Yi-Han’s PhD research aims to make a difference to anyone suffering from traumatic brain injury.
Programme: PhD in Bioengineering
Research topic: Recreating the tissue and cell damage after traumatic brain injury in vitro and in silico
Supervisors: Dr Vickie Shim, Dr Samuel Rosset and Dr Thomas Park
Academic unit: Auckland Bioengineering Institute
Funding: MBIE Catalyst Strategic Fund
Journey to doctoral studies
My family and I immigrated from Taiwan to New Zealand when I was only 6 years old. I grew up in Hamilton and achieved first class honours in my Bachelor of Engineering at the University of Waikato. Needless to say I’m a proud Waikato man and love seeing the Chiefs beat the Blues!
I started working in the energy efficiency industry once I’d graduated. After a few years, I concluded that I wasn’t happy or satisfied with the work I was doing – although it was honest and honourable, I knew deep down that I wanted to find fulfilment, make a difference and help people in other ways. I began looking at reinventing myself through extra training and education, and came across the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI). Their work combines both engineering research and its application in the medical field, which I felt was more meaningful.
I just hope that the work I do will help people and make a difference, even if it’s only incremental.
Research with impact
My research aims to reproduce traumatic brain injuries (TBI) biologically and digitally, in the lab and in computer models. The goal is to understand what happens in the brain when this injury occurs. At present, there is no medication or other therapeutic technique that can promote brain repair or reduce brain damage. I am specifically looking at the scar formation part of the injury process because, although it initially helps contain the damage at the site of injury, the scarring becomes a barrier to healthy regeneration later on.
New Zealand has the highest incidence of TBI than any other developed country, especially mild TIB (concussion), which I have personally suffered from due to my involvement with sports. I hope my research will contribute to solutions that help heal those who have suffered from TBI.
Life as a researcher
The daily activities of my research change depending on the week, but just about everything can be categorised into four groups: reading and writing, manufacturing, experiments or miscellaneous.
Reading and writing papers and reports are the bread and butter of research, so this is something that’ll forever be part of my routine.
Manufacturing is where I go down to the workshop at ABI and laser cut parts to make my own actuators (mechanical devices that move things) to stretch brain cells in an attempt to replicate TBI in the lab. The manufacturing process involves a bit of precision and dexterity, but in the end I come out with a cool little device that I take over to the Centre for Brain Research (CBR), the research division of FMHS that looks specifically at the brain.
For my experiments, I’m in the CBR tissue culture lab. I’m in a lab coat (wearing gloves for maximum sterility!) and I’m growing, feeding and plating human brain cells. These are the cells I stretch on the actuators I’ve built, recreating TBI and observing the results.
The misc category contains all those bits and pieces that makes up doctoral study: attending workshops, making posters, preparing presentations, going to lab meetings and volunteering. I like this stuff because it breaks up the routine and keep things fresh.
Making a difference
Not everyone will do earth-shattering research and win a Nobel Prize. I just hope that the work I do will help people and make a difference, even if it’s only incremental. The ultimate outcome of my research would be that it translates successfully to human clinical trials, which eventually lead to a cure for anyone who suffers from TBI.
Yi-Han won Doctoral Winner and People's Choice at the University's 2019 Three Minute Thesis competition. You can watch his winning presentation, here: 2019 winners.