This week is Healthcare Science Week. To celebrate, we interviewed Rachael Andrews, design and innovation engineer and clinical scientist at our hospitals.
Q: Is this your first role in our hospitals?
I joined the Trust almost 10 years ago as a trainee healthcare scientist in clinical engineering on the Scientist Training Programme. I rotated through various different departments at CUH and a few other hospitals in order to cover the full curriculum.
After completing my training, I joined the Clinical Engineering Innovation (CEI) team as a design and innovation engineer - and I’ve been here ever since. Alongside my role in CEI, for the past 6 years, I have provided technical and scientific support in calorimetry to the metabolic research area of what is now the Cambridge Clinical Research Centre.
Q: What does a 'usual' day look like?
My primary role is leading projects to design medical devices to address unmet clinical needs. Those devices can be for any area of the hospital, any specialism, sometimes even outside the hospital itself in community services.
One of my main projects at the moment is a device for neurosurgery. Surgeons tend to be the ones with the wacky ideas; they come to us and say ‘I’ve got this great idea for a new device, could you make me a prototype?’.Rachael Andrews
We’ve done several projects with nurses, including one on pain relief post-surgery. You name it - we’ve probably done a project there!
Q: What was your journey to get to this role?
I did a degree in mechanical engineering before coming to CUH - and then I applied to the Scientist Training Programme.
My final year project looked at the mechanical properties of the lens capsule in the eye. That was my first taster of any application of engineering to healthcare. I found it really fascinating and I wanted to explore what else I could do in that space; what options there were for applying engineering expertise to solving problems in healthcare.
Alongside the clinical placements for the three year Scientist Training Programme, I did a masters degree in medical engineering at Kings College London. I then applied for registration with the Health and Care Professions Council as a clinical scientist.
Q: Can you tell us about the Chief Scientific Officer’s Women in Science and Engineering (CSO WISE) Healthcare Science Leadership Development Programme and your experiences?
I went along to an information day and was persuaded to apply. To my amazement, my application was successful!
I initially thought I might not be the sort of person they’re looking for because I’m not in a leadership role; I’ve been working as a clinical scientist at the same level since I finished my training.Rachael Andrews
The CSO WISE leadership development programme is a partnership between the office of the Chief Scientific Officer and the WISE campaign - women in science and engineering. They’ve worked together to run this programme for female healthcare scientists in the NHS to develop leadership skills.
They gave us some training on leadership at the beginning of the programme, with various speakers and activities to help us develop key skills.
Mentorship is also an important part of the programme. The one to one support and coaching I received from my mentor really helped me to overcome the challenges I faced during the programme.
We were allocated into small groups of about six ladies to support each other on our individual projects, which formed the bulk of the programme. The project I chose was to re-establish the East of England Healthcare Science Network. I work with lots of frontline clinical staff, but I rarely have opportunities to interact with other healthcare scientists outside of clinical engineering. I felt there was so much untapped potential there for collaboration between different specialisms. I wanted to enable healthcare scientists to connect with each other to see how we might work together to benefit the NHS.
I set up that network last year and we’ve been running regular events online, including webinars and Tweet chats. We’ve got strong presence on Twitter and an online workspace as well, to unite the community. It’s been a really interesting project - quite a steep learning curve, but really worthwhile.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your role?
I enjoy the variety of it. We’re usually working on several innovation projects at once, often in completely contrasting fields. It’s nice to have that variety because often they’re quite in depth and quite specialist so you’re focusing on some really fine details in quite a niche area, but then the next meeting will be about something completely different. I also enjoy the educational side of my role – delivering lectures to students, mentoring trainees and running outreach activities.
Q: Tell us about a project that really stands out to you.
The main project I’ve been working on for the past 18 months or so is a novel device for neurosurgery.
We did a study at CUH a few years ago to inject stem cells into the brains of patients with Parkinson’s disease. The idea was that those stem cells could then develop into the cells required to produce dopamine that’s depleted in Parkinson’s patients.Rachael Andrews
In order for that study to go ahead, we had to develop a device at CUH to inject the cells because it’s a very small volume – 20 micro litres – and it has to be very precise.
We developed a device at CUH based on an existing device that had been made in a hospital in Sweden. The NICE guidelines wouldn’t allow us to use that device in the UK because it was designed to be reused between patients, so we developed a single use version which we were able to manufacture at CUH.
There’s now a new research study that’s come to the table using a different type of stem cell. This study is on a much larger scale; it wasn’t feasible for us to make all of the devices at CUH, so we’re working with a design consultancy and a commercial partner to develop the device into something that’s much closer to a commercial product, to be used in the planned clinical trials.
It’s really interesting to take the in-house device to the next stage to develop it in the way you would develop a commercial medical device.
Q: Can you tell us about some of the challenging parts of your role?
Obviously there are technical challenges, but as engineers, those are our speciality, so I’m generally not too phased by them. The project management challenges are often more difficult to address.
For example, in the neurosurgery device project, we’re trying to keep to the clinical trial timelines, but we’ve faced a lot of technical challenges, we’re reliant on several suppliers, and we’ve got Covid thrown in as well which has caused a few delays. It has been a challenge to try and balance all of those things and develop a device that's robust, has all the right documentation behind it, the right testing, addressing all the technical challenges, meeting timelines and staying within budget.
Q: How has the past year affected how you work?
I’ve been working on the neurosurgical device, which is a large commercial project for a clinical trial with fairly strict timelines, so it’s one of a few projects that’s had to keep going regardless. Obviously Covid has impacted it - I’ve been working from home for most of the past year, which has actually been quite beneficial because we were already having lots of videoconference calls between the different organisations and it’s a lot easier to join these from a laptop at home.
The rest of my team shifted their focus to the Covid response last March. A lot of that was around the demand for PPE. Many companies wanted to donate PPE, so my team checked all the details and all the regulations and standards, looking at the different options offered to us so we could establish what could be used at CUH and what did not meet all of our requirements.
There’s been quite a variety of projects we’ve done to help with the Covid response. It’s been rewarding but challenging work.
Q: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time away from work?
I used to do a lot of music when I was younger - I was in all the orchestras and bands at school and university.
When I started my placements for the Scientist Training Programme, I’d move to different locations for a few weeks or months, so for three years I was basically living out of a suitcase.Rachael Andrews
This made it difficult to join regular social activities, so I looked at other things I could do and tried out various classes in latin and ballroom dancing. That was something I was able to pick up in different locations, so that was good fun. More recently I’ve been able to persuade my partner to come along to some classes (pre-Covid).
Since lockdown came in, we’ve been doing quite a bit more exercising - running, cycing, walking and yoga. In the lovely weather last March, we went on a lot of bike rides, whereas in the winter we’ve spent more time on walks exploring our local area.