Cosmos Q&A: materials whirl

Engineer Madhu Bhaskaran co-leads the Functional Materials and Microsystems Research Group at RMIT University, Melbourne. Among her many research awards and fellowships are an Australian Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship (2010–14) and an Australian Research Council DECRA (Discovery Early Career Researcher Award) Fellowship (2016–18). In 2016 she was named one of Top 10 Innovators under 35 for Asia by MIT Technology Review. In 2017 she won the Eureka Prize for Outstanding Early Career Researcher.

Bhaskaran is a co-founder of the Women Researchers’ Network at RMIT University and has served on the board of directors with Women in STEMM Australia since 2015.

We talked to Bhaskaran about the ins, outs and ethics of her research interests, which include functional materials, wearable technologies and stretchable electronics.

What are functional materials and how are they involved in public health?

What you would call functional materials are any materials that can change properties based on external stimuli. 

We have materials all around [us] in various shapes and forms. But the ones which can transform their properties, and therefore can be used for particular sensing, are quite useful, and therefore they are called functional materials. 

A common example is anything that uses any kind of test kit, for example for diabetics. They have the little kit where you can use blood to understand your diabetes, and glucose levels that uses functional materials. A pregnancy test is [one] use of functional materials because what you’re seeing is a change in colour, which is happening as a result of it interacting with an external stimulus.

So, all of these are functional materials and therefore any wearable sensor, which you’re looking at in the future, would use some kind of functional materials within them.

That means that functional materials are quite common in our society, but we’re not necessarily aware of them. Why do you think that might be?

I guess it’s never really referred to. People kind of group things together based on their functionality rather than what actually enables that functionality. So, you call something a sensor, you call something a piece of technology, you call something electronics, or a test kit, but no one’s really digging deep to understand how they work. And at the very basics of it you’ll find that there’s almost always some material properties enabling it to behave the way it’s behaving. 

But I guess no one’s really digging that deep to understand how all these things are actually working. You know that they give us a result, but we don’t really know how they do it.

How long does it usually take to develop new functional materials?

It purely depends on what you’re looking at. 

When you’re trying to develop a new material from scratch, that itself takes sometimes two to three years. And then taking that material and putting it to use as an end application and studying how well it can be used for a particular application is a further, say, three years or four years’ worth of work. And then assembling the whole thing together to make a piece of technology out of it takes a further three to four years.

I would say a decade from the very start [to end]. 

Not everything is as complicated as that. Sometimes a patch is an integration of a lot of things that already exist. You might just take off-the-shelf products and put them together to make a patch to make something new, which has not been done before. In that case, it’s just a matter of a couple of years to three years.

How do you predict or assess whether the product that you’re going to be working with is going to be applicable in the future?

I think as researchers we look at it from a more fundamental point of view. We look at a material and think, how can we take this and try and see, or uncover, new things about this particular material, or try and see if we can put it to use in a new application?

But I think in reality what should be happening – and what finally is happening a lot, especially in the wearable technology space – [is that there are] a lot of people very invested in it. So you have these constant conversations happening, hopefully, with the public or with industry. 

That is hopefully dictating where your technology or your research is going next. If that loop is constantly maintained, then obviously, it’s much better that way. Because what we do then truly can leave the lab and be used to create.

What kinds of things can we do better in the future to maintain that loop of information?

It’s almost like a country-to-country different perspective on this particular issue. If you look at certain countries like the US, the boundaries or barriers are much less. There is a constant flow of people and information between academia and industry. 

Whereas here [in Australia], it’s a little more silo-like in approach, unfortunately, which kind of puts up more barriers. We’re trying to constantly break this in Australia and have the open conversation and the constant interaction between academia, government, industry, and education, because otherwise the four sectors [are separate and] you’re not really seeing this collaboration and interaction.

Do people put much thought in to what materials to develop for use, or everyday wear?

Initially, not as much, but some aspects of it appeal a lot more to the public. For instance, plastics [prompt choices around] the pollution it might cause, or the recyclability or reusability of materials. All those are more conscious choices which we make now, and we probably didn’t 20 or 30 years back. 

The other thing which people keep in front of mind, especially when it comes to industry, is the cost of things. Some materials are fantastic. They behave beautifully and you get exactly what you need, but their costs might be prohibitive. So sometimes costs also dictate your materials choices.

The other thing which also dictates materials choices is the sheer ability to upscale and manufacture them in larger volumes or quantities. At the fundamental research level, I think people are scientifically curious. You’re trying to find out new things. 

But once you start talking about and scaling it up and trying to actually put it to use in a proper application for the public, then a lot more things become more important to consider.

Are people willing to depend on monitoring devices for better health?

I guess with wearables, that isn’t the main focus for a lot of people, because as much as you’d like to depend on a lot of wearable tech, you’re also constantly questioning the data it’s generating. 

So we’re always trying to make the data much more reliable so you can actually trust them and make decisions based on that data. That’s something which is a constant focus for a lot of people.

