A conversation with last year’s Bill Wheeler Award winner Grishmi Rajbhandari

August 10, 2021
Sam Findlay

The 2021 Bill Wheeler Community Symposium and Award is almost here for another year. Set to be held virtually next week on August 17, the Symposium celebrates the life and bionics research of the late Bill Wheeler, and recognises a University of Wollongong (UOW) student for their outstanding work.


Prof Morteza Aghmesheh, Grishmi Rajbhandari and Prof Gordon Wallace (left to right).

The Bill Wheeler Award, supported by a generous donation from the Kiama Rotary Club, includes $2,000 worth of funding for the student who best communicates the social impact of their research and how the prize will benefit their work.


In addition to the Award announcement, we will hear from last year’s winner Grishmi Rajbhandari, ACES affiliate and University of Wollongong (UOW) PhD student. This year’s Symposium will also feature a guest presentation given by ACES collaborator, head and neck surgeon, cancer researcher and recent guest on The ACES Podcast, Dr Bruce Ashford.


In the build-up to the event, we caught up with Grishmi for a conversation about her achievement and to reflect on the past year since winning the award.


Firstly, how have you managed this different time in research due to the pandemic?

COVID has been a chaotic time for everyone, and research is no different. Before it was mostly about finding ways to piece your research puzzle together. But right now, it’s that as well as putting a schedule to find the pieces or, in my case, make pieces through experiments.


What is your PhD and research about?

I am working on printing coil antennas for the cochlear implants in collaboration with Cochlear Limited. Cochlear implants are neuro-prosthetic medical devices that provide a sensation of sound to patients suffering from hearing loss.


These implants are surgically placed underneath the skin and have multi-electrode arrays stretching into the cochlea or the inner ear. The electrodes electrically stimulate the nerve cells in the cochlea and the implant unit connects with an external unit worn on the ear that is fitted with a digital processor. These two units communicate with each other through a pair of transmitting and receiving antennas for wireless power and data transfer.


The receiving antenna within the cochlear implant body is the focus of my work but I am also using additive manufacturing strategies combined with design and modelling tools to fabricate coil antennas on flexible substrates using biocompatible materials. The knowledge I have gained in antenna printing can be widely used for fabrication of other implantable electrodes fabrication as well.


You won last year’s Bill Wheeler Award. What did that mean to you? 

I was in a very dark place last year. A heartbroken girl grieving my father’s loss and half-mindedly working to do a PhD. When I saw the email regarding the Bill Wheeler Award, I asked my supervisor, Dr Xiao Liu, whether I should apply. She smiled and said to do it and that I deserve it. Maybe that was the only thing I needed to hear, so I sat down and wrote my application.


Whilst writing the application for the award, I came to realise how important my work was and how we, as researchers, make a difference – which was something I had forgotten. I found my reason that day and peace in my work. Winning the award was a bonus. For me, the Bill Wheeler journey has been a process of healing.


How have you spent the last year and how did you use the funds awarded to you to develop your research?

I had planned to use my funds from the Bill Wheeler Award to do a month-long internship with my PhD industry collaborator Cochlear Limited. I was hoping to take all my fabricated coil antennas from UOW and learn how to integrate them with the commercial cochlear implants. However, due to the restriction and lockdown in the Sydney area, I haven’t been able to do that yet – but it’s still the plan.


What would your advice be to this year’s winner?

To this year’s winner, I would firstly like to congratulate them on a job well done. I hope they have the best time and use the funds wisely. If it is not possible to attend a conference or arrange an in-person research visit to another place, perhaps consider something online.


Thanks, Grishmi.


Register for the Bill Wheeler Symposium here.

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