Despite advancements in medical device technologies, very few research ideas are being translated into the real world in the form of biomedical products that can make people’s lives better.

Kirthika Senthil Kumar (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Research Fellow at The N.1 Institute for Health, works on the development of a digital healthcare platform for personalized medicine, overseeing the translational aspects of the platform to make it available for public use.

Kirthika talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her PhD (Biomedical Engineering) focused on the development of flexible and stretchable sensors that can be mounted on clinical or surgical tools.

For students, constantly challenge yourself by getting out of your comfort zone because those experiences impart you the determination and resilience to keep working towards your goals !

Kirthika, Your background?

My parents come from humble beginnings. With the weight of responsibilities they had, pursuing their interest was not a choice. Despite the conditions, they were sure that education is the only key that can uplift our lives and hence imparted that desire to study well in myself and my younger brother. 

I did my early schooling in India after which we migrated to Singapore. I was an active child and participated in various extra-curricular activities from art & crafts, school dance, singing competitions, debate competitions, robotics clubs and so on. During my secondary school days, science concepts fascinated me though I was not a fan of mathematics. I continued to be actively involved in extracurricular activities. I was part of a military band as a percussionist, where discipline and punishments were an integral part. I was also a student counsellor being the head of discipline. 

I returned to India for my higher secondary education, staying in a boarding school. That’s where I learnt about IIT and how difficult it was to secure a place there. Staying away from family turned my focus to the one thing I could do, which was studying. I developed interest in science concepts and enjoyed solving physics problems. The pressure of studies still did not stop me from pursuing my other interests in extra-curricular activities.

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I was constantly curious about society, psychology, how things function, be it the engineered machines, political choices or even nature. I ask a lot of questions (I still do!) and love having conversations with different people on diverse topics. This curiosity has been the fuel that pushed me towards exploring science and engineering. 

I was aware that I was not streamlined towards one topic and I did have a talent for absorbing things quickly. I decided that I want to focus on using my talents to help people or bring about a change even if it was to make 1 life better. So, I took up Biomedical Engineering at VIT University, Vellore. The diversity of curricula at VIT excited me. It comprises topics across a diverse range such as anatomy & physiology of human body, electrical and electronic circuits, artificial organs, telemedicine and so on. It was the perfect combination of what I was looking for where healthcare meets engineering.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

During my undergraduate days, I had several ideas and did plenty of mini-projects. I joined IEEE EMBS technical society in VIT through which I was able to attend and organize various seminars and conferences. Later, I was selected to be the first female chairperson to head the society. I further developed my leadership skills by being the head of management in VIT for a NGO called Fifth-Pillar, which fights against corruption and spreads awareness on our rights as Indian citizens. 

I was not the smartest kid or the top rank holder of my class, nevertheless I built up my resume with areas in which I excelled through these activities. In my final year, I applied to the National University of Singapore (NUS) to do a research project. I spent my final semester in the Medical Mechatronics lab in Singapore and presented that work as my final year project for graduation. I worked on soft fabric based sensors that can be used on robotic hands. I established efficient communication between the tactile sensor and robotic arm to perform various tasks through closed-loop control.

This was a major stepping stone to my research career now. I was offered a direct PhD (Biomedical Engineering)admission with full scholarship at NUS (Singapore) right after my graduation at VIT.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

There is no particular person that I look up to. I take inspiration from several people, even young children at times. I was mostly influenced by the gaps in the society where healthcare is not affordable and accessible to everyone. 

My parents constantly injected the thought in me about giving back to society through my talents.

After my 12th board exams, I sat down questioning myself as to what I would like to see myself as in 10 years. Or what would make me proud of my future-self. 

My internship/research project in my final semester at the National University of Singapore was another turning point.

