Celebrating the International Day of Women and Girls in Science with Dr Emma Brunton (NVRI)

10 February 2023

Dr Emma Brunton is a Post-Doctoral Fellow and one of three early-career female researchers at the NVRI, alongside several female post-graduate students who are part of the team.

Emma is passionate about neural stimulation and bioelectronic devices. Her specialities include: Electrophysiology, in-vivo and in-vitro preclinical testing, electrochemistry, medical device regulation, neural electrodes, electrode-tissue interface.

We recently caught up with Emma to learn more about her work and research aspirations.

You can read more about Emma and the other researchers at NVRI here.

When did your interest in science (and vision science) first begin? 

I always loved science as a kid. It was something I always knew I wanted to do. It was only once I started university that I took an interest in the visual system and how the brain works. I remember learning about “blind sight” and thinking our brain and visual system is capable of amazing things.

Dr Emma Brunton, 2022

How did you get started working in electrophysiology and medical devices?

When I was finishing my undergraduate degree Monash University won a grant to investigate the development of a direct to brain bionic eye. It was an opportunity to continue to utilise both my skills in engineering and neuroscience and so I decided to pursue a PhD on the topic. I really enjoy being able to bridge the gap between engineering and neuroscience, it is something that makes me unique amongst my colleagues.

What do you find exciting about your work in this area?

Every function of every organ in your body is controlled by your brain. This means through the development of medical devices that stimulate the nervous system we have enormous potential to treat disease and restore lost sensory functions. It is amazing really that by finding the right part of the nervous system to target we could make someone see again or stop a tumour from growing.

What career would you have pursued if you decided against Electrical Engineering?

I would have pursued something in biology or medicine. I was always interested in medicine; it was only stumbling upon biomedical engineering that led me to Electrical Engineering.

You’ve worked abroad developing new technologies to provide sensory feedback to prosthesis users. How important is it for researchers to engage with international teams and expand their network connections?

Extremely important. Scientific breakthroughs rely on collaboration to happen. An individual can’t know everything. The further you can expand your network, the more likely you are to end up with that Ah-ha moment that allows you to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.

Can you tell us why you wanted to join the NVRI in 2021?

I spoke to Professor Michael Ibbotson and Dr Wei Tong about their Hybrid Stimulation project and got excited. I hadn’t been that excited about a project in a long time and knew I had to be involved. They are really doing amazing things at the NVRI.

How do you find working at the NVRI?

It truly is a great team of people to work with, all who have different backgrounds. It is really important to work alongside people with different backgrounds and experience when working on cutting edge science.

Have you worked in other research organisations? If so, how is the NVRI different?

Yes, I have worked at universities in the past. The NVRI is different because it is a small team with diverse background who all work in the same building. It means if you want to find an expert you are only walking across the hallway instead of having to walk to the other side of campus.

Congratulations again on being awarded the CASS Medicine/Science Grant to continue your research on neural interfaces! Your current research involves investigating combined optical-electrical stimulation for precise neural stimulation to improve the visual acuity of retinal prosthesis.
Can you tell us a bit more about that, the impacts your research could have, and how it could help people with vision loss/poor eye health?

Visual prostheses have the potential to greatly increase the independence of people with vision loss by assisting them to see the world around them. Current visual prostheses, however, are limited by the visual acuity they can provide. Even with the best device, a person would be considered legally blind. Visual acuity can be thought of like pixels on a computer screen. A screen with very few large pixels would not give you the whole image, but a screen with many small pixels would provide a clearer image. My research hopes to provide a bionic eye recipient with a greater number of smaller pixels.

What have been some career highlights since completing your university studies, and what achievements are you striving towards in the future?

The first one would be winning the Douglas Lampard Prize and Medal for my PhD work. I had never won anything academically before, so it made me realise that what I was doing was significant and had the potential to have real world impact. Most recently winning the CASS Medicine/Science Grant was a highlight. It was the first time I had taken an idea, networked and integrated knowledge to create a fully formed program of work that could lead to breakthroughs in neural interfaces. In the future I hope to continue to work on the development of neural interfaces. My impossible dream would be to start my own company to develop safe and effective neural interfaces to treat disease and restore lost functions.

What’s something you wish you could tell your younger self about pursuing a STEM career?

There will be ups and downs, but the most important thing is to keep doing what you enjoy.

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