without lying on these mattresses they may be at risk of significant surgical complications (eg. Major blood vessels being occluded during surgery). These surgeries are life changing for these children, allowing them to maintain physical function and activity, and without them, in many cases these children’s deformity would progress to the point of permanent physical disability and inability to walk.

ROLE MODEL – Why do you think you are a good role model for women and girls aspiring to work in STEM? (max 500 words)

Throughout my career in Australia and internationally, I have consistently worked in clinically translational research in and alongside the strongly male-dominated professions of engineering and orthopaedic biomechanics. From very early on, the lack of gender equity in my chosen professional pathway was extremely apparent. When I graduated from Mechanical Engineering in 1999, I was in the 10% of females and this changed very little in the subsequent 20+ years. While at Oxford, I was the only female in the research group of 12, and on returning to QUT, my line manager and all my professors were male.

The STEM women who have inspired me were all my career-level peers or junior. But the senior female academics I considered role models and mentors, who have inspired me to achieve more and to a higher level, have all been from the Social Sciences and Law disciplines. This is a sad reflection of the significant lack of gender equality women are faced with, when achieving senior management roles in a STEM-focused career. With increasingly more successful, professional women attaining senior academic leadership roles, as I have done, and an increasing recognition that flexible working arrangements and work-life balance is imperative for women, as with my experience, we are starting to see greater support for women to pursue STEM careers. 

My considerable career interruptions due to maternity leave and being the primary care-giver for our children is not necessarily a typical pathway to an Associate Professor leadership role but demonstrates a realistic and authentic example for many women on how to achieve a senior role in academia while maintaining their precious family role as parent and care-giver. 

With this career experience to share I can provide a sympathetic and authentic role model and mentor for women and girls aspiring to achieve in STEM fields. 

My genuine interest to mentor and support female academics, at all career levels, led me to develop a STEM Immersion program in 2021 with a key focus to engage girls from backgrounds of social challenge and cultural diversity (see below Engagement). I supervise and mentor engineering students in QUT’s under-/post-graduate engineering degrees, females finishing their PhD for the Australian APR-Internship program, and young female career researchers in QUT’s School of Mechanical, Medical and Process Engineering. In recognition of my STEM outreach and mentorship roles, I hold positions on the Diversity and Development and Engagement, Academic Leadership Groups in my QUT school. 

It is humbling to play an important role in inspiring young women to reach their full potential in a career in STEM

ENGAGEMENT – Describe any STEM promotion or engagement activities that you have undertaken, including both scientific and non-scientific audiences, particularly with women and girls (maximum 500 words)

For the past 5 years, as Principal Fellow in Spine at QUT, I was an academic mentor for Year 10 and 11 Somerville House College students providing opportunities to gain skills and knowledge in practical application of medical engineering at the Centre for Children’s Health Research, Qld Children’s Hospital. I was invited to take on this role to provide individual mentorship to 8 science students, with each student mentored for one year. The students had an interest and high aptitude for STEM, and these high achieving young girls have since gone on to take on degrees in STEM and medicine. 

While this program is a wonderful opportunity to showcase real-world STEM research to aspiring young female scientists and engineers, it was obvious that there was a lack of equality in the opportunities that the Centre provided to young female STEM-stars. Consequently, in 2021, with strong support from the QUT School of Mechanical, Medical and Processing Engineering (Faculty of Engineering) I began a new STEM engagement initiative at QUT – the QUT-Mabel Park State High School STEM Immersion Program (now called ASPIRE), which is quite different from others of this kind. The program focused on engaging Year 9-11 female students from backgrounds of relative socio-economic disadvantage, and diverse cultural heritage (including refugees), particularly First Nations Australians. These girls suffer a confluence of disadvantages, and a Queensland-based local program supporting them to see a vision of themselves achieving in a STEM career was greatly needed.

ASPIRE brings young female students onto QUT campus to work one-on-one with an academic mentor on their own individual STEM focused project. Students attend for an entire school day, every fortnight during school term, building and nurturing their confidence and self-assurance to work in a university. This is an enormous hurdle for many of these students. They are first-in-family to consider a university degree and for some cultural backgrounds, STEM may be seen as of less importance than other disciplines (eg. Health). The individual mentoring experience facilitates students gaining confidence in their STEM skills and see themselves achieving success in a STEM career, empowering them to choose this career and reach their full STEM potential. ASPIRE has received strong support from QUT, including VC Shiel (through media release and personnel support from the Chancellory Division STEM Engagement team), from Hon Shannon Fentiman (AG and Minister for Women) through personal attendance at ASPIRE student workshop, promotion by Hon Grace Grace (Minister Education) via Ministerial Media. 

I now lead a QUT steering committee for the ongoing development and implementation of ASPIRE across the Faculty of Engineering and am assembling support for the next phase of this STEM immersion experience. Girls are offered an authentic experience of university life, by supporting them to undertake undergraduate (1st year) science and engineering units, in parallel to their high school subjects. With the exceptional support from QUT College, completion of these units will give the girls advanced standing for a university STEM degree in their University preferences.

VIDEO
Link to Video