Dr Kiara Bruggeman wants to be like a virus. Not one that makes people sick, but one that spreads knowledge and enthusiasm for science everywhere.
With rainbow-dyed hair and stripey leggings, at first glance Dr Bruggeman doesn't seem like a typical academic. Instead of rows of textbooks, the shelves her office at the Australian National University are lined with colourful plush toys.
But this doesn't detract at all from her groundbreaking work as a biomedical engineer that could help stroke victims essentially regrow parts of their brains.
Her team is creating materials that can be used to tell stem cells to start behaving like brain cells in order to replace damaged tissue after a stroke.
"It's a lot like a university. So the same way a university is a supportive and encouraging environment to turn teenagers into really productive members of society in various fields and functions, we make materials, we'll make that infrastructure in which stem cells can live to turn them into nice, healthy tissue," she said.
"So it's kind of like if you think of stem cells, they're pretty much tiny teenagers. They're full of potential, they can do anything they want but left to their own devices, they're a bit lazy and they need a kick in the pants to tell them what to do."
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The researchers draw on diverse fields including chemistry, biology and medicine to engineer solutions for their client: the medical industry. It's cutting-edge stuff. Dr Bruggeman believes they're the only group in the world looking at these specific self-assembling peptides that form the nano scaffolding to tell stem cells to be a brain.
"Our goal isn't discovering something totally new, so much as it is actually taking advantage of the knowledge that we do have, because there's a lot of knowledge of all these individual factors in isolation," she said.
Growing up in the small village of Inverhuron in Ontario, Canada, Dr Bruggeman lived near one of the largest operating nuclear power plants in the world.
"I experienced a lot less of the gender stereotypes of who becomes an engineer who goes into science because where I grew up, everyone becomes an engineer, everyone goes into science," she said.
She became enthralled with science experiments at school, fascinated by how two colourless liquids could turn purple or become a solid.
"It's basically magic, that's what science is. Science is magic with some rules that you can actually learn and actually do," Dr Bruggeman said.
She followed her interest and completed nanotechnology engineering and chemistry engineering degrees at the University of Waterloo. Then she was drawn to Australia - "that wonderful place on the other side of the world" - and more specifically, to the ANU laboratory of advanced biomaterials for her PhD.
After submitting her Phd in 2016, she has continued at the ANU with a combination of research and teaching. She encourages students to find that thing they are interested in pursuing day-to-day, rather than setting lofty goals like "cure cancer".
"One of my favourite bits of student feedback that I've ever received was not one of the most glowing ones. One student said 'I went in thinking it was boring. I left thinking it was slightly less boring'. And I think that's much more realistic," Dr Bruggeman said.
"I don't want everyone to be as enthusiastic as I am about the things that I love. I do want everyone to find what makes them enthusiastic and follow that."
She also wants to be unapologetically herself - butterfly boots and all - even if she is sometimes mistaken for a student.
"I have had a lot of female students in particular really respond to the idea that you can be an engineer and a scientist and whatever else you can be. It's not that you're choosing to do that instead of whatever your other path is," she said.
She believes diversity is vital in science and technology, not only to arrive at the best solutions but to avoid unintended consequences.
"If you have only one group of people, like white men, making the science,m making the technology, then they'll only really experience the consequences that affect them," she said.
"It's important that those people being affected are in the group of people actually making the technology so they can make changes fast because science moves fast."
Dr Bruggeman has been accepted into the Superstars of STEM program for 2021-22, a government-backed initiative that helps boost the visibility of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. Her motivation was to help reach even more people beyond the university through different media.
"I think they'll be able to help me ... reach more people to talk about science, because basically I'm a little bit like a virus, a talking-about-science virus and I'm just going to keep talking about science and have that spread until someone physically stops me," Dr Bruggeman said.
- Superstars of STEM is a series highlighting Canberra women kicking goals in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
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