Johnson Partners Diversity Series – Madhu Bhaskaran

Madhu Bhaskaran is the Science & Medicine catergory winner of the 2020 40 Under 40: Most Influential Asian-Australian Awards.

Professor Madhu Bhaskaran is an engineer pioneering breakthrough research into oxide-based flexible electronics. For those who skipped chemistry and physics 101 in high school, we’re talking about the creation of soft, unbreakable transparent devices that possess intricate properties including stretchable electronic skin that can perform a range of functions including sensor interaction. Madhu currently co-leads the Functional Materials and Microsystems Research Group at RMIT University where she co-founded the Women Researchers’ Network on campus (an initiative that has significantly shaped the university’s Gender Equality Action Plan). She has won numerous awards and fellowships for her research including the Batterham Medal, the Eureka Prize for Outstanding Early Career Researcher, plus the APEC Aspire Prize. Madhu has also been named one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers by Engineers Australia. Johnson Partners (JP) caught up with her over summer to comprehend the significance her research will have in our lives and to discuss the leaky leadership pipeline for women pursuing careers in STEM and STEMM[1]. Naturally, she had much to say on both matters.

JP Tell us about this concept of electronic skin. It’s a giant leap beyond wearable electronics such as Fitbits, Apple watches and hearing aids. Can you explain its functional range and how people can actually apply it to their skin and wear it on their clothes?

I was motivated to create electronics that are unbreakable and stretchable, and integrate with skin. My research team uses materials similar to contact lenses – also known as silicone rubber – as the base for this electronic skin. Our main research breakthrough was the ability to integrate oxide materials (which are versatile and are currently used for various electronic applications) with the silicone rubber, thereby opening the door to numerous applications. These could be skin worn sensors to monitor the external environment such as dangerous gases or UV exposure or to analyse our body fluids for biomarkers.

JP How many years of research did it take to devise this ‘skin’ by converting oxide layers which are rigid and glass-like and therefore crack/break (like a smart phone screen) into a stretchable format by encasing them in soft silicone materials, and what can we expect to see in the future – skin grafts capable of transmitting touch sensations to the brain, perhaps even advanced prosthetics?

My research team has been working on stretchable electronics for over 8 years now. The initial research breakthroughs took 3-4 years, with further years then invested in diversifying for applications and also engaging with industry to create a larger impact. Most recently, we demonstrated ‘skin’ which could imitate our body’s reaction to strong stimuli or pain – it includes brain mimicking electronics to identify the thresholds at which the body perceives pain.

JP When should we expect to see your earliest prototypes on the market and what sort of price points are we talking in terms of affordability?

While sensors that could be worn on skin will be in the market in the next decade, smarter prosthetics which include the skin layers will take more time.

We are actively working with quite a few industry partners to translate our breakthroughs for healthcare and aged care applications. I hope to see some of these in the market in the next few years. Affordability remains at the front of our mind in making careful material and manufacturing choices whilst not compromising on reliability and quality. Large scale manufacture of these sensors would keep the price point low – depending on the application – anywhere from few tens of dollars to a hundred dollars.

JP For someone whose work relies on exacting research, yet the idea of developing electronic skin is in itself so visionary, I’d imagine there’s a fair bit of right-brain thinking that pulses inside your mind. What is a current or ongoing source of creative inspiration for you that abets your professional endeavours?

The team’s motto has always been to make today’s science fiction into tomorrow’s reality – a lot of initial inspiration was drawn from science fiction movies. But recently, the best ideas come from conversations with the public – presenting to the public or school children draws out interesting applications for our work which shapes our research.

JP Born in Chennai , India, you grew up there pursuing Electronics and Communications Engineering at PSG College of Technology in Coimbatore after high school. You then completed a Masters in Microelectronics Engineering at RMIT University in 2005, and graduated with a PhD in Electronic Materials Engineering four years later. What prompted the move to Australia and does the country afford you every opportunity to pursue your research and prototyping, or do you envisage moving oversees to further develop it for the market?

I chose to come to Australia when the norm in India was to go west towards US or UK. The main pull was a very specialised Masters program in Microelectronics which was offered at RMIT University in conjunction with industry. The initial plan was to return to India after completing my studies. Once I worked in the ‘clean rooms’ at RMIT fabricating my own electronic chips, I was hooked to stay on to do a PhD and seek a career in research. I have been incredibly blessed at the number of opportunities which have come my way, carving my journey so far. There is no electronics industry or manufacturing in Australia and that does hamper the rate at which we can advance our innovations to market, but I see my future here actively working with industry partners to commercialise.

JP After completing your PhD in 2009, you won a competitive Australian Postdoctoral Fellowship to investigate piezoelectric thin films which lead you to co-establish and currently co-lead the Functional Materials and Microsystems Research in 2010. How did your earlier studies lead you down this path and did you have academic mentors who lit the path of your journey?

