The Student Innovation Awards, hosted by the Innovation Hub, recognise University of Sydney students' innovative solutions for real-world impact.
Nicole Hallett has won the Research Impact Prize for her project, Sight for the Future. The prize includes $5,000 in cash and a three month membership to the Sydney Knowledge Hub. We spoke with Nicole on her research experience with the BioVision group at SSI.
What is your background and how did you come to research at Save Sight Institute?
I have a background in science, business and bioethics, and am absolutely passionate about applying my skills through medical research to improve people’s lives. One of my daughters has had strabismus correction surgery, and the ability for her surgeon to completely change her life was the key driver for me wanting to become an eye researcher. When I met Professor Gerard Sutton, Dr Jingjing You and the rest of the Biovision group (previously the Corneal Bioengineering and NSW Tissue Bank), I was amazed at the innovative work they were doing and saw this team as a great fit for me to undertake my research.
What is your area of research?
My area of research is focused on improving corneal disease patient outcomes, so that we can save their sight. We take our eyesight for granted, however there are more than 4.9 million people across the world who are blind due to corneal disease. My project seeks to provide a real world solution to the most common corneal ectasia, Keratoconus. I am using machine learning to develop progression prediction tools for this disease to support the optimisation of surgical intervention, with the most important focus being on improving patient outcomes.
How important is your research for diagnosing and managing eye related conditions?
One of the biggest challenges with Keratoconus and more broadly corneal disease is that they often have extremely differentiated progression rates. This means that focusing on an individualised patient approach is extremely important. The machine learning model approach we have developed is able to classify and track individual patients, so that ophthalmic surgeons are supported in optimising surgical or treatment intervention for each patient differently, with the key focus being on improved patient outcomes and saving their sight.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
There are 2 key pieces of advice I have received that really resonate with me. The first is when you want to embark on the PhD journey you need to develop a project that you are insanely passionate about and committed to – you sleep, eat and breathe this project so you need to really be engaged by it. Secondly, my amazing team always tell me you’ve got this –having such a supportive and encouraging team to work with is invaluable.
What advice would you give other students who are pursuing a Student Innovation Award?
It is really exciting to have received this award. There are some phenomenal projects being undertaken across the university and I feel extremely humbled to have won. For me, the key to this award is to believe in your project 100%. As my team comprises surgeons, clinicians and scientists, I am able to focus on ensuring the project has real application. As we are all working toward improving patient outcomes, it is important to stay really dedicated to the end goal.
Nicole is currently undertaking her PhD research under the supervision of Professor Gerard Sutton and Dr Jingjing You of the BioVision group.