When someone mentions they are a scientist, one might picture the stereotype of a reclusive genius who spends long days and nights in a lab by themselves, pouring all their time and energy into a niche, narrow field of expertise.
However, science isn’t just about conducting experiments and publishing papers. Researchers are now more aware of and involved in the process of translating their research from the lab bench into real-world applications that highly benefit the public.
This is especially important for more application-oriented fields like medical technology, or medtech, where new technologies, no matter how innovative or groundbreaking the research behind them may be, will not achieve their true potential unless they reach their intended users in the real world.
For A*STAR scholar Daryl Jude Lawrence, this lesson came to him during his undergraduate years at Imperial College London in the UK. While wrapping up his degree in materials science and engineering, he realised that his research project—a graphene-based device that screens for cancer by detecting tiny particles secreted from cells—could very well languish in libraries and in the pages of scientific journals.
To translate his diagnostic device from concept to technology, Lawrence understood that he would need to progress from proof-of-concept studies into the clinic. There were practical barriers, too: how would he mass-produce the device? Where would the materials come from? Could he convince hospitals to begin using his device on patients? Who would fund this venture?
Lawrence has since moved on from his graphene project, but these questions continue to guide him through his career as he works toward a PhD degree at the University of California (UC) Berkeley, US.
In this interview with A*STAR Research, Lawrence looks back on the moment when it all began and shares his journey to becoming a scientist-entrepreneur.
What inspired you to apply for the A*STAR Scholarship?
I’ve always been interested in math and science. In my fourth year at NUS High School, I joined a friend’s team for a programme that allowed us to conduct research projects in a research lab. We worked in a Materials Science lab at Republic Polytechnic and got to fabricate our own thin films—I loved it! Despite our limited knowledge, we had a say in the trajectory of the research project which was very exciting for me as a secondary school student.
At the end of the project, we still had many ideas to try, so we reached out to as many labs as we could find online. Many rejections later, we received an acceptance email from a lab at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and we were off to the races.
I was captivated by the entire process of relentless iteration for innovation. I also enjoyed sharing my results and new ideas with fellow researchers at conferences and research fairs. Motivated by this experience, it was an easy decision to apply for the A*STAR scholarship.
What led you from materials science to medtech?
Having been exposed to research projects in the lab, I decided to pursue a degree in Materials Science and Engineering at Imperial College London. This was a major change as I’d been living in Singapore my whole life. It was especially difficult when a close family member passed away while I was overseas. It gave me an added drive to make the most of my time in the UK and inspired me to delve into medtech.
During the final year of my studies, I had the opportunity to work on graphene electrodes for the detection of exosomal biomarkers of disease. This was my first foray into the exciting world of medical diagnostics.
After graduating, I wanted to learn more about commercialisation, and my subsequent attachment at A*STAR’s Institute of Bioengineering and Bioimaging (IBB) provided the perfect opportunity to do so. I collaborated with researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) to develop market reviews, business models and pitch decks for a novel biophotonic sensor developed by IBB.
I learned how to switch between a research and business-development mindset. The ability to find connections between consumer needs and technology deliverables has proven to be a very useful skill.
How did your time as a Project Manager at A*STAR shape your views on medtech innovation and development?
Initially, I was supposed to begin my PhD studies after my stint at IBB. However, due to the severity of the pandemic at the time, coupled with visa and other logistical issues, I decided to defer my studies for a year.
This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I was able to join the incredible team at the Diagnostics Development Hub (DxD Hub). I worked on quality assurance and regulatory approval processes, which are crucial for bringing medical devices to market.
That experience gave me insights into the actual behind-the-scenes work in ensuring a product goes from concept to market-ready. It also deepened my knowledge of the inner workings of industry-level production and opened my eyes to the many processes needed to ensure a product meets the quality and safety standards set by regulatory bodies for consumer use.
Could you tell us more about your current research focus as a PhD candidate?
My PhD work is a unique blend of machine learning (ML), signal processing, neuroscience and clinical logistics. Along with an incredible team of surgeons, clinicians, engineers and neuroscientists at UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco, I am developing a closed-loop system that can stimulate the brain only when it needs to.
This technology will be particularly relevant to patients with Parkinson’s disease, who are typically implanted with ‘neural pacemakers’ to control symptoms such as tremors or dyskinesia. While these devices are effective, the constant and continuous amount of deep brain stimulation that is typically administered can result in negative side effects. In contrast, my work involves developing ML models that only activate stimulation when necessary.
The team and I are also implementing new ways to make this new technology more accessible in lower-resource settings through wearable devices and telehealth.
What are your plans after completing your PhD degree?
I love the idea of using simple devices to assess complex medical conditions. For example, sensor ‘patches’ over the stomach are being used to assess gastrointestinal conditions while watches can non-invasively measure blood glucose levels. I’m passionate about using advanced sensors with ML models to attain a more holistic view of consumer health.
Medtech innovation, however, is a multifaceted endeavour as there are many moving parts. New technologies must be validated by clinicians and certified as compliant in addition to providing quantifiable clinical benefits.
I’m also learning how these systems work in the San Francisco Bay Area so that I can find potential solutions that may apply to Singapore.
Can you share some advice for aspiring A*STAR scholars?
Be open to new opportunities. It can be daunting to explore a new field or to switch fields altogether, but the change will be worth it if that’s where your passion lies. My suggestion is to do an honest review of the boundaries of your knowledge in areas you feel are relevant. Then, fill in those gaps at your own pace.