Dr Kate Fox
Dr Kate Fox

Materials Today meets researchers from New Zealand and Australia who are making waves in the world of materials science.

Kate Fox is a Senior Lecturer and biomedical engineer at RMIT University in Melbourne. Her research group focuses on the development of novel orthopedic implants using additive manufacturing. As a former patent and trademarks attorney, Dr Fox is an expert on Intellectual Property law. Since returning to the world of research, she has worked on highly complex, transdisciplinary projects that aim to transition lab-scale devices into surgically feasible products.

Prior to joining RMIT, Dr Fox was part of the Bionic Eye Project, working to develop a diamond electrode capable of electrically stimulating retinal tissue. She retains an honorary fellowship at the University of Melbourne for this project. Dr Fox teaches courses in solid mechanics and materials, biomedical engineering design and implant engineering/assistive technology, and supervises multiple PhD students and postdocs. She has over 45 publications in the field of biomaterials and medical devices to her name, and holds three patents. You can follow her on twitter @EngineeringKate

Laurie Winkless spoke to Dr Fox about her background, her research, and the challenge of mixing IP with research.

Why materials?

At school, I was pretty sure that engineering was for me. I chose to do my undergrad in biomedical engineering because I wanted to be able to make devices that would work inside the human body. And as I went through that, I became more and more interested in what makes some devices integrate better than others. That led me to the material side of biomedical engineering. I ended up doing a PhD that focused on interfacing materials, particularly for use in hip implants. After that, I joined the Ian Wark Research Institute, where I did further work on surface characterisation of interfaces.

What prompted your move into patent law?

At the end of my PhD, I had my first child, and he was born with a number of disabilities – he is vision-impaired and has cerebral palsy. Traditionally, a career in academia requires you to move around a lot, to wherever you can get a postdoc position. I found myself looking at our circumstances and thinking, “I’m not sure that’s going to work for us.” I decided to re-qualify with a law degree and become a patent attorney. On paper, it was a great option – I’d get to see ‘secret inventions’ before the rest of the world, which was really appealing. But, it didn't end up suiting my personality. I missed the lab, and law proved to be less family-friendly than a career in academia! Once I’d been there for almost five years, and had had a second child, I was ready to move on.

The timing was amazing. The Australian Bionic Eye Project kicked off in 2009, and it was so ambitious. That, combined with my son’s visual impairment, reminded me why I’d become an engineer in the first place. I think my background in intellectual property law, plus my PhD in material science, made me valuable – I could see both sides of the product development challenge. I was offered a postdoc on the project, and I stayed there for four years.

Did your experience as a patent attorney change the way you do science?

I think it made me a more focused, controlled scientist. All the projects I've done since coming back have been about turning an idea into a technology that can be used by others. As a postdoc, I probably leaned more towards fundamental analyses of surface compositions. We still do that sort of work, but now I’m also constantly looking ahead, to what comes after publishing in good journals.

Balancing fundamental science with product development can be tricky. I’m mindful of the fact that my students need to learn how to do science, to design experiments and publish their results, in order to develop their careers. It’s so competitive out there! So I make sure to give them those opportunities. I also encourage them to collaborate with others, especially outside of their field – it broadens their horizons, makes them more innovative, and I hope, will help them to grow as independent researchers. I keep focused on the bigger picture, and on the commercial applications of our work.

What brought you to RMIT University?

In 2014, RMIT set out to actively recruit female engineering lecturers. They approached me and asked if I might be interested. RMIT has some of the best 3D-printing facilities in the Southern Hemisphere, so that was a big draw, but to be honest, I’d never even considered teaching before. I was a bit of a late bloomer on presentation skills. I knew how to talk about my own work, but even during my PhD, I relied on notes when speaking to an audience. I wasn’t sure how I’d deal with teaching other subjects, or developing course materials. But maybe I just cared less as I got older, or perhaps I’d become more confident. Either way, I took the job!

I like the balance of research and teaching. I'm not one of those lecturers that groans about spending 24 weeks of the year teaching. Yes, it impacts on the time you can spend doing research, but I see it as a core part of the job. I really enjoy it now, and I think I’ve uncovered skills I never knew I had.

RMIT are also supportive of science outreach activities – again, this was something I kind of fell into. As a woman in engineering, you get asked to do a lot of events, but it was after my then eight-year-old daughter won the 'Little Big Idea' competition that I started stepping up that work. Inspired by her brother’s needs, she designed a wheelchair hoist, and won a trip to NASA. I think a lot of people were excited to hear that her mum was an engineer too, so we ended up doing lots of interviews together.

Today’s junior researchers understand the power of social media – they know that they need to establish a profile as early as possible. We just closed off the first cohort of the Superstars of STEM project, funded by the Australian government. They are brilliant researchers, and lots are very active online – it’s great to see.

What are you currently working on?

I’m most excited about our work on 3D-printed, diamond coated implants. The initial inspiration for that came from the Bionic Eye project – there we’d used diamond as an electrode material, and it worked really well. Because it’s a form of carbon, it had excellent biocompatibility with eye cells, so I wondered how it would work with bone. Currently, the best bone implants are made from titanium, but they’re not perfect. The material itself is actually bio-inert – in other words, it doesn’t integrate well with the body – and that’s because of the native oxide on the surface.

RMIT had a big program around developing ‘just in time’ implants. These are titanium implants that could be 3D-printed to fit a specific patient. The idea is that we design the implant, print it, and implant it all within the same surgery. So I asked myself, “Can I find a way to coat titanium with diamond, to produce a more biocompatible, 3D-printed implant?” Until then, diamond coatings had been limited to flat, planar surfaces – 3D samples were a whole other level of complexity. It took a while, but working with my colleagues, including Prof Andrew Greentree we did it – we found a way to coat a 3D printed shape. We’ve just finished an animal trial, and the results are looking really promising. We seem to get better cellular interaction with the diamond-coated-titanium than with titanium, but interestingly, bacteria really doesn’t like the diamond. We don’t fully understand why cells stick but bacteria don’t, but it could be a double-win. 

The next stage, pending funding, is to see how complicated the structures can get, and to understand the level of diamond coating that’s needed to retain the implant’s performance. I’m working with Prof Milan Brandt, several companies, and QUT’s Professor Dietmar Hutmacher on this, through an industrial training centre. That has connected us to hospitals and surgeons, which gets us a long way down the translation route. It’s very exciting.