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Aira Ong: Marie Curie early stage researcher and working on the AiPBAND project

Women in Tech A Ong wordpress

Can you tell me about the industry you’re in and the role you play?

Hi, I’m Aira. I’m a Marie Curie early stage researcher (ESR) in the AiPBAND project; and a PhD candidate in the University of Plymouth. My role is to address the full value circle of an innovative business model in the brain cancer diagnostics healthcare value chain.

To tell you more about the AiBAND project; it stands for “An Integrated Platform for Developing Brain Cancer Diagnostic Techniques,”. Which aims to create and develop early diagnostics for brain cancer detection. Particularly for gliomas, the deadliest type of brain tumour.

We have 14 ESRs in the project. The beneficiaries are based all over the EU, not just in the UK. Who are working on discovering the biomarkers, developing the biosensors to detect the biomarkers, and planning the clinical validation of these technologies. After these exciting innovations, there is a need to bridge them to the market. That’s where I come in. By studying the pathways to commercialisation and understanding the value components of business models in this type of industry.

My key research approach is looking at what has been out there. How technology or businesses in the biotech industry are developing their own devices and bringing them to market. What would be a viable business model to ensure sustainability and adoption of key stakeholders in the healthcare sector?

What led you to work in this industry?

Firstly, I’d like to share that my background is actually in engineering. I’m a proud Filipino Engineer. I graduated last 2017 from De La Salle University in Manila, capital of the Philippines. I earned my degree in Bachelor’s and Master’s of science (BS/MS) in Manufacturing Engineering and management with specialisation in mechatronics and robotics engineering.

Back when I was still a 3rd year student in 2015, I qualified to enrol in a master’s degree level alongside my undergraduate studies so I grabbed that opportunity. My research adviser, Dr. Nilo Bugtai, was the one who guided me in this direction of biomedical research. He inspired me to innovate and have my Masters research project entitled, “Design of a Hand Wearable Device for Grasping with Kinematic Simulation”. I became a research associate in the AGAPAY Project, which was aimed to create a robotic exoskeleton for upper limb rehabilitation. So that’s where my journey began!

Graduation

After I graduated, I was given the lead role in the AGAPAY Project, which was a blessing while waiting for my PhD scholarship. I got to learn more about managing the team and how we are relevant to the bigger picture in the value chain.  In addition, I’m proud to share that I have several patents pending from that project. It was, indeed, an eye opening experience.

My dream was really to study in the UK for my PhD. After searching, applying and waiting, I got accepted to be an ESR in Business Model for the AiPBAND project until June 2022. Pursuing a career and study in Business with Management was indeed a challenge – it was a massive shift from my technical engineering background. However, my experience as the lead researcher has also prompted a question in my mind, “What’s next after all these innovations? Who will benefit from these? How is it going to reach the end users and patients?”

It’s sad that most innovations in the university and amazing thesis dissertations are just stored in the archives after graduation – it was just deemed as a requirement to earn the degree. So, for me, taking a degree in business is essential to understand the wider perspective of research innovations and collaborations among key stakeholders in the healthcare value chain.

I hope to be a catalyst of change and to inspire researchers/engineers to make an effort to pass this valley of death and deliver their innovations to beneficiaries.

What do you think is the future for research and diagnosis into brain cancer?

Having been immersed in brain cancer research, I believe that the ultimate goal is to develop a vaccine against cancer. – But we’re still far from that. The reality is that most patients are not getting a timely diagnosis, thus, affecting their treatment and quality of life.

Further research is needed to detect cancer at an earlier stage – this may it be done by molecular biomarkers, AI technology, personalised medicine and the like. Every stakeholder in the value chain (including patients, carers, physicians, engineers, researchers, industry players, government and healthcare organisations) needs to work in a collaborative way to make it a success.  It’s really exciting to be part of the innovators towards a healthier world.

Is there anything about ESR that you think people don’t know?

Yes totally! To be honest, I was not aware of this prestigious opportunity before. As a Marie Curie Early Stage Researcher, we are both a staff and a student (either industry based or purely in academics). We have set deliverables as a researcher and our PhD study to accomplish.

I think people have a stigma that going for higher education is just about writing papers or reading a lot. That’s part of it of course but there are more exciting parts! As a Marie Curie ESR, we do secondments and training, where we are developed holistically to be creative & innovative, be triple-i  (interdisciplinary, intersectoral and international) knowledge transformation, and have a business-orientated mind-set and entrepreneurial.

If you are interested in being a Marie Curie ESR, I highly encourage you to build up your experience and CV because it will give you advantage over other applicants since this post is also very competitive.

What would you like to be working on over the rest of your career?

Right now I’m open to any opportunities that will come. Maybe after my AiPBAND ESR role, I might go for a postdoctoral position, or even go into the industry and really try to be out in the business ecosystem. Since my research has to do more with business, I would also be happy to experience a corporate setting in a biotech company. I see myself to be in the field of healthcare, sustainable development and technological innovations towards a healthier world.

What advice would you have for anyone else wanting to work in this industry?

My advice is to follow your passion and explore what you think you want. Find your “Ikigai” –  a reason for being. You have to start by planting a seed in your mind and work towards it. If you want to be in the healthcare sector, or you want to touch the lives of other people with your research that’d be great! There’s a lot of opportunities in the healthcare research industry; accessible with just a single search online -having the keywords “Marie curie fellowship”.

Having a growth mindset is important to be a researcher and to network with people to keep your knowledge updated with the field. Research is a journey -it is  discovering things and learning what will work and what will not work! Most of the time you will find out what will not work and that’s ok! Just like Thomas Edison; he discovered a thousand ways how a light bulb will not work. But he found the one that will.

Exploring and learning 

What worked for me is that I have always been excited to explore and learn something new. Key ingredients are creative thinking, commitment, and purpose. Deciding on any career/industry will entail that you put yourself doing it every day. So, imagine waking up in the morning; will you be happy and excited to get up and work on your goal? Life is a series of questions and decision making.  My advice also is to find a mentor that can help you. What matters is what makes you happy and would sustain you to move forward.

Going back to the healthcare and innovation sector; I really do hope that more people will be inspired to go for this. There’s so much to innovate in this field. That will potentially be adopted in the clinical setting and improve people’s lives. Always remember that everything can be learned. Just start- when you start, you’re already one step closer to your goal. Just start!

What’s the best piece of advice someone has given you?

I’m really close to my mum. She always advised me to stay humble and that “success in life can never be an accident. It is the result of the right decisions at the right time. Champions are not the people who never fail, but people who never quit.” That’s my mantra.

Keep being positive and keep moving forward, no matter the hurdle. Sometimes, the obstacle is the way. You may face a lot of ups and downs; just get back up and move forward again. Of course, don’t forget to take care of your health and have fun. Life is what you make it!

Other relevant links: https://www.aipband-itn.eu/

 

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