My PhD was in electronic materials engineering and my career to date has predominantly been focussed on the study of oxide thin films and their potential use in various applications. I have been very self-driven, learning from my own mistakes, and did not have mentors in the initial parts of my career journey.  More recently I have been fortunate to have mentors which actively nominate me for prizes or who I turn to for advice especially in my leadership positions.

“There is a stereotype around engineers typically being men in hard hats – this is one we actively try to break. Increasing awareness of STEMM from a young age is critical and I have certainly enjoyed showcasing my work and career as an electronics engineer to young audiences.”

JP You have successfully obtained over $44.4 million in competitive research funding for projects and equipment, and in an industry partnership, your  research team was awarded $1.7 million in a Cooperative Research Centre Projects (CRC-P) grant from the Federal Government in 2018 amongst other funded industry partnerships. These funds will be used to develop a silicone fabric with sensors to monitor sleep. Who will it aid most significantly?

Our collaboration with our industry partners Sleeptite and Sleepeezee was funded by this CRC-P grant. We are working to develop sensors which can be embedded in mattresses for non-invasive night time monitoring of residents in aged care facilities. This would empower staff to offer timely assistance to residents as and when it is needed, help prevent falls, and enable a better night’s sleep to the residents with fewer interruptions. We will be moving to field trials later this year.

JP How do you go about successfully securing funding and knowing which bodies to approach? Any tips for Australian-based engineers, chemists and scientists in need of substantial research grants?

It is critical to go beyond publishing research in journal articles and hone our science communication skills to explain the context and potential impact of our lab-based research to a larger audience. My team regularly executes media releases and we discuss our work in public forums which helps industry partners to find us. Our fundamental research work is highly dependent on the Australian Research Council for funding and there is certainly strategy involved there to know which grant schemes to apply for and at what point in time.

JP You co-founded the Women Researchers’ Network at RMIT University in 2013 and are a Board member of Women in STEMM Australia. Given careers in myriad disciplines within this anachronym are still highly male dominated, how do you approach mentoring and inspiring women pursuing this path, and how have both these roles expanded your career and outlook for the better? 

Both of these networks were created to allow women to connect with each other, be inspired, and support/mentor each other.  Being a part of these networks has certainly widened my knowledge of gender related issues in STEMM and enabled me to actively lobby for solutions. I have also gained an understanding of issues such as impostor syndrome which plague many women including me.

JP I’d imagine many young girls relate engineering to civil engineering and infrastructure rather than a science applicable to disciplines like electronics, materials and even biology. Do you actively participate in school-based outreach activities to dispel this myth and inspire university studies in this field?

Yes, there is a stereotype around engineers typically being men in hard hats – this is one we actively try to break. Increasing awareness of STEMM from a young age is critical and I have certainly enjoyed showcasing my work and career as an electronics engineer to young audiences. I look forward to a future where young people can make more informed career choices appreciating the breadth of engineering and the rich careers it can enable.

JP Research in 2019 found that 43% of women leave full-time STEMM careers after having their first child. Why do they feel it’s so hard for them to return after maternity leave, and what can be done to ensure they are welcomed back?

For a long time, there has been a lack of support and suitable processes for women returning from career interruptions. For example, in a research career, there is no ‘maternity replacement.’ The grant cycles and PhD students continue while one takes leave and this makes it harder to plan for things when a parent returns. Flexible work, considering the impact of career interruptions on one’s career progress while making recruitment or promotion decisions, are good moves. For instance, the Australian Research Council considers that being the primary carer for a child is an impact of 2 years on one’s track record irrespective of the amount of leave taken. Simple things such as scheduling group meetings only between 10am and 3pm allow parents to do school/childcare pick-ups without having to miss critical meetings.

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way conferences and networking are done – everyone now is a Teams/zoom call away irrespective of whether they are in the same city or 1000’s of km’s away. I can see this has also lifted the participation of women in conferences – hopefully, online participation in conferences is here to stay and this allows all of us to give the occasional presentations online when we cannot travel due to family or other reasons.

JP You also serve with the Expert Advisory Group to the Australian Government’s Decadal Plan for Women in STEM. What are some key industry developments we should expect to see for women working in this oeuvre over the next 5-10 years in the gender diversity space?

The key focus of the Decadal plan was to ensure that all sectors work towards addressing the Women in STEM issues. Academia and the university sector are ahead of other sectors due to the implementation of the SAGE (Science and Gender Equity) program. The Decadal plan identifies specific things which other sectors such as industry, government, and education can do to make sure we are in a much better place in 2030. Awareness is key and we would hope to see better work practices and inclusive workspaces in industry which will attract more women to industry positions and also see them rise to leadership positions.

[1] The additional ‘M’ stands for ‘Medicine’

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