QUT air-quality expert Distinguished Professor Lidia Morawska is leading an international call for a “paradigm shift” in combating airborne pathogens such as COVID-19, demanding universal recognition that infections can be prevented by improving indoor ventilation systems.
Q: Tell us a little bit about life in Boston, what you’re doing there and how it came about?
A: I commenced an exchange at Harvard Medical School in February. It’s exciting to be at one of the world’s top research-oriented medical schools, in a city that is arguably the world’s most active robotics hub. The experience and opportunity to learn is just humungous. How did it come about? Short answer: I’m a big believer in the power of positivity. I wanted to do an exchange as part of my PhD, so I cold-called — well actually, ‘cold emailed’ — my current supervisor, Nobuhiko Hata. He’s a Professor of Radiology at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and leads the Surgical Navigation and Robotics Laboratory at the HMS-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He gets hundreds of CVs every day, but he came back to me because he was interested in the fact I had experience working on the Da Vinci Surgical System at Imperial College London. I completed my Masters of Research there, at the Hamlyn Centre, before joining the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision. The big thing for me though — and getting back to my point on the power of positivity — is that Professor Hata was also interested in what makes me tick, and what I like to do in my free time.
Q: So, what made Professor Hata interested in your personality?
A: Well, I was very impressed with his outlook and being interested in the essence of what makes someone tick as opposed to just their research capabilities. I think that’s a sign of a great leader. I told him I’m a very social person and I have this drive to contribute to the happiness quotient of the world. I mean, what’s our purpose here if we’re not helping others and making a positive difference.
Q: Does robotics research also make you happy?
A: I’m actually on the edge of two disciplines — robotics and medicine. This can be challenging because it’s hard to be an expert in multiple things. My focus is to become an expert in surgical robotics. My PhD focuses on the challenges of robotic-assisted and image-guided intervention to increase the safety of minimally invasive procedures. That in itself, no matter how challenging, brings me great happiness because the end result is all about reducing patient suffering and improving quality of life. In the future, I hope to be able to help less fortunate people living in developing countries, opening the way to better medical and healthcare services. But in order to make an impact, I need to first understand robotics, the medical world and make connections with people across the two fields. I also like working in hospital environments around like-minded people, and I love working with surgeons. The beauty about this is that if you want to introduce a new system, you have to make sure it is robust and the surgeons are comfortable using it. You see, if a robotic system passes the surgeons’ test, then you know the technology is truly useful.
Q: How difficult is it for robots to operate inside the human body?
A: I often explain what I’m doing is like SLAM (simultaneous localisation and mapping) inside the body. Imagine you’re in a room with white walls, trying to navigate inside that room. Tissue inside our body is homogenous, a bit like being surrounded by white walls, which makes it difficult to know where you are. In surgical procedures — key-hole surgery, whether inside joints (knee, shoulder) or in the abdominal cavity or brain — poor vision is not the only challenge. There’s also blood, smoke (from burned tissue), water and surgical tools that obstruct a clear view — not forgetting that everyone’s body is slightly different. Environments inside our bodies are so unpredictable. You could compare surgical robotics challenges to those affecting the future operation of autonomous cars.
Q: Why’s that? What do autonomous cars and robots designed to navigate inside your body have in common?
A: They face a similar problem when it comes to successfully navigating unexpected scenarios. For autonomous cars on our roads, there are challenges like poor weather conditions, unexpected road works, other drivers or potential hazards like animals or pedestrians to avoid. In both cases (surgical robotics and autonomous cars), mistakes can be life-threatening.
Q: As a kid, did you dream of a career in robotics?
A: Actually, I thought I’d go to the Olympics. I’m from Poland. When I was still in high school, I was selected for the Polish National Team in Olympic Windsurfing Class. Unfortunately, they can only send one person to the Olympics. I was on the national squad for two years but didn’t compete at an Olympic Games.
Q: What brought you to Australia?
A: A big part of that is the adventurous spirit my parents instilled in me. I always wanted to travel! After graduating with a Bachelor of Engineering in Automatic Control and Robotics from Poznan University of Technology, in Poland, I spent four months at Universidad Politecnica de Cartagena, in Spain, as part of the Erasmus exchange program. I then spent time completing my Masters at Imperial College London, and after that went backpacking around Southeast Asia for three months. I came across an opportunity at the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision on LinkedIn and literally spent one day in Brisbane for an interview. The rest is history. I moved from London to join the Centre in 2018.
Q: What do you love most about the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision?
A: It wasn’t until I came to the Centre that my eyes were truly opened up to the ‘big picture’ of robotics and how robots able to see and understand can help make the world a better place for all. I’m talking robots that operate underwater; helping to protect coral reefs; flying robots or UAVs; self-driving cars; social robots; underground robots; and, of course, medical robotics. The Centre is just so inter-disciplinary. This is what makes it unique. There are so many opinions shared, points of view and expertise in the one place. It’s helped me broaden my context in robotics and engineering in general. I’ve also made some life-long friends and met so many interesting people who have helped me connect the dots in understanding how the different fields connect.
Q: You’ve been in Boston since February. What do you love most about the city? And, what do you miss most about Brisbane?
It was very cold when I arrived! The change from Queensland’s summer to Boston’s winter has been hard! But the weather is getting milder and I am getting more used to it. Boston is great in terms of meeting smart and cool people from the best universities in the world. Harvard is like Hogwarts (yes, I’m a big Harry Potter fan). It’s such an incredible place; strolling around its ‘castles’ is like being in another world. Longwood Medical Area, where all the biggest hospitals and Harvard Medical School are based, is enormous. Maybe close to the size of Brisbane CBD. I definitely miss Brisbane for quick trips to the beach, my great friends there and my wonderful supervisors. But, hey! I’m coming back next year.
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