Meet Deanna Hood
Deanna Hood is an Aussie electrical engineer whose work focuses on humanitarian applications of engineering and robotics, with projects spanning accessibility, education and healthcare. She currently collaborates with surgeons on the Ligō “skin-printing robot,” an application of 3D bioprinting in a medical device that will be used to treat burns patients.
Interview With Deanna Hood
Can you introduce yourself and describe what you do?
My name is Deanna Hood. I am an electrical and software engineer working in robotics at a company called Inventia Life Science based in Sydney, Australia. We are currently making a 3D bioprinter called RASTRUM, which is similar to a traditional 3D printer. However, rather than putting plastic in to make plastic structures, we put cells in and make cell structures. These cell structures can be used by medical researchers to print tiny micro-replica tumors that are the size of a pinhead. These tumors can be used in applications for testing different drugs in cancer research, for example, and other things that medical researchers prefer to do in three dimensions. Historically, we have used two dimensional petri dish research, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to what we actually see in the real world of medicine when in a human body.
My role within this company is a specific application of this bioprinting technology in the operating theater to one-day be able to print skin cells back onto the wounds of burns patients. This stimulates skin regeneration where, compared to a skin graft which requires a lot of donor skin, the body is actually triggered to heal itself!
Another project I have worked on in the past with an application in education is that I made a robot that children can teach how to write so that kids who may be at the bottom of their class and have learning difficulties with handwriting can teach “someone” and benefit through the learning-by-teaching paradigm. I made this robot that writes poorly on purpose so that children can correct the robot and sort of engage in this protege effect. They find themselves actually learning and doing practice in an encouraged way, as opposed to being corrected all the time, which isn’t great for their self esteem.
These two projects are similar work technically speaking, but they are in two totally different contexts. I think both of them have a lot of potential to create a positive impact on the world or at least on specific individuals in the world.
How well did your university experiences prepare you for your current engineering role?
I think they prepared me as well as they could for projects that didn’t exist when I was studying! That’s the challenge. I think the strategy that people take to solve that challenge is teaching the skill-set that will be able to be applied to those different jobs. In that sense, I happen to use the skills that I learned every day now because I bring in my math as well as my electrical and software engineering backgrounds to my role as the Senior Robotics Engineer.
But at the same time, when I was in university, it wasn’t always clear what my training would look like in the real world. At some point during my degree, I wondered if maybe I should switch to medical engineering since it felt like it had a clear link to how I could use that to help people. In contrast, the same actual circuit we were designing in electrical engineering just didn’t have that application highlighted as well. When I saw that there are applications of my electrical engineering skills in medicine and education, I was so excited.
Electrical engineers– we can do anything. Almost any project, especially when you bring in software, will have electrical and software engineering in it somewhere. I try to remind people that those opportunities are there and to pick what skill you enjoy learning and enjoy doing each day. Stick with that and then find the application later on!
What skills would you say are important for being an engineer?
I think there’s an interesting kind of intersection of soft skills and technical knowledge that is really valued in engineering, namely critical thinking and problem solving/inventive thinking. I’m part of a team that designs a medical device that didn’t exist before, so the inventive process is part of what I do. The useful skills in this process consist of thinking creatively about ways that you can solve a problem.
For one of my projects, there was a robot called the NAO robot designed for interacting with children. You can purchase this off the shelf. Then, there are robots that are designed to write. These robots are ugly, scary-looking, and expensive– it’s not a good fusion for working with children. So, one challenge that we had in that project is how can we get the best of both worlds and get a friendly robot capable of writing.
We then asked the question of does the robot really need to write because the one that we wanted to use was a friendly one that wasn’t good at actual dexterity. But in the end, we realized that dexterity was not necessary, but rather we just needed the robot to seem like it was writing. It was important for the children to have something to correct and that they attributed that writing to the robot, but that doesn’t mean that it had to come from the actual robot holding a pen and touching it to paper! What I did instead was that I made writing appear on another device, a tablet, at the same time as the robot would point at the tablet. This created the illusion that the robot was writing.
Creativity is hugely important. It’s important not to limit yourself to what you have in front of you. You think of other ideas of how you can leverage more of what’s available to you to solve these problems.
Why is collaboration important in the context of your work?
Problem solving and innovation are more likely to happen, in my opinion, when there are more voices and more diversity in the room– all different people looking at the same problem in different ways. Even if you’re working with all people that have the same skill set, collaboration is often necessary.
In the handwriting project, I collaborated closely with teachers because they have insight into how children will interact with the robot and how to deform the letters in a particular way that’s meaningful. In my current role on the 3D bioprinted skin, collaboration is crucial. I do not, as an individual, have the skills to cover all aspects of bioprinting. I do the electrical and software side of things, which is like the “nervous system” of the robot. But, I work with mechanical engineers who will focus on the movement, and there is a lot of precision required in our printing to create these pinhead sized structures. They’re not doing that in isolation either: we need biomedical engineers who understand the impact of the forces that are applied to the cells, for example, to figure out how much pressure is going to damage the cells.
Because we’re working at the intersection of these different fields, we need to have all of these skill-sets for this project to be successful. It’s not a matter of choice. It’s a requirement. One person cannot have all of those skill-sets, and even if they could, I don’t think they would be as creative as an individual than as a team.
Can you elaborate on an exciting project you are currently working on?
The day-to-day project that I work on is the 3D bioprinted skin project. At the moment, we are working on the design of this medical device, which involves a lot of prototyping and thinking about how to satisfy the user requirements. We have to work very closely with surgeons to make sure that the product we are designing in a technical sense will actually be useful in an operating theater. Answering these questions is not just to optimize the system; it’s to make the system safe. Most of what our prototyping revolves around right now is not so much how to technically make the printing possible in an operating theater because we already have the printing technology established through the RASTRUM bioprinter, but how to make this system safe for interacting with patients in a skin-printing context.
What advice would you give to a student who is interested in engineering?
I would advise people to talk to as many engineers as possible to appreciate the variety in the industry but to not let that be overwhelming. There are so many things you can do with engineering. It can be tempting to be like, “I can’t see what my career would look like, so I’m just gonna pick something where I know what I would be doing.” I think in engineering, make sure you enjoy what you would be doing (e.g. electrical or software engineering). You get to choose why you would be doing it. If what you enjoy is mechanical engineering, just trust that what you’re going to be doing is mechanical engineering, but the “why” is totally up to you!