Moving from acquired knowledge to new knowledge

Dr Debbie Munro came to her current career in orthopaedics and biomechanics at the University of Canterbury’s (UC) via some interesting jobs.

She worked at NASA Ames, designing support equipment for life science experiments in the wind tunnels and on the Space Shuttle. In Japan, she worked with medical connectors. She designed robotic dinosaurs for the Jurassic Park Ride at Universal Studios in Hollywood. But, it’s orthopaedics and biomechanics that are her true passion and these are her focus as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at UC.

These interests put Dr Munro into contact with a diverse range of other groups. “I'm in the Bioengineering Research Centre, Materials Research Cluster and Biomolecular Interaction Centre. I collaborate with several external partners, including Enztec, Ossis, OssAbility, Lincoln University, Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI), the Rose Centre for Stroke Rehabilitation, and MND New Zealand.”

Dr Munro was introduced to the MedTech CoRE by her mentor, Distinguished Professor Geoff Chase, from the University of Canterbury. She also collaborates with colleagues at ABI who are also part of the MedTech CoRE.

“My research focuses on developing sensors for bone fracture healing, as well as occupational biomechanics, MEMS fabrication, and biomaterials – all related, at least in my mind,” says Dr Munro.

“I’m working on wireless, implantable sensors for fracture healing and spinal fusion, new tissue scaffolds and biomaterials to support healing, and occupational and rehabilitative biomechanics to get people back to wellbeing.”

New technologies play a key role in Professor Munro’s work. “We need to find ways to gather more data about what we're doing. So much of our healthcare delivery is dependent on acquired knowledge, such as surgeon experience and "best practice." We need to inform that with data: sensors, AI, data science, qualitative and quantitative information. Otherwise, we have no means to improve our product designs,” says Dr Munro.

Of these, she says wireless transmission technology, smart implants, and ways to capture biomechanical data that is non-contact, are the most critical developments that would advance her work.

But, as always, funding is an ongoing challenge. “It's always funding – and IP – that are the biggest hurdles. I could talk for hours about this, as I've done a lot of translational research, and most of my funding has been through private industry. We need funding models that will help translate academic research into industry products.”

Looking ahead, Dr Munro hopes to launch the Minor in Biomedical Engineering in 2020, expand its course offerings, hire additional faculty to support it, and create more research opportunities for undergrads and postgrads in biomedical engineering. She also wants to increase the number of translational research projects to grow the health sector of New Zealand’s economy.

Dr Munro’s commitment to improving healthcare will see her go offshore for 10 weeks this summer. She’s going to Tonga with six students as part of an initiative between Fisher & Paykel Healthcare, Take My Hands and other organisations to repair hospital equipment as part of an ongoing effort to improve healthcare in the Pacific Islands.

By Prue Scott

Dr Debbie Munro