The long story so far…

So where did I come from? How did I emerge from the primordial ooze of undergraduate students? What’s my story?

They’re all perfectly valid questions. I hope this post address some of these questions in some way or another.

In the beginning…

There was a point in time where, like many high school leavers, I had to make a choice about which undergraduate course I would pursue. It seems like yesterday that my dad took me down to Monash University’s Open Day to scope out what was on offer. My parents had always encouraged me to become a doctor, but the little voice inside my head told me that I didn’t want to completely follow that path; I loved computers and technology too much to completely give it up when I went to university. In the past, medicine had performed miracles on my very sick younger sibling and somehow, I felt obligated to return that favour in some way or another.

I had heard about the science and engineering program offered at Monash; it seemed that they offered a stream in something called ” biomedical engineering”. At the time, it felt like the best balance between a small interest in biology, a bigger interest in technology and somewhere along the line, one would end up with a couple of degrees. So rather naively, I enrolled and began the hard slog trying to finish two technical degrees in five years. I had pretty much assumed that I would become a biomedical engineering technologist, doomed to service medical equipment forever, or working (in some capacity) for a large healthcare company such as Siemens or Phillips.

We were told that we needed to complete 12 weeks work experience during our course before we would be allowed to graduate. But I was scared – nearly every circuit I had built in my second year at either blown up or failed dismally; I was disheartened and nearly on the verge of dropping out of my engineering degree altogether. Restructuring of the engineering course had led me to fail a number of units, scrape by in others and famously, I was told to repeat all of second year by a course co-ordinator. It seemed like an impossible task to compete with my fellow peers for the very limited vacation work places – I just didn’t feel like I had the engineering “knack” to secure one of those precious opportunities.

However, I had really started to become interested in human physiology – I constantly found myself thinking about how what I was learning in my electrical engineering subjects could be very effectively applied to the concepts and mechanics of how the human body worked. It was at that point I decided to make a strategic decision to try and find vacation work not in engineering, but in medical research. I had heard that the particular medical research organisation in the Parkville precinct offered summer vacation scholarships. Call it intuition, but I had a feeling that there would be some research groups that could use an undergraduate biomedical engineers insights. I guess you could say that this was where my journey really began.

I was thrown into the world of gastroenterology, something completely out of the blue. Constipation. Not the most pleasant of topics. But there was a potential cure – the research group that ended up taking me on had found in non-invasive, non-drug therapy for treating constipation. Pretty amazing stuff.

Suddenly, everything I had learnt moved into perspective. I was among doctors and scientists, not engineers. Ideas in my head that had seemed so familiar to my peers and myself were completely foreign in this environment. I soon learnt that these ideas would take many years to implement, due to the long time frames involved with medical research, but also, the fact that the group of the organisation in general did not have the technical expertise to pull it off. I got to interview patients and their parents over the phone as part of my first vacation placement, and it was quite eye opening. The burden of disease had torn families apart and pushed others to the point of breaking – a story I was familiar with when I was growing up.

I enjoyed it so much in 2005 that I came back for more – I spent the following two summers working with the group and even went so far as to do my final year engineering project with them. But I didn’t feel compelled to pursue the research beyond completing my course. As much as I enjoyed tackling the problems, I didn’t feel that my contributions would have a real impact; I didn’t want to be a researcher forever. there just wasn’t any real reason for me to stick on. On the flipside, I still had no idea what career path I should pursue. But as luck would have it, the whole situation would change.

2009 was a notorious year – research funding was extremely scarce and many groups within our organisation were encouraged to seek alternative forms of funding. Our research team’s project was picked up for its commercial value and the next thing I knew, my scribblings in a laboratory notebook suddenly became part of a patent application. Over the course of the year, we secured the necessary funding and resources to start turning some of the ideas that I had into the medical technology. I realised that for the technology to be successful, I would be the one that would need to internally drive and facilitate the technical oversight the technology would need to become a successful product, in addition to discovering the science behind why the treatment was so effective. To do this, I would need to do a PhD.

As in 2005, a new world opened up to me – but this time it was the world of biotechnology and medical devices. I made a point of joining AusBiotech’s Student Association to start meeting other like-minded students in the Melbourne area, as well meeting industry professionals.

Fast-forward to today – I’ve just commenced the second year of my PhD, and the commercialisation of the technology I contributed to is coming along nicely. Phrases and acronyms such as “regulatory compliance” and “TGA” now form a regular part of the vocabulary. Looking back, I would have never envisaged this pathway, but if that is how history has played out, who knows what the future will hold. One thing is for sure, the mixing of two different, seemingly unrelated areas has led to some real opportunities.

Twitter: @ayftan

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