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Written By

Bianca de Loryn


College of Science and Engineering

Publish Date

20 October 2023

Related Study Areas

Hands-on engineering experience

Is it possible to use engineering principles to build better bones? ĢƵ Engineering Student Hayley Neilsen-Burke is answering this question through her Honours project. Find out how she's been improving lives one ceramic bone at a time. Hayley also shares what is best about the Active Women in Engineering (AWESOME) society.

Hayley says she always loved anything related to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), so engineering was a natural choice for her. Once she began studying at ĢƵ, she was keen to explore the different fields of engineering and gain hands-on experience.

This is why Hayley decided to complete her 60 days of industry placements with two different companies. After working as a Junior Engineering Assistant with in Townsville, a company that produces trommels (huge rotating sieves that separate materials), Hayley worked as an Undergraduate Mechanical Engineer at , an engineering service provider in the resource and industrial sectors.

“Working for BG&E was a really good experience,” she says. “From starting with design and consultancy, making up the drawings that would go to the manufacturers, reworking the drawings based on manufacturer feedback, and then it would get built. The work I did for BG&E made everything click in my head.”

Human knee joint and leg x-ray.
Hayley Neilsen-Burke.
Left: Illustration showing femur (upper leg), tibia and fibula (lower leg). Right: Hayley Neilsen-Burke (supplied).

Focusing on material design

Now in her fourth year of study, Hayley says she has not only developed the practical skills to work on her Honours project, but also the knowledge to make an informed decision about what area of Engineer to specialise in. “Coming into my fourth year was pivotal because I wanted to do something related to material science. That subject is just amazing,” she says.

“With materials engineering, you're essentially working with a range of materials to optimise its use,” she says. Hayley is especially interested in the biomedical side of engineering, and has decided to work on improving bone scaffolds for her Honours thesis.

“Basically, I'm trying to optimise the geometry of an artificial scaffold that may have to replace a human bone. I am aiming to enhance permeability, which is how well fluid flows through porous media,” she says. “Bones need to receive nutrients and oxygen, for instance.”

Doctors will sometimes transplant fragments of other bones, such as a jawbone. But these bones have different mechanical properties and might not always be the best choice for the patient. This is why ceramic or metal may be used to engineer artificial bones for a patient.

Hayley has decided to work with ceramics as she finds they are more versatile than metal. “With ceramics, you can have bioactive or bioinert variants,” she says. “When you are using a material, your body will grow over the material. When using a , your body can ‘consume’ this bone. The difference is that the bioactive material stimulates biological activity whereas other one does not, so harmful effects may not occur.”

Hayley is especially interested in femurs (thigh bones) and tibias (shinbones). She uses a software called , an engineering simulation and 3D design program, for work such as compression testing, which tests the strength of the bone. “I'm also trying to optimise the flow through the bone,” she says, “as well as testing the effect of different bone curvatures on how cells adhere to the different areas.”

When Hayley presents her final results at her Honours presentation, Hayley is planning to display the final product not only on a computer screen, but also as a small replica. ĢƵ just got a 3D ceramic printer, so we are actually able to print our models and clean them. We do all these processes ourselves before we have our final product, rather than sending our designs off to a company and waiting ages,” she says, adding that this allowed her to gain valuable practical experience.

Engineering is teamwork

Hayley has also learned over the years that engineering is teamwork, and that engineering students will benefit in more than one way from connecting with their peers. This is why she has joined ĢƵ’s . She is also a member of ĢƵ’s Active Women in Engineering, which fosters Opportunity, Mentorship and Empowerment (AWESOME) Society, which she affectionally calls “AWESOME women”.

Given that women constitute just , and only 13% of the engineering workforce, Hayley says that it was important to her to strengthen the bonds between women engineers. “For some, engineering may be quite isolating. For instance, as a fourth-year student, I may not have met first- or second-year students if it wasn’t for the society,” she says. “Our club brings us all together.”

Hayley says that the AWESOME Society has more than 20 members already, and she feels that the society is making a real difference, especially for first- and second-year engineering students. “Sometimes it's intimidating for a woman to go and ask male colleagues, who may be more experienced, for help with an assignment,” she says. “Now they know us and can come to us with their assignment if they're struggling, and we can help them come up with their own solutions.”

Hayley says that more advanced students can also help younger students when it is time to choose their area of specialisation. “Some were asking us, ‘How do you know which discipline to go into?’ My advice is: whatever subjects look interesting to you. Don't just do something for the sake of doing it. Do it because you actually enjoy it.”

Finally, AWESOME is a social society as well. “We go out, and we meet industry women, and we have really interesting conversations with them about their workplace and how they feel in the workplace,” she says. “And then we also have our fun times, like having a coffee together, or cheese boards, and things like that. It’s a fun environment, it’s something to bring us together.”

Join the club

Students interested in the Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS) can find more information about the club on their , and those interested in ĢƵ’s Active Women in Engineering (AWESOME) Society can get in contact with Hayley (hayley.neilsenburke@my.jcu.edu.au).

Want to know more about studying engineering at ĢƵ? Find out how Jenna Attard is refining sugar processing methods, or how Ethan Waters and his fellow students competed in a robot boat competition in Sydney.

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