This post is in response to a challenge that Sharlene Newman @SharleneNewma16 set me on Science Twitter. She suggested we share some of our research/training experiences. So, given we are all stuck in our respective abodes with COVID-19 & looking for a diversion, I thought that this might be of interest to some of you. Since we might be like this for some time, I thought I make it a multi-part blog fest for those with staying power [or alternatively, who are bored as anything…]. At the very least it will get rid of my boredom… 🙂
So, what research training/experience will I talk about first? Methinks I will start the chatter off from my exploits as an undergrad. I completed a Bachelor’s degree in Applied Science at [then] Swinburne Institute of Technology in Melbourne (Australia). Part of that gig was an entire year working in a hospital setting – as a trainee Biophysicist.
I worked in the Queen Victoria Medical Center [QVMC] in the center of Melbourne [see https://www.qvwc.org.au/ & also https://vhd.heritagecouncil.vic.gov.au/places/774 for its very rich history]. Remarkable place. It was known as Queen Victoria Hospital for Women from 1896-1977. In 1977, the Queen Victoria Hospital amalgamated with the Jessie McPherson Hospital & McCulloch House (a convalescent home) to amalgamate to form QVMC. QVMC remained in its central Melbourne [Lonsdale St location] very close to Chinatown 🙂 until 1989, when it moved out to the Monash Medical Centre at Clayton – an outer suburb of Melbourne & an area closer to the demographic center of mass at the time. [Although now things have changed.] The centre tower of the original hospital was refurbished & handed over to the women of the state of Victoria. It is now known as the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre [see above photo].
The above 2 photos come from the https://vhd.heritagecouncil.vic.gov.au/places/774 website & were taken in 1984. You can see the cars have changed considerably since that time. It also had a nurses’ home that was active at the time we worked there.
The year was 1980. QVMC was in the time of equal opportunity/racial & gender diversity V1.0. The motto of the place was ‘For women, by women – always.’ In response to trying to increase equal opportunity in the place – where all the department heads & administrators had traditionally been female – the push was on to increase the number of male department heads. There were only 4 male department heads at the time in the entire place – the Medical Superintendent, the Chief Engineer, the Chief Biomedical Engineer & the Medical Photographer. I worked in the Biomedical Engineering Department & the Chief Biomedical Engineer, David Smith, was my very first mentor. I learned so much from him – not just engineering & scientific knowledge, but very practical knowledge about maintaining professional behavior in all circumstances. I remain ever grateful to David for being a great role model & also a wonderful supervisor… He has, of course, long since retired & I believe moved to either Singapore or Hong Kong – we lost track of each other unfortunately when I moved to the US.
What did I do as a trainee biophysicist in the Biomedical Engineering [BME] Department? There were two main lines of work: 1. the daily grind was the repair & safety testing of all electromedical equipment; 2. a research project to benefit BME, which required writing a report/thesis. In BME all of us had our assigned roles – lots of different types of equipment to deal with in the entire hospital. The focus of our hospital though was on neonatal intensive care. The hospital was one of two [the other one being the Royal Children’s Hospital, also in central Melbourne] in Melbourne that specialized in this work – looking after prematurely born infants of very low birthweight. [Took me years of looking at regular full-term healthy infants before I thought they looked normal. I was so used to see these little tykes in their incubators plastered with all sorts of sensors…]
We did a lot of work in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit [NICU] – particularly on the different types of infant warming devices & also apnea mattresses/detectors. The cardiac & other monitoring gear was also important, so they were the main things to repair. Each of us also had our different specialties in our department – one person looked after the X-Ray gear, another dealt with the pump for breast milk etc. for instance. I, unfortunately, got the short end of the stick & scored the defibrillators & cardiac monitoring gear. At the time the ubiquitous defibrillator was a LifePak 5 by Physio-Control [pictured below].
I recall a particularly pernicious problem once – an intermittent fault with discharging the thing – took a while to nail down the problem, which as a broken lead in the coiled cable. When it was stretched out fully the break would become apparent & when it was in its regular state it worked fine. I was ecstatic when I found the problem & had to replace the defibrillator paddles with new ones. Nasty thing a defibrillator is – you discharge it, but those big capacitors inside it can still carry a really big belt of charge hours later – you have to discharge it a number of times… a big thick screwdriver across the contacts of the capacitor is the usual trick. Lots of noise & a big spark… Happily I am still here to tell that tale. We had just bought a new defibrillator tester for our BME department – so cool – you could discharge the thing safely at full pelt without killing yourself in the process & you could see if the delivered energy level was anything close to what you thought you were giving. It looks something like the image below – although this is a current model…
So, you place the paddles on the metal plates & Bob’s your uncle. You need to have really good contact between those metal test plates & the defibrillator paddles – usually works OK if you press down the metal-to-metal… I, in my undergraduate excitement, forgot to remove the masking tape from the new defibrillator paddles. I charged the thing to the max – 400 J – & then let it rip. Mmm. A bad idea as it turned out. I blew a hole the size of a bullet hole in the test plate [which on that older system was a good centimeter or so thick stainless steel]. Luckily nothing bad happened to me – other than getting a pretty bad fright & a stern look from my mentor later. [He did laugh about it later – we all did…] Another part of our job was in visiting other departments to help out when equipment was not working right or if people needed training – this was always fun & a great way to get to know people in the place. BME people usually knew most people in the hospital – so it was a very social environment. We also got to know all the department heads well – they were all very kind to us undergrads [there were two of us assigned to QVMC BME]. We also would go into the operating room/theater a lot because we would test a pacemaker before it was implanted into someone. There was a really formidable thoracic surgeon – her name was Dame Joyce Daws – & I was very afraid of her… [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joyce_Daws & https://trove.nla.gov.au/people/756080?c=people] She was a truly amazing woman. Smoked like a chimney. Speaking of smoking. The two of us [undergraduates] once smoked out an operating room while testing a defibrillator. Happily, it malfunctioned on us while we were testing it & not on a patient. The smoke set the fire alarms off. Mmm. Fun and games. We were also required to do on-call work – one week on for each month. Bizarre to think about this now: no cell phones back then & you had to find a phone if they paged you… & you never knew which department had the problem, you had to call the Hospital’s main switchboard.
