Intuitive bracelet fabricated on a HP Multijet fusion 3D printer in the School of Engineering, Deakin University. Images show (left) bracelet detecting temperature below set point and illuminating green light (right) bracelet flagging temperature above set point and lighting up red.
When chemical engineer and Research Fellow Dr Negin Amini began the application process for a 2021 SSN Incubator grant, she had in mind a bracelet that was part fashion statement, part public health device. A year later, her interdisciplinary team had overhauled the project entirely. In this blogpost we hear from Dr Amini about the role of mentorship, the necessity for flexibility, and the value of interdisciplinary views in her work.
In 2020 the Faculty of Science, Engineering and Built Environment (SEBE) had a mentoring program where I was matched with Professor Jennifer Loy, who works in the space of additive manufacturing and user centred design at Deakin. I was thus encouraged to think of a collaborative project with a high impact which utilised both our skills. As we were into the first year of the pandemic, the spread of COVID-19 and the safety measures and practices in place to reduce that spread were a hot topic. I knew Jennifer had a passion for 3D printed wearables and gadgets. Drawing on my background in engineering I thought ‘What If we make a fashion piece which can detect and flag our body temperature? Or even go on step further and detect the body temperature of those around us? All while wearing something that would complement our outfit for that day?’ It is certainly achievable. Once we both agreed that this was worth pursuing, we received an email announcing the SSN grant scheme and thought it would be a perfect fit.
The SSN Incubator opportunity was ideal because although we were confident that we could make the technology, we were not sure that we should. The ethical and societal concerns revolving around its potential integration into society were not clear to us from an engineering perspective. That is when we got in touch with our collaborators from the School of Humanities and put together our proposal. Whilst our aim clearly seemed ‘good’ – to produce a piece of technology that could monitor our own and other’s body temperature (and thus reveal invisible risks) – we were prepared to have this perspective challenged and changed.
Throughout the collaborative process, our intention to produce a public health safeguard became a question instead: should we produce this public health safeguard? Now, rather than streamlining our technology, we are hosting a focus group to understand what others think about the social implications of this technology. We have thus shifted gears from producing a proto-type, to what Boer and Donovan call a ‘provo-type’. . The bracelet itself is very intricate and fascinating, and whilst ethical implications inspired by our colleagues may prevent us from prototyping or manufacturing it, it has become useful as a provocation in and of itself. We have found ourselves challenging an engineering prototype, rather than simply presenting it.
Step by step process for the operation of the temperature detecting gadget which connects to an electronic device via wifi. (1) Hold the Infra-red gadget and controller (2) View temperature reading on electronic device (green Interface – indicating safe) (3) Aim the Infra-red sensor at object to detect temperature (4) View the elevated temperature reading on electronic device (red Interface – indicating risk)
It is important to note that the two prototypes were developed specifically for the focus groups. One was intended to be visually ‘loud’, lighting up to flag an elevated temperature to those in close proximity, while the other more ‘discreet’, only indicating an elevated temperature to the person holding the electronic device. The accuracy of the technology was not the main driver in this study, but rather it was about the ideas and questions that the intended function of the prototypes provoked from the focus group participants. Furthermore, ethical considerations and approval must be granted to use the device on a person, therefore only demonstrations were conducted using a heat source.
Admittedly, our journey was not always smooth. To begin, we incorrectly thought it would be most efficient to conduct our research separately then come together to integrate afterward. However, we soon realised this approach makes is altogether more challenging, and it is much more productive and helpful if we tackle the research problem as a group. In this way, we can really understand each discipline better, and determine the best approach to tackle shortcomings using our combined strengths. For example, our HASS colleagues needed to come to grips with technical matters in order to produce a good focus group instrument, and we needed to learn about methods for surfacing the ethical and potential social implications of new technologies. As an engineer, it was productive to challenge my reasoning style in response to broader social implications my HASS colleagues raised.
That said, my advice for interdisciplinary teams, and particular for engineers, is to involve colleagues from beyond your disciplines or field as early as possible. You need to be open to change and allow for early collaboration to spark new directions and change the project trajectory. Practically, and with permission, I found that it is also helpful to record team conversations. These are often fruitful spaces where crucial ideas are articulated most aptly in the moment. In sum, working with a team of five formidable women across HASS and STEM and making the most of mentorship and funding opportunities has led to a fascinating, productive, and surprising journey.
Dr Amini’s project ‘Revealing the risks: Exploring the social implications of technology that allows individuals to use intuitive smart-wear to potentially recognise invisible viral threats’ was supported by a 2021 SSN incubator grant. Her collaborators are Dr Tanya King, Dr Monique Mann and Courtney Hempton from HASS, and Professor Jennifer Loy from STEM.
A book chapter Making the Invisible Visible: A science and society view of developing non-invasive thermal technology will be available In ‘Healthcare Technology Solutions for Pandemics – A Roadmap’ In early 2022.
(1) Boer, Laurens & Donovan, Jared (2012) Provotypes for participatory innovation. In Wright, P & Olivier, P (Eds.) Proceedings of the 9th ACM Designing Interactive Systems Conference. Association for Computing Machinery, United States, pp. 388-397.
This is the second feature in the ‘Interdisciplinary Experiences’ series.