How an unexpected encounter with engineering inspired Neshika Wijewardhane’s academic pathway.
Prior to embarking on a PhD in Digital Health and Care, Neshika Wijewardhane’s ambitions lay in biomedical research and a desire to find new solutions for diseases such as Parkinson’s and cancer. Realising that an understanding of engineering could expand her research potential, she migrated her interests and is now working on what could be a ground-breaking approach to wound healing.
The technology that Neshika is developing as part of her PhD in Digital Health and Care uses a Dynamic Optical Micro Environment (DOME) device, incorporating a microscope and projector, to detect and treat artificial wounds.
The robotic DOME device precisely targets light at a specific wavelength to irradiate the leading edge of a simulated wound, which can accelerate the movement of cells to close a wound. Operating autonomously, the device’s camera detects the wound edge, selects the areas to focus on, towards which the onboard projector delivers the light. The camera continues to observe the new wound edge after light therapy has been delivered, in a process of closed-loop feedback where the light is restructured in line with the new wound edge.
“It’s quite futuristic,” says Neshika, who first interacted with Engineering during her A-levels, when she took part in a wearable technology competition run by Bristol’s SPHERE project. The project invited pupils from two Bristol schools, including Neshika’s, to work alongside Bristol University students and industry professionals.
Drawing on her textile studies combined with her interest in healthcare, Neshika and her group developed a wearable watch to monitor tremors associated with Parkinson’s: “Our team didn’t win the competition unfortunately, but it was an informative introduction to a subject that I hadn’t considered much before.”
Bringing multidisciplinary perspectives to the path
At that time, Neshika was set on an academic and potential career pathway in biomedical sciences. Raised in Bristol, the university was an obvious choice when it came to taking her BSc in Cellular and Molecular Medicine.
After switching to King’s College London for her MRes in Translational Cancer Medicine, Neshika opted to return to Bristol to join the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training Centre – to her own surprise: “I’d originally studied biology, chemistry, maths and textiles for A-level, and I thought engineering as a subject would be too challenging because my background was so different.
“When I enquired, they said they welcomed people from different backgrounds and encouraged me, saying I’d be bringing a different perspective”
“I was intrigued by the CDT course in Digital Health and Care, partly because it was a booming area and I felt the course would add to the cell biology research pathway that I was already on. But also, when I enquired, they said they welcomed people from different backgrounds and encouraged me saying I’d be bringing a different perspective.”
Accessibility and representation
Neshika is hopeful that her current work could be translated into a wearable application in the future for personalised light therapy in a homecare scenario. Feedback on the research to date has already recognised the value of the device’s precision, as well as noting the downsides of too much light therapy, particularly on the skin of people from different races and conditions. If the device proceeds to the stages of clinical trials, Neshika says it would be an opportunity to address this need for greater representation in the skin samples available in the biobanks that researchers rely on for such work.
Another application that Neshika and her team are investigating is the potential for the device to be used for regenerative medicine and cancer therapy.
“Public acceptance of this device would be important, so we’d need to engage with the public and get the views and opinions from a range of populations”
“As this device would be autonomous there is also an aspect of trustworthiness involved,” says Neshika, who presented the wearable device idea at the 2022 Futures Festival of Discovery, an event aiming to make science accessible to more people. “Public acceptance of this device would be important, so we’d need to engage with the public and get the views and opinions from a range of populations.”
In terms of next steps, there are several routes that could evolve Neshika’s research into a practical and inclusive solution to disease: whether that’s by switching her focus towards industry, partnering with others to establish a start-up company, or advancing her research even further to ensure it is as robust and as widely applicable as possible.