Georgina Sylvia was trained as a chemist, but teaming up with biologists and physicists is all in a day’s work. At the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics, Dr Sylvia uses light to understand minuscule biological changes that can have a big impact on human health.
“We’re able to use the properties of light to detect, sense, image, and get a really good picture of what’s happening in a biological environment,” she says.
After working on fluorescent molecules during her PhD at the University of Adelaide, Dr Sylvia joined CNBP to explore how photonics can be applied to the life sciences.
With her colleagues, she developed a non-invasive technique for assessing stress in female reproductive cells, which could be valuable for IVF procedures.
While going from an optics table to a biology lab was no easy task, Dr Sylvia says that the switch has yielded many rewards.
“Just working with great people and knowing that my contribution is making a difference has been fantastic,” she says.
Taking this work a step further, Dr Sylvia is using her chemistry know-how to develop a light-based device that can detect loss of oxygen in babies during labour.
The device, which uses an ultra-thin optical fibre, offers a more precise method for monitoring stress than current approaches, such as electrocardiography (ECG).
“Different clinicians will analyse an ECG differently, so it’s a subjective measure of how stressed a baby is during labour,” says Dr Sylvia. “A better way is to take a pH measurement of the baby’s blood, because this correlates directly to the amount of oxygen present.”
The non-invasive device can be placed directly on the baby, and emits different coloured light signals according to changes in the acid level of the baby.
“We can tell immediately if a baby is starting to get stressed,” says Dr Sylvia.
In February, Dr Sylvia was awarded a $20,000 STEMstart grant from Bauer Media and Elucent Skincare.
Following her outreach work with the University of Adelaide’s Children’s University – which offers educational experiences to children aged 7-14 years old – Dr Sylvia plans to use the grant to kickstart a series of regional science outreach activities for primary and high school students.
The workshops will be spread across biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering, and will include an activity inspired by MIT’s Lego microfluidics research. The program will use the fabrication and 3D-printing facilities at CNBP to create take-home activities that students can continue playing with on their own.
“The shelves above my desk at work are covered in Lego Star Wars sets, so I would do this activity even if no one else wanted to!”, says Dr Sylvia.
In addition to getting kids excited about science through slime, explosions and strawberry DNA, Dr Sylvia says running interactive workshops reminds her why she loves being a researcher.
“It reinvigorates my enjoyment of science and makes me remember that I work in a really cool place doing really cool things,” she says.