GradAttack Podcast #5 Stewart Yeoh

Podcast #5 – 03/03/2016

The Trials and Triumphs of Scientific Research at a Public University

Stewart YeohStewart Yeoh

Stewart Yeoh is a PhD candidate in bioengineering at the University of Utah whose research focuses in part on designing high-quality, state-of-the-art prosthetics for wounded veterans. He came by to discuss some of the less-celebrated but extremely important details about how research like this gets done at a major university, including the obstacles that often get in the way of researchers dependent on public funding, and the best ways to work past the difficulties to make real scientific progress.

Download the file here: The Trials and Triumphs of Scientific Research at a Public University with Stewart Yeoh

Patrick Hadley: Hello and welcome to another University of Utah Graduate School GradAtttack podcast. Today we are talking to Stewart Yeoh, who is a PhD student in bioengineering, and will soon be defending a dissertation entitled Cerebrovascular Dysfunction in Primary Blast Injury. Just in the interest of full disclosure, Stew is a friend of mine from childhood. He actually officiated at my wedding, but that’s not what we’re talking to him about today. Today we’re talking about the difficulties of doing scientific research at a university. So, Stew, why don’t you start by telling us a little more about your dissertation. Can you break that title down for us?

Stewart Yeoh: The title of my dissertation broken down is “Cerebrovascular” pertains to blood vessels that run throughout the brain. “Dysfunction” means disruption of regular mechanical function of the blood vessels – gosh, I’m gonna have to start repeating words in this definition. And “primary blast injury”, well, there are four types of blast injury. “Primary blast injury” refers to injury caused by the overpressure wave resulting from an explosive device.

PH: Oh, wow. So what got you interested in doing explosive device blast injuries.

SY: Well, I entered the bioengineering department initially because the University of Utah has a great program on neural prosthetics, and I always thought that the Luke Skywalker hand was the coolest thing ever. And now, in this day and age, we are getting pretty close to being able to design and engineer that kind of device, and the University of Utah at that time had a big chunk of the DARPA Advanced Prosthetics grant, which was a program designed to create a prosthetic hand for soldiers that would be able to lift sixty pounds, it would be able to play the piano and fret a guitar, were some of their design requirements, which is pretty ambitious. I mean, a lot of people can’t do that with their living hands. The University of Utah had the part of the project that was the neural interface section. So they were designing the equipment to talk to the nerve fibers in your body, or in, say, a stump – is that the correct term, politically correct? – to talk to a limb remnant in someone who had suffered an amputation, and control a mechanical prosthetic. So I started out in that field and then after a semester I ended up moving to another lab that was doing related military research, which was blast injury. That’s how I got my start.

PH: I wanted to ask one thing. You kept talking about how the U of U had the DARPA grant. Did that change? Has the situation since changed?

SY: Yeah, well, funding cycles are two years, four years, so that just ended a couple of years ago.

PH: Does that make things difficult working within that department? Is funding a perpetual issue.

SY: Yes. Funding is always an issue as a PhD student and as a postdoc and as a professor, I assume – not that I’ve held those two positions, but I’ve seen the effect it has, the impact it has on their careers. You’re always working on a project based upon a grant lifecycle, and that makes it so that if you reach the end of that cycle and you haven’t finished the project or there’s more research to done or the answers were inconclusive, sometimes you can kind of get screwed at the end of that cycle. And I guess that’s the design of that thing, is that you are supposed to be able to do what you propose or what your PI proposes in a given amount of time, re3gardless of whether or not that is realistic or whether or not you just have answered the question sufficiently, or your data points to a negative result. This is sometimes just an unfortunate consequence of working in research.

PH: And have you seen this have a measurable negative impact on some of the research that you’ve seen done in bioengineering?

SY: Yes. I’ve seen projects that have had to be ended because they weren’t producing the results that people suspected that they might, or I’ve just seen projects that were cut off because XYZ reason of the funding source just dried up. It was especially bad after the sequester took effect. A lot of the professors lost their primary funding sources –

PH: Now, for clarification, this was the sequester after the failed round of budget negotiations – the initially failed round of budget negotiations, what, two or three years ago?

SY: Correct.  It’s something that I remember from my past. I know people who’ve had to pick an entirely different career path. They basically could no longer continue with graduate school because they had no funding, they were not getting paid, and if you’re not getting paid then your tuition benefit is not getting paid, so they had to make a hard decision and say, “well, I’m gong to try to do something else and not continue with my degree.”

