Pitched battle for 3MT success

Steven Harris Wibowo
Steven Harris Wibowo

Congratulations to Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering PhD candidate Steven Harris Wibowo, who competed today in the University of Melbourne’s 2015 Three Minute Thesis Competition (3MT) with his three minute research pitch, “Can Spiders Save Soldiers?”

Top honours on the day went to Eamonn Fahy from the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, followed by Kerryn Moore, also from the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences and Rebecca Vandegeer, from the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences.

Steven’s presentation was very lively and engaging, and the Melbourne School of Engineering are proud of his success in making it to the Grand Final.

For his PhD, Steven has been investigating better ways of making spider silk protein in the laboratory. Traditional methods have either required a great deal of time to produce a very small yield of material, or less time for material that may be impure and unable to be processed.

Steven has devised a new technique for creating synthetic spider silk, which is simpler and more effective. The material has a wide range of potential future applications, due to its remarkable strength, light weight and biocompatibility with the human body.

The silk protein material could be incorporated into military armour, to make it stronger and more lightweight or be used to make bandages, which are capable of healing wounds twice as quickly as cotton bandages. In addition, due to its biocompatibility, the material could be used for medical implants, for example, to slowly deliver anti-inflammatory drugs to people with osteoarthritis, or to deliver anti-cancer medications to cancer cells.

The material, also known as beta sheet amyloid fibrils, exists within the human body in people with Alzheimer’s disease. Steven believes that understanding how to create the material more effectively, may be a beginning of understanding the process of the disease.

“If we know how to assemble the material in the lab, it is one step towards learning how to break it down in the body,” he says.

Steven credits the 3MT with helping him to develop a range of skills from public speaking, avoiding jargon, relating to an audience, to the ability to distill the key message of his research in a short period of time. He believes that these skills are important for engineers to develop.

“Engineers can convey technical messages relatively efficiently, but we struggle with putting our work into a lay context. 3MT is great at teaching us how to do this,” he says.

Not only has Steven studied how to communicate his research in an engaging and compelling manner, he has also picked up business partners from last year’s 3MT competition in his successful Melbourne Accelerator Program (MAP) start-up company Eira Biotech.

“With last year’s 3MT champion (PhD in Pharmacology candidate, Bevan Main) and grand-finalist (PhD in Audiology, Johanna Tran), I’ve assembled a team of multidisciplinary and multicultural entrepreneurs dedicated to creating nanotechnology solutions in the medical field, in particular for disorders of the central nervous system.”

Eamonn Fahy will represent the University of Melbourne, when he competes in the Trans-Tasman 3MT Title, being held at the University of Queensland on October 2, 2015. More than 40 universities are set to compete for the title.

3MT is an academic communication competition that challenges research higher degree students to explain their research to a non-specialist audience in just 3 minutes. The 3MT concept was developed at the University of Queensland in 2008 and has spread internationally with competitions now being held in at least 170 universities across more than 17 countries worldwide.