I also did another internship at Apollo hospital, Chennai. Biomedical engineers are also appointed in every hospital to take care of the equipment. After the internship, I realized that not much of a skill was required to do that and it was a mundane machine maintenance work that did not require applying actual engineering concepts. Since then, I started exploring other biomedical engineering opportunities. However, I realized that to make a significant contribution in this field, the skills or knowledge I had after undergraduation was not sufficient. Hence, I went on to pursue a PhD.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I wanted to learn the way of working and how biomedical engineering is taught and perceived in places other than my undergraduate institution. Hence, I applied to NUS for my research project. The development of fabric-based sensors was part of my research project that I did at NUS in the final semester of my undergraduate studies. Instead of using the conventional rigid electronic materials to develop a sensor, I used conductive and resistive fabric materials to design a sensor. I had further ideas of incorporating them into a glove to make a wearable sensor to monitor patients for rehabilitative purposes.

I was awarded a NUS research scholarship which covered all of my tuition fees with a monthly stipend during my PhD. My PhD was on development of Soft Compliant Mechanoelectrical Sensors for Human Interactive Medical Instrumentation.

Medical practitioners encounter physical and cognitive difficulties in comprehending signals arising from the body and tool manipulation during clinical or surgical procedures, which accounts for prevalence in medical errors. Despite the advancements in medical device technologies, the challenge arises with sensorising (embedding sensors within a device) them. Since the inception of sensors, it has been possible to integrate them for medical applications. Nevertheless, they are only implemented in certain stages of the procedure. Starting from the human body, the medical tools and devices utilized are deployed in unstructured and capricious environments. This urges the development of sensors that are adaptable to the dynamic environment without undermining the host/tool’s functionality. Thus, instead of fully leveraging standardized sensors, I have proposed customizable and flexible/stretchable sensors to ensure desired integration.

During the first year of my PhD, I took the initiative to participate in a Medical Grand Challenge competition. It was a year long competition where students from various departments come together. I worked along with medical students and engineered a device, as we call it AnyWear – that can cut and modify any clothing to adaptive clothing. This device was aimed at helping people with differently-abled bodies who cannot wear normal clothes. My friend and I were the only engineers in the team and we had to learn new skills to develop the prototype. I had to learn new designing software to design this device and then 3D print the prototypes. We were the first runner-up in the challenge and won SGD$15,000. Additionally, we were also awarded the Environmentally Friendly device design Award with a prize of SGD$5,000. We filed a patent on the device design and went ahead to commercialize it. This experience taught me a lot about the start-up scenario in Singapore and gave me an exposure to the business world and translation of technology. We also won a Gold award for this project at the IES Innovation Challenge for the Community (2019) in Singapore. This project was also featured in a local Chinese newspaper titled “NUS Award Winners – Enabling independent dressing in the less abled”.

During this journey, I communicated my interest in translational research to my professor, and since he saw me doing well in the start-up scenario, I was called to join another post-doc in my lab to commercialise a surgical robotic device (we named it as Skullbot). I explored the potential of this device in the market and drafted out the business model canvas, determined regulatory and quality management strategies, identified the market and customers, drafted the supply chain, mapped value proposition, assessed revenue streams, constructed a 3S framework and prepared the product roadmap. The device is still in the initial stages and further research is being done in China.

I had mentioned earlier about the competition that led me to file a patent on the AnyWear device. My second patent was a result of my research collaboration with the Department of Material Science at NUS. This work is a part of my PhD. We developed an organic stretchable skin-like electrode that can transduce physiological signals such as ECG, EMG and EEG emerging from our bodies by just attaching them to the outer layer of our skin. The current type of electrodes used in hospitals are called as gel-electrodes, they are not suitable for long-term signal monitoring. This organic material allows monitoring these vital signals continuously without degrading the quality of the signals. A patent has been filed on the composition and fabrication method of this stretchable electrode. This research work was also featured on the NUS Engineering website titled “Durable medical electrodes from a materials breakthrough”. I presented this work at the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Singapore Symposium 2020 and got second place in student abstract competition. This research was also published in top tier journal Nature Communications with an impact factor of 14.9.