PH: And what about yourself? You are continuing with this, you are planning to submit fairly soon?

SY: Yeah. Fortunately, I survived through all that, although there some lean times that I had to try and get through with different kinds of pay cuts and working on projects that I was really that interested in just to fill the requirements. But yeah, hopefully I will submit my dissertation and graduate in Spring.

PH: Okay. It sound like this has been difficult but you’re making it through. What kind of changes would you like to see. Because, listening it’s difficult not to reach the conclusion that this is important research. It being Veterans’ Day yesterday, as of the day we’re recording this, and you’re talking about doing research that will enable battle-wounded veterans to come back and lead more fulfilling lives, that seems to anyone who’s listening to be very important, right. The question I wanna ask is, what do you see as being necessary to make research like this easier to do, and more importantly, easier to finish and to continue doing, because it sounds like your department, in particular, faces a lot of hurdles?

SY: Yes, well, you know, professors, PIS, who run labs are tasked with writing grant proposals. That’s really their primary job, and probably teachers second and lab managers third. And this involves submitting an idea to a funding agency, often the NIH or the NSF, which proposes to do some research to answer some basic question in science that’s as of yet unanswered. And when these proposals reach the funding source, they’re sorted through and collated and evaluated based upon their merit, based upon their scientific novelty, and based upon their feasibility and also the lab’s track record. And by far the majority of them are discarded. And they could be good research, but there’s so much competition for money at that level – and kind of at any level in life – that the chance of any particular grant getting funded, especially when it’s new research or a new lab, a less proven lab, I guess I should say, so a younger professor or a younger PI, is low – I mean, it’s probably, depending on the funding source and everything, it varies, obviously – but probably only 5-10% of the time you. You probably write ten grants before you get one funded.   What was the question [laughs]?

PH: The question is, what do you see, as someone who is on the ground floor of this research – well on the working floor, maybe is a better way to put it – who is actually doing the work for this research, what changes would you like to see in the way it is funded and structured.

SY: Oh, yeah. Anyway, I was trying to lay that background for the environment that exists. In order to get these grants funded, professors have to propose doing kind of radical research, or at least something that’s interesting and novel and groundbreaking and trying to make up a big chunk of knowledge to contribute to the field. In that case, it doesn’t always pan out. That’s just the nature of research. So, to make that work better, I mean, it’s just, people have to have that expectation going in, to know that having a research job is not always going to be the most stable paycheck, and you have to really love what you do. It has to be something that you’re very passionate about and you’re willing to work long hours for low pay, and accept the risk of failure, and you just have to try to again.

PH: So if you’re going to “effing love science”, you should understand the sacrifices that effing go into it.

SY: Yeah, exactly.

PH: So, you’re nearly at the end of this. And what do you do from here? Are you going to look for a research job? What have you got planned for after this?

SY: So, I’m actually starting up a sporting goods company that will sell survival tools. I’ve kind of reached my seven-year-itch point in my life. I did a big, drastic switch. I got my undergraduate degree in physics, and I decided to go into bioengineering because I was not happy with my choices as a physics major, and I had the bionic hand project in my mind. And it’s just time for me to change. So I have recently developed an outdoor survival multitool. It’s called the SPARtool, and I am going into production, basically now. I ‘m right in the middle of negotiations with injection molding and sheet metal stamping companies.

PH: That sounds very cool, and like a very good use of your skill set. So, final question, what advice would you give to people getting into research in a similar field that you haven’t given already – i.e., know the expectations?

SY: Know the expectations. Be prepared when you’re talking, when you’re interviewing with professors to try and find a lab, be prepared with what you want to do, because if you’re wishy-washy about it, the professor will tell you what to do, and won’t always be something that’s really all that interesting to you, or it might not be something that’s going to be successful, because they’re often just throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks. One more thing that I really thing helps you be successful in graduate school is to make friends with the administration and the people who run all the gears that help research move forward and help graduate students. For example, you should go and talk to the folks at the Graduate School. They’re really nice and there is a lot of information they can give you that will help you out in the end that you should educate yourself on, because there are a lot of hoops to jump through. And this goes the same with your department advisor and everyone else that supports the process of graduating students, of making PhDs and doing research. And love what you do.

PH: Alright. That’s a very good answer. Thank you very much, Stewart Yeoh, for talking to us. We wish you the very best of luck going forward, and best of luck with your survival gear company, and congratulations on your imminent defense and graduation.

SY: Thank you.