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Sniffing-out life threatening diseases with transistors – Lauren R. Miller

LaurenMillerCockpitWhat if you could diagnose Parkinson's disease, cancer, or diabetes in just one GP appointment?

My PhD research aims to develop an electronic nose to sniff out higher than normal concentrations of certain compounds in our breathe with the sensitivity of a trained canine’s nose. These can be used as biomarkers for the early diagnosis of life-threatening diseases, such as acetone for diabetes, without the need for blood tests or long waiting times.

I began my studies at University College, Durham University, back in 2015. I lived in Durham Castle for two years and graduated with a master’s degree in Electronic Engineering in 2020. My industrial placement year with defence giant, BAE Systems fast-tracked my application for their graduate scheme, and I worked as a Low Observable Engineer in Team Tempest – our next-generation combat aircraft.

I did not plan to return to academia, nonetheless, I was offered the research project during the pandemic. It was an opportunity that I could not refuse. Dr Miller had a nice ring to it and Durham was my home away from home! The PhD has allowed me to present my findings on the global stage, from the USA to Israel. I entered the three-minute thesis competition (3MT) to harness my creativity and passion for public speaking. I warmed up with the Engineering 3MT competition in February this year before competing against researchers across Durham a month later.

I was tasked to deliver an elevator pitch to an audience with no Engineering background and it was difficult to find the right balance between setting the scene and talking about my latest results. I memorised my script, word for word, until I was reciting it in my sleep and so was half of Durham. My PowerPoint slide was populated with sniffer dogs with little paw protectors and goggles, and I opened with three words – dogs save lives. I added a personal touch and talked about my grandfather, who has suffered with Parkinson’s disease for the past decade, which has a unique odour, detectable by labs in a lab. I learned that analogies are my friend and equated the sensitivity of my devices to one spoonful of sugar in two Olympic sized swimming pools. I was delighted to win the university-wide competition and you can watch my 3MT here!

Next, the regional competition was hosted online by Durham and included researchers from Newcastle and Northumbria. I delivered my 3MT from my dorm at the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology and was thrilled to win again. I plan to rework my script for the national competition and finish on 2:59:59. This experience has taught me that a PhD is not only about writing a massive book or publishing papers. It’s about communicating your ideas effectively and succinctly to experts in my field or to those around the dinner table! I’ve enjoyed networking and building new relationships as well as paving the way for next year’s 3MT candidates. What will I take away from my 3MT journey? Being comfortable with being uncomfortable.

(July 2023)