What about the ethical concerns around data and who gets access to it? Do you need to have any of those discussions yourself, or are ethical decisions made by a completely separate group of people?

As a researcher making the materials for wearable tech, I myself am not really responsible for that aspect of it. But we have these collaborations with industry, who are obviously trying to make this a viable product and sell it in the market. 

When that happens, while we are responsible for making the sensors and attaching them to the skin, or attaching them to the body, there’s another group of people – data scientists and data-processing computer scientists – who are looking into how we gather this data. How do we make it more presentable? And most importantly, how do you make sure the privacy of the data is protected and encryption is being used?

That is something I think, given a lot of concerns around this particular space, people are constantly working to make sure it’s protected and available only to the people who really need to see it.

At the same time, you’re making sure that the data is stored somewhere safe. How long [should people] have access to it? How do you anonymise the data?

Data is valuable. We are trying to make sure that we get data to improve our technology and have that sense of learning and machine-learning abilities. But at the same time, you want to make sure that certain features of it, like anonymising it, hopefully, will still give you all the information you need to make it better, but make it secure as well.

How do you assess the biological safety of things like electronic skin?

A lot of medical choices need to be made for things, for instance, something as simple as a band-aid. We use them without thinking nowadays. But there would have been decades of research gone into the adhesive used on a band-aid to make sure it does not impact anyone’s skin. 

And I guess the other interesting thing for me is diversity because skin varies from person to person. So when you look at a person in an aged-care facility, the adhesives which are used are much milder. And they are different because [an older person’s] skin is much thinner and tends to tear more easily. 

Funnily enough, a lot of the choices you make for anything that you attach onto the body or anything which you swallow – like say, for instance, any of the vitamin pills we take – are bio solvable. There’s a lot of research that goes into understanding that it doesn’t impact your body in a harmful manner.

How much collaboration goes on in your sphere?

Initially, it’s more interdisciplinary collaboration. When we’re actually doing the fundamental research, we’re putting together material scientists and engineers and physicists and chemists to try and understand material properties, and how things are behaving. 

But once you start trying to make sure that it can leave the lab and have an impact then you’re obviously talking to industry. And when it comes to something like wearable tech, it’s not just the industry that’s gonna take your product and sell it, but data processing also becomes key. Having key collaborations in that kind of space becomes important.

What we have seen for the last three years is that we have also learned to bring design researchers into the piece quite early. And also having user-centric studies in terms of creating a piece of technology out there for people to use. 

It might be a fantastic piece of technology, which does all the right things as far as a scientist is concerned, but is it appealing to wear on an everyday basis? Is it easy to use? As easy to use for a 60-year-old as [it is] for a 20-year-old? These kinds of design considerations are key as well. 

How does design factor into materials research?

We also make the product visually appealing. One of the researchers we work with, she almost creates wearable art. It’s wearable technology, but we want it to almost be a fashion accessory in some sense.

Glasses, for instance, which we wear to boost our eyesight. Initially, they were not looked upon as stylish or iconic; they were just there to add functionality and repair your eyes. But nowadays, glasses are much more than just that, right? 

So, how do you make sure that people like to use the technology? How are they actually using it, or are happy to use it and keep using it? Those considerations need to be made at the very early stages itself, so having those user studies and design researchers becomes critical.

People have a lot of concerns about data, as you said before, but at the same time a lot of people are okay with their data being in things such as social media. There’s this kind of duality between fear and acceptance. How do you think wearable tech can address those types of issues?

It’s funny, [in some ways] it relates to diversity and cultural differences. 

For instance, some of the technology we are developing in Australia is for aged-care facilities. One of the interesting projects is where we’re trying to deploy sensors within mattresses, to inform the nursing staff whether a person is in bed or not in bed overnight. We’re also monitoring their health parameters overnight so that people are able to give the right amount of care at the place where it’s needed. 

But when I go and present the same work in Asia, especially in Singapore, or certain other countries, I instantly get asked: “Why would you take such a complicated approach? Just put a camera in the room. And that will obviously tell you whether the person is in bed or not.”

So, even for something like a privacy concern, I realise now it’s an extremely cultural issue. In some cultures, people are willing to forego their privacy if it means that it keeps them safer. Whereas for certain other people, privacy is everything. 

I think it’s an extremely personal choice, but also a cultural choice. But health care issues and aging is a global problem. So hopefully, we can borrow lessons from other countries and work towards solutions. Because there are a lot of cultural issues, and you need to adapt your technology to suit that particular market.

How do you address ethical questions when you’re a researcher and ethical issues are further down the line?

It’s a difficult thing, for sure. Initially, you feel responsible, in some ways, but then you kind of realise it takes two hands to clap. You realise that not everything is your responsibility. We need to bring more people into developing technology to deal with what is more suited to their expertise. 

We need to have computer scientists in the same room who can give you confidence that they know how to handle the data, anonymise data, and add layers of encryption to it and make the data secure. It obviously sounds much better coming from them rather than from me. 

I guess, at the end of the day, I think I’ve realised technology is truly a personal choice. 

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