Interview with Hazel Screen

Hazel Screen Professor CEng MIMechE MIPEM
Professor of Biomedical Engineering
Director of the Centre for Biomedical Engineering & Materials

School of Engineering and Materials Science
Queen Mary, University of London
Mile End Road, London E1 4NS, UK

Hazel, tell us about a project you have worked on that you are particularly proud of, or has made a significant contribution to the specific research field, or has other specific meanings. What did the project achieve? What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during the project? Do you plan to follow up on this project in the future?

My research interests focus on characterising the composite structure of healthy tissues to establish how they function in health and where, how and why injuries develop in these tissues. My goals are to use this knowledge to treat or prevent tissue injuries, particularly with reference to ageing changes and how to manage or prevent these effectively.

These research goals require me to be inventive and develop methods to acquire the data of interest. I have subsequently designed and built a range of different mechanical loading devices to test my tissues, and developed my own experimental protocols to extract the mechanical parameters of interest.

I am particularly excited by a recent body of work from my team, in which we have been investigating how the large energy-storing tendons in the body, like the Achilles' tendon, are able to stretch and recoil so much more effectively than other tendons. These tendons must be particularly resilient to fatigue loading, and function to reduce the energy input we require for walking or running. Energy-storing tendons are frequently injured and whilst this may simply be a result of overuse by some individuals, we believe this also occurs when the tendon itself is less fatigue resistant. If we can establish what generates fatigue resistance in tendons and the circumstances under which fatigue resistance is lost, we can then begin to develop solutions to safeguard tendons from damage or to repair tendon injury.

We have recently established the importance of one key component of the tendon matrix, which modulates tendon extensibility and fatigue resistance. This is an exciting breakthrough in our goal to understand and manage tendinopathy.  As a result of our findings, we are now beginning to develop in-vivo imaging tools to assess this in patients, and we are looking at potential interventions to return mechanical function in injured tendons.

You work on different tissues in our bodies. How do the findings from your research link to the wellbeing of the general public?

The overriding goals of our research are to understand how the different tissues in our body work when healthy and functioning correctly, and establish what changes in these tissues with injury and why those changes occur. Our data can then be used to help the public in a number of ways.

Firstly it will help with the design of artificial tissues that are better able to replicate the function of our natural tissues as we can design replacements to function in the same way. This will help integrate replacement parts more successfully, and potentially even help design replacements that are living, so grow with the body like natural tissue does.

Second, once we understand how injuries develop, and why they are more prevalent with age, it is easier to develop strategies to help manage or reverse the age related changes to tissues that increase our injury risk. We will also be better able to develop treatments for injuries that directly target the problem.

We know that injuries result from the complex interactions between tissues and cells that occur in our bodies. My research will help us understand these interactions more fully and subsequently how to ensure they act to maintain healthy tissues.

Scientists tend to collaborate with others from different fields and locations in their work. What is an effective way for you to find the right people to work with?

My research area is particularly multidisciplinary, and it is essential I work with biologists, chemists, clinicians and physicists to achieve my goals. It is important that your collaborators understand your research vision and buy into it, so the whole team is motivated by the same goals. Conferences are a great way to meet potential collaborators and discuss common interests and potential projects.

Why did you decide to go into engineering?

I was always interested in bioengineering and the idea of being able to build rehabilitation aids or prosthetic parts for people. Having studied mechanical engineering, I learnt about tissue engineering and mechanobiology during my PhD, and have been fascinated by the area ever since.

If you were asked to encourage young people who are interested in engineering to join the profession, what would be the one thing you’d like to share with them?

It is such an exciting profession to work in and I’d definitely encourage them to go for it! It is very difficult now to get into the employment market, as so many people have degrees. Engineering is one of best degrees you can have for improving your employability, but it is so important to be proactive and take any opportunities you can to get involved in extra-curricular activities, be it a formula student project or an engineering institution run design challenge. Sign up to, and get involved in, the work of your engineering professional body, and use these opportunities to learn about engineering from a practical perspective too.