Shaping the next generation of STEM leaders

With the unveiling of a China-backed science and technology precinct at UNSW, biomedical engineering PhD student Joanna Ng says there’s never been a more exciting time for Australian research.

Joanna Ng

Joanna Ng with the weaver's loom. Photo: Leilah Schubert / UNSW Media

Joanna Ng had long been fascinated by 3D printing. But it was a news story about UNSW Professor Melissa Knothe Tate that revealed the true weave of her dreams.

Ng had just graduated with first-class honours in Mechanical Engineering (Biomedical) and Science from the University of Sydney when an article about Knothe Tate’s work on novel bone regeneration technology caught her eye.

“I knew I had to be a part of it,” says Ng, now a PhD candidate in UNSW’s Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering, where she designs and develops next generation biomaterials.

“I wanted my education to benefit others, and using 3D printing to design custom-made implantable medical devices is something I am really excited and passionate about.”

Knothe Tate’s lab combines the latest advances in 3D printing with civilisation’s most rudimentary computer – the loom – to weave healing solutions for the body, a new frontier in Ng’s research field of mechanobiology.

Mechanobiology looks at how mechanical forces interact with the body and how the body adapts to this mechanical environment – structurally, biologically and chemically – from the level of the single cell through to tissue and system scale.

Ng’s PhD is looking at the periosteum, a collagen and elastin sleeve that wraps around the shaft of bone. It has incredible strengthening and regenerative properties and provides a unique habitat for stem cells.

“My project is to create a 3D weave that is reflective of the biology, architecture and mechanical properties of the periosteum, that can be used inside the body to effectively regenerate bone,” she says.

“What’s exciting is we’re doing something that hasn’t really been done before, and we have the technology to make it happen.”

Now halfway through her candidature, Ng is in the process of making her first prototype for mechanical testing. Once proven, the next step will be to commercialise the weave.

A passionate science communicator and advocate for women in STEM, Ng says there is a real buzz around science and innovation at the moment which, if harnessed, could have real benefits – inspiring a new generation of thinkers and stemming the ‘brain drain’ of our brightest researchers offshore.

“Australia is on the cusp of a STEM innovation revolution – already, the Prime Minister has announced a $100 million joint research and science precinct at UNSW under China’s Torch program,” she says. “Hopefully this is an indication of what’s to come.”

“A lot of research students are excited about the potential to make a difference in their field. I want to see that excitement and buzz go beyond the lab or campus and into industry,” Ng says.

“We need to work with industry to implement biomedical innovations – this will ensure we have a future. With successful commercialisation we can attract more support to take us to the next level to create the breakthroughs that make a major impact on people’s lives.

“I’d love to stay in Australia so that I can play a part in shaping the next generation of STEM leaders.”

Ng credits her mother for encouraging her to be resilient, and looks to strong women in history for inspiration, whether in science or literature. Her idols tend to have a common theme.

“All these women have stepped outside of their comfort zone and tested the status quo to do something selfless, courageous and influential,” she says. “To me, that’s really admirable.”