So, what about the research project – the other component of the work? As I already mentioned that infant warming devices were key in the NICU. Our undergrad projects were both in this area. Our mentor, David, was very active in the Standards Association of Australia [now Standards Australia, see https://www.standards.org.au/] – the professional body which is Australia’s non-government, not-for-profit standards organization. It sets standards to ensure products, services, and systems are safe, consistent, and reliable for consumers. Standards Australia produces standards documents that manufacturers must adhere to for their products to be used in Australia. This also includes electromedical equipment. [So, in some ways this is similar to the International Electrotechnical Commission [IEC, https://www.iec.ch/] in the EU.]
At the end of the 1970s in Australia, there was still no standard for infant warming devices, so work was progressing to develop one. So, our undergraduate research projects at QVMC BME were devoted to getting the data that would help write this standard. I worked on infra-red radiant warmers & infant incubators. There was also no standard for phototherapy devices [for treating premature infants who have jaundice with blue light], so my undergraduate partner-in-crime at QVMC BME worked in that area for his research project. The QVMC NICU at the time was run by Dr Victor Yu. He was immensely supportive of our projects. Our work in BME was really a physics project – measuring different kinds of emissions from the devices. For me it was near- & far-infrared radiation for these open-form warming devices that had the potential to damage the cornea or retina of the infant. I used a simulated infant – in the form of a black body radiator – to perform my calculations & measure near- & far- infrared levels. Was able to borrow the specialized measurement equipment I needed from the very helpful folks at the Australian Radiation Labs [now known as ARPANSA, https://www.arpansa.gov.au/research-and-expertise/radiation-emergency-preparedness-and-response/arln]. Why the open form device used in the NICU, you might ask? This was a good way to treat very ill infants as they were more accessible to the nurses, as well as jaundiced neonates [who were treated with blue light] – as you can see in the image at left below:
Also, there were the standard infant incubators [image above right] where the neonate could repose for a longer period of time. Here the concern was about noise levels inside the unit. The neonates were lying in the incubator on the motor of the system, which had constant low frequency noise, so there was a question about what effects the constant noise might have on their auditory development. So, I had to work out a frequency response for the incubator [I tested multiple types] & modeled it as an acoustic system. Unfortunately, some units actually amplified signal in the low-frequency noise spectrum [due to their physical dimensions & vibration of the bed]. The manufacturers were also interested in what we were doing – some of them were able to make a couple of simple modifications to bring the noise levels down. A really cool thing! The other cool thing was that a new Standard for Infant Warming Devices was produced in the end.
We also got to present our research projects at the Paediatric Research Society of Australia annual conference in 1981. A scary experience – I had a platform talk. First one I have ever done. David, my mentor, videoed a dry run of the talk. We watched the replay together & he critiqued it for me. Wow. What an experience. Still use what I learned then to this day!
After I finished my year in BME I went on to graduate studies. I kept working on equipment & had a registered business name, so I could pay my bills. I also did some contract work testing noise levels in infant incubators in air ambulances. Crazy stuff. Flew around with the emergency crews of the Newborn Emergency Transport Service [NETS; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newborn_Emergency_Transport_Service] in light aircraft & helicopters. The unit had close ties to the NICU at the Royal Children’s Hospital [run By Dr Neil Roy at the time]. So, I would go off for the day armed with my battery-powered measuring equipment & usually ride in the back of the air ambulance, because the patient would be up front being cared for. Looked a bit like this from my perspective, but instead of an adult patient we had a pediatric incubator in that place:
When the incubator was empty [on the way there] I could do my testing – for noise levels at take-off, steady flight, & landing. Sometimes we would have to just land in a field instead of an airstrip. Was always pretty bumpy in the back of the bus… Never forgot the first time I sat in the helicopter as we came in to land at the Royal Children’s helipad. Freaky thing that – helicopters are so mobile that they can land almost on a dime. When you are used to planes you think that you will surely crash into the side of the building…
So that was the story of my pre-graduate training. Not bored yet? Tune in to the next part of the story in a subsequent blog post!