Who are we? Meet PhD Student Kulraj Singh Bhangra
In this regular feature, we interview a PhD student from the Doctoral Training Programme in Medical Device Innovation. Today we speak with Kulraj Singh Bhangra.
What are you studying?
In September 2014, I joined the Institute Doctoral Training Programme in Medical Device Innovation which included completing an MRes followed by a PhD. Having completed the MRes in September 2015, I have started the doctoral part of the programme to study for a PhD in the field of Regenerative Medicine.
The title of the PhD project is ‘Combining tissue engineering, biomaterials and computational modeling techniques to develop living replacement tissue for repairing the nervous system.’ Owing to the truly interdisciplinary nature of the project I have four well-suited supervisors who are all experts in their respective fields, namely, Dr. James Phillips, Professor Jonathan Knowles, Dr. Rebecca Shipley and Dr. David Choi. The research is primarily based in the Department of Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering at the UCL Eastman Dental Institute in the Phillips Lab.
Can you describe your research?
Damage to our nervous system can be debilitating causing a loss of function, pain and permanent disability. Traumatic nerve injury can often result in a partially or completely severed nerve. Current surgical treatments to repair the damaged nerve involve bridging the gap between the two nerve stumps with another nerve from a different part of the body. However regeneration is often limited and functional recovery is generally poor.
Regenerative medicine approaches show promise and in the Phillips Lab we synthesise engineered neural tissue (EngNT). EngNT is an artificial tissue that contains columns of therapeutic cells that can support and guide regeneration. It can be used as an implantable graft to encourage growth of neurons through a damaged area. However, integration of EngNT with the host tissue remains a challenge.
The aim of my research is to improve the interface between artificial nervous system tissue and damaged host tissue. By optimising this interface. we can ensure maximum ingrowth from the proximal nerve stump through the engineered nervous system tissue to the distal nerve stump. This technology will hopefully be an alternative to the gold standard treatment and result in improved nerve regeneration and functional recovery.
What inspired you to join the DTP in Medical Device Innovation?
I have always had a keen interest in the clinical translation of medical devices and the field of regenerative medicine. The DTP in Medical Device Innovation was able to successfully marry these two interests. It provided the unique opportunity to work on an academically rigorous project whilst making an original contribution to the field of regenerative medicine and considering regulatory and legal procedures for clinical translation. It is fantastic to work with translation-motivated supervisors who are driven to see their innovation make a global difference to healthcare.
I greatly appreciated the first year, which was dedicated to completing an MRes in Medical Technology Entrepreneurship. This provided the necessary skills in translation techniques, enterprise and entrepreneurship to build on throughout the PhD. Furthermore, it provided ample time to become familiar with laboratory techniques and protocols.
In a nutshell, the DTP provided the opportunity to work on an exciting project with an entrepreneurial spin to understand medical device commercialisation and clinical translation.
What is a typical day in the lab?
As clichéd as the term is, no two days are ever the same in the laboratory but I shall try and give an insight into a typical day. In the morning I usually pop into the tissue culture laboratory for general maintenance purposes but to also check on any experiments I may have set-up. In the Phillips Lab, we regularly make engineered neural tissue (EngNT). In addition to being used as a repair device as mentioned earlier, EngNT can also be used as a 3D model to mimic specific parts of the central or peripheral nervous system for neuroscience research. So we can test the effects of different drugs and microenvironmental conditions on a sophisticated 3D model. Another common task in the laboratory is growing and maintaining different cell types for experiments. Experimental plans can often change after a quick conversation with a colleague or supervisor. Sometimes unpredictable events can also change the type of experiment, for example, a low cell count.
Every month I have a supervisory meeting where I consolidate and present the month’s research to all of my supervisors. We collectively discuss research findings, address any queries, and then plan which steps should be taken next. They are all extremely approachable and readily available so I always have the opportunity to arrange casual meetings prior to our monthly meet-up, if I so require. In addition, I have weekly meetings with my supervisors respective research groups. These meetings are fantastic to appreciate the different projects my colleagues are working on. We discuss things that are going well with our research as well as any challenges we are facing, then see how we can help each other overcome any difficulties. These meetings also act as an informal journal club where we recommend articles to each other to remain up-to-date with the latest research.
Towards the end of the day there are usually lectures on bioengineering related topics. These lectures are followed by an interesting Q&A session with plenty of time to socialise and network with speakers and attendees after. It’s inspiring to discuss different research interests, the problems scientists are trying to solve and the timely impact their research will make to healthcare.
On a typical Friday evening, my colleagues and I would usually go to a local public house and enjoy a few drinks. It’s always nice having a chat in an informal setting, a lovely way to end the week.
What is your favourite quote?
I’m particularly fond of the Socratic paradox, “I know that I know nothing”. Answers give rise to more questions and I believe it’s this curiosity, humility and thirst for knowledge that is the driving force behind a scientist’s inquisitive nature.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?