Kingston University PhD student wins national Vitae Three Minute Thesis competition for research that could help address global organ donor shortage.
A Kingston University PhD student who is researching how smart materials could be used to replace damaged bones within the human body has been named winner of this year’s national Vitae Three Minute Thesis competition.
Sadaf Akbari took home the prestigious academic trophy – the second Kingston University engineering student in successive years to win the contest – after impressing the judging panel with a 180 second presentation about how her tissue engineering research could help address the global organ donor shortage.
The Iranian student, who grew up in Dubai, outlined her use of computer simulations to model the performance of structures made from piezoelectric materials, which produce electrical charges under pressure. During her talk, she explained how she was exploring ways these smart materials could be combined with a patient’s cells to grow into engineered tissue for implantation between sections of a bone to support its repair.
“Only 30 per cent of patients on transplant lists get the organs they need – it’s a major problem worldwide,” Sadaf said. “Engineering tissue to replace body parts damaged by accident or disease could go a long way to helping those who can’t access donor organs. The materials I’m working with are exciting because the electrical charge mimics what is observed in natural bones, which attracts minerals to aid repair. This strategy isn’t organ-specific, so could be applied to other organs too.”
Sadaf completed an undergraduate pharmacy degree at the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates before undertaking a Masters in pharmaceutical science at Kingston, graduating in 2019. After being inspired by the work of PhD researchers in the Faculty, she found herself applying for a doctorate that combined her biology expertise with a whole new skillset in engineering.
The possibilities of bioengineering in the world of medicine were wide-ranging, the postgraduate research student said. “Testing my designs using simulations can reduce the length of experiments by years and the software also helps identify the best bone parts to target.”
Research students from 67 institutions across the United Kingdom and Ireland entered this year’s national competition, which was rolled out globally after initially being developed by the University of Queensland in Australia. Each participant was challenged to deliver a verbal presentation on their research topic and its significance in just 180 seconds. After competing in quarter and semi-final events, Sadaf was named the judges’ choice winner from six finalists, securing a prize of £3,000 in UK Research and Innovation grant funding for public engagement activities and an engraved trophy.
“This really has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and my success hasn’t sunk in yet,” Sadaf said. “I’ve learned so much about how to communicate about my research through the Three Minute Thesis experience and everyone at Kingston University has been so supportive.”
Sadaf had delivered a polished presentation, informed by professional practice and grounded in solid methodology and design, Dr Karen Clegg, a member of the judging panel who works at the University of York, said. “This was a really impressive piece of work, with delivery brought home through the use of slides and metaphor, and is really going to make an impact,” she said.
Sadaf’s PhD supervisor in Kingston University’s School of Engineering and the Environment, senior lecturer in solid mechanics Dr Payam Khazaeinejad, said one of the most impressive things about her pioneering research was the fact it required expertise in two distinct disciplines. “Sadaf has combined her biological science background with engineering skills developed during her Master’s degree at Kingston to explore an area that is really exciting for the future of medicine and healthcare,” he said.
It is the second year in a row a female engineering student from the University has won the judges’ prize in the national competition, after Ana Pavlovic scooped the 2021 trophy for a presentation about her research into a sustainable future for concrete.
Watch the full national final: Sadaf’s presentation starts at 21 minutes