Dr Marta Varela is a Research Associate within the Department of Biomedical Engineering.
On a daily basis, we talk about our work almost exclusively with other researchers for whom the excitement and novelty of what we do is taken for granted. I was delighted to be awarded a Public Engagement Grant from the Institute of Physics in January 2018 to give me the opportunity to build a series of gadgets that would allow me to share the excitement of my research with the general public. The main aim of the project was to demonstrate how the laws of physics underlie biological processes, particularly the propagation of the electrical signal that triggers the contraction of the heart.
I was lucky enough to benefit from the invaluable hard work of Aditi Roy (PhD student) and Ali Tajabadi (BEng student) in this project. Together, we created a physical model of a cardiac arrhythmia: a 3D printed heart embedded with LEDs. The LEDs obediently lit up sequentially to demonstrate the activation of the heart in sinus rhythm, but at the flick of a switch, could light up in a complex and chaotic-looking pattern, as in a cardiac arrhythmia. As well as being illustrative of the complexity of an arrhythmia, this model was very visually appealing and we found it drew the attention of passers-by wherever we took it.
Apart from elucidating the mechanisms of arrhythmias, our research aims to help clinicians design optimal treatment plans and we wanted to convey that message in our display. Ali therefore created an Android app where users can interactively test different strategies to terminate arrhythmias, simulating a widely-used procedure called catheter ablation. Give it a go and test your skills as an electrophysiologist: Cardiac Ablation Simulator App (Android devices only).
We then took all these devices, together with a model of an electrical circuit that gives the same electrical output as a cardiac cell, to a few public events. The first was International Clinical Trials Day in the corridor of St Thomas’ Hospital, in the excellent company of other researchers working at King’s. I was impressed by the insight of some of the questions from the many patients and hospital visitors that stopped at our stall.
I also took the materials to a primary school, where a group overeager 6-year-olds managed to terminate arrhythmias using our app by having all five of them energetically press the screen at the same time! (Miraculously, the tablet where the app was being played survived.)
The next day, we visited the Camden New Town Festival. Sadly, there was not much interest on the part of festival goers on our experiment, whose interest was drawn to the neighbouring stalls selling shiny attractive jewellery. (It did not help that one of the electrical wires in the LED heart snapped in the beginning, preventing it from lighting up.) I realised that, in this setting, the stall would need to be more visually attractive to draw visitors in, particularly children. It was a good learning experience. I will never again set up a stall in a public festival without being suitably armed with balloons, pens, stickers and colourful fliers (and some spare electrical wires…).