In 2018, I received a Bronze Award in Special Category – Grand Challenges in Global Health at EMedic Global Competition held in Hong Kong. I presented a research work which I collaborated with my collegue from the earlier days of my PhD. 

In 2019, I was presented with a Bronze Award in the post-graduate category for an outstanding research presentation during the Biomedical Engineering Society (BES) 13th Scientific Meeting in the Graduate Podium. Here, I presented my work on printable sensors for uses in clinical and surgical tools.

I have extensively used emailing to build connections on my own. Even when people are connected through LinkedIN or so, the networking is more effective in real-life. I participate and expose myself through various competitions and conferences to build my network.

It is important to have genuine interest in what you do. Earning money is not the biggest thing in the world right now, but loving what you do is.

Through my experiences, I have learnt the process of research and all the gaps in research. Now, I have identified more interesting gaps between research and translation. Though students do many projects, very few ideas are being translated into the real world. Right now I am working on translating biomedical research into products or companies so people can benefit from the ideas.

How did you get your first break? 

I wanted to have further exposure, hence I came out of my comfort zone and took up the challenge of doing my project alone in Singapore at NUS, while most of my peers joined a team to do projects back at the university.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Applying what I learnt during my undergraduation to my research project in Singapore was my biggest challenge. I overcame it by communicating with my new labmates and observing how they approach their projects.

Challenge 2: Saying “I don’t know” was challenging. No one likes to feel inferior. But right now, at the end of my PhD, I have learnt to admit more confidently that I don’t know something, which means I am willing to learn.

Challenge 3: Facing rejections and failure was/is challenging. Staying persistent and not giving up or finding alternative solutions is the key.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve? 

I work as a Research fellow at the N.1 Institute for health. Here, we work on developing a digital healthcare platform for personalized medicine. My role is to develop the platform and communicate with clinicians and understand the challenges in giving the right dose of medication for cancer patients. Giving the right dose of medicine can help to treat the condition/disease more efficiently with lesser side-effects. Additionally, my role is also to oversee the translational aspects of the platform to make it available for use in public. Instead of just a research project, I am working on ways to do clinical trials and get approval so doctors all around the world can use and benefit from this.

What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills? 

Project planning, stakeholder management, data analysis, and regulatory pathway planning for medical devices are some of the skills. Most of the skills were acquired by doing projects during my PhD. I always find a way to collaborate with people bringing in different views and ideas to work. Further, I also participate in programs that help start-ups where I learn more about commercialization aspects of the product. 

What’s a typical day like? 

Emails, allocating work, data analysis, protocol writing for regulatory approval and trials.

What is it you love about this job? 

The direct impact it creates on lives. Right now, we are running trials with cancer patients. This gives me the chance to make their lives better and see the results. Enabling people to live a better quality of life when life itself is a privilege, gives me the utmost satisfaction about this job. My co-workers are all driven by the same mindset and that makes it more interesting.

How does your work benefit society?

I am passionate about making people’s lives better through healthcare, for which I should have been a medical doctor/nurse. But my interest lies in engineering. Hence, I have taken up this career that has a good proportion of both, touching human lives through medical technology. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

My PhD work focused on developing flexible and stretchable sensors that can be mounted on clinical or surgical tools. These sensors can measure the contact force when the tool touches the body/organs. Through this we can reduce medical errors or injuries by quantifying the amount of force applied.

Secondly, during my first year of PhD, I participated in a competition out of my own interest. I teamed up with medical students and engineered a device that can cut and modify any clothing to adaptive clothing. This device was aimed at helping people with differently-abled bodies who cannot wear normal clothes. This created a positive impact and when we approached a group of teenagers with muscular dystrophy, they got excited saying “with this can I wear jeans now instead of the loose track pants?” That really broke my heart and made me work harder on creating this kind of positive impact on people’s lives.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Ask questions, be curious. Not everything you start in life will succeed but don’t stop and keep trying! Someday, one day you will. 

Future Plans?

Continuing research and translating medtech research projects to products in academia or industry.