Doctor Doctor

Engineering PhD student Phillip Cardiff talks to Alison Lee about his area of research, life as a postgraduate and how he hopes to help the field of medicine

- What is the official title of your PhD?

“The Development of a Numerical Model of the Hip Joint”

- In layman’s terms, what does that mean?

With the help of a computer I use some fancy maths and physics to calculate the forces going through the hip joint. This means that hopefully in future better hip replacements can be designed.

- Briefly explain the background to your work.

Most people don’t know that up to ten per cent of people who receive hip replacements experience dislocation of their prosthetic joint. Obviously this is quite upsetting for the patient and they lose confidence in their doctor and subsequent surgeries. The cause of hip replacement dislocation is not entirely understood so creating a computer model of the joint will hopefully give insights into what is happening.

- Describe your typical “day at work”.

My supervisor is quite relaxed about my time-keeping so typically I get into the office at about ten o’clock. As my work is mostly numerical I spend the majority of my time on my laptop browsing through CT scans, creating 3D bone models, writing computer code, adding features to my models, and reading scientific papers. During the college semesters I have teaching assistant duties where I give a few hours of tutorials a week to undergraduate students. I also sometimes have to help out final year undergraduate students with their thesis work. A couple of times a year I attend academic conferences where I give presentations on my work to experts in the field. For example, this summer I got to go to Penn State University near New York city and I was also in Zagreb for two weeks at a summer school.

- What, for you, is the most fascinating thing about your field of study?

I love that I get to apply maths and physics to a biological structure such as the hip joint. It is really interesting to examine the hip joint as a mechanical component and to understand how your body is designed to cope with daily stresses and strains. Also I have always been interested in computers; learning how computer programs are written and how a computer actually works is captivating.

-How could your work make a difference this particular scientific field, and to the world in general?

I think that all PhD students hope that their research might revolutionise the world, but in reality adding a small blip of knowledge to your chosen field is an impressive feat. Hopefully as a result of my research, a surgeon may be able to better decide how to lessen the risk of hip instability. In addition, a better understanding of the causes of hip dislocation may be gained, leading to better hip replacement designs. As people are living longer and becoming more active, and as obesity is becoming increasingly common, this research could have a beneficial effect upon the lives of many people.

- What undergraduate degree course did you do and where?

I did mechanical engineering in UCD.

- What made you choose to do a PhD?

I got on well at school and I enjoyed the university lifestyle, so in the final year of my undergraduate I looked into job opportunities and also approached some lecturers about PhDs. Luckily I came across a PhD which really interested me so I applied for it and was chosen for the position. I chose a PhD over a job because I believe it will increase employment opportunities as well as give me a chance to work at something I really enjoy.

- In your opinion, what is the best thing and worst things about being a postgraduate?

The best things about my PhD life are that I work on a subject that genuinely interests me, I get on well with my supervisor and also my research group are a bunch of sound guys that occasionally have time for a pint. I find that the worst things are that progress is often slow and frustrating and sometimes it is hard to work out how to surmount a problem. You really have to be comfortable working on your own, and fighting off procrastination is a constant battle.

- How do you feel your PhD will affect your career prospects?

I think that completing a PhD will significantly improve my job opportunities as well as increase my prospective salary. Even with current economic woes I feel my PhD will give me relatively good employment options. Some people feel that doing a PhD may “pigeon-hole” them to a very specific field, but in my experience this is definitely not the case. Through completion of a PhD you make many academic and industrial contacts that allows you to steer your career in the direction you want.