Initially, I didn’t see where Jeff Clark was sitting. All of our correspondence had led me to expect someone a lot older – his tone is not dry, but also not gushing with familiarity. So when I sat on a table a few away from his and began to wonder where my interviewee was and why he was late, Clark sent me a text message asking me the same questions. I was surprised that actually Clark is in his mid twenties.
In fact, it is only recently that he finished studying at the University of Warwick and even more recently that he has begun to work at the Department of Anaesthetics, Intensive Care and Critical Care Medicine as a Research Assistant.
Clark’s education has been in mechanical engineering. So it is quite an interesting new world that he is discovering through his work with anaesthetics.
“In my last year of university, I decided that I wanted to do something that would impact more than designing cars or luxury items. It would be good, I thought, to design things that help improve lives of others through healthcare,” he explains in a very well spoken manner. “I worked for about five months in the Department of Haematology at Cambridge before this. That involved designing and thoroughly testing an HIV test for use in resource-limited situations, which was in a completely different sector. My overall aim was to help people’s lives.”
A lot of what Clark does is actually testing ideas out for other people. His background in mechanical engineering has given him a very good understanding of the way that things work and ideas of precision and practice.
Since starting work within the department four months ago, Clark has been busy catching up on medical terms and anaesthetic theory.
Still though, he’s not completely uninitiated: his interest in medical engineering began in his second year of study with projects related to biomedical materials.
“That was the first time that I realised I could put my skills to problems that I would have otherwise thought were to be left to clinicians and medics,” he says. “In my 3rd year I carried out a project to do with 3D printing and that was on products that were for the body. In my fourth year, I did a group project that was to do with optimising the design of rocker sole shoes for elderly people who get cramp in their calves. If you get the right profile on the bottom – this can help get rid of the cramp. It was completely new to me but after that I realised it was medical products that interested me.”
Now that he’s firmly placed inside a department that produces a bounty of research both academic and more practical, Clark is getting the chance to work on projects that really affect peoples’ lives.
“I’m involved with developing an epidural simulator. One of the cases that an epidural is given is when a woman is in labour, the anaesthetist injects a needle into the bottom of the back,” Clark continues. “They have to make sure that the needle goes to just the right distance though. In the best case, if he goes too far, he gives the woman a really bad headache for a week. Or in a worst case scenario, he paralyses them. There’s only a few millimetres in it.”
At the moment, Clark says, simulators available for educational use in this area are either very expensive or are cheap but not effective. The project that Clark is working on will see a realistic model placed into the middle of the price range.
“At the moment we have blocks that people are testing with different layers: skin, ligament etc. We’ve carried out several rounds of testing to find the best design,” he says. “I’ve had anaesthetists test it and then tell us which one was the most realistic. We’ve narrowed it down to one model now and we’re hoping to push it further and then commercialise it. We’re also working on a more sophisicated model of an entire back including bones and cerebrospinal fluid.”
Clark is also working on a project relating to bougies – a medical instrument that is put down the throat to put down breathing tubes and allow the patient to get oxygen.
“The problem is that the anaesthetist gets the tube around a curve and then wants it to get back into shape but not too quickly. It maintains its shape but if it gets stuck it can puncture especially in the lungs,” he explains.
As well as these two projects, he is also involved in a very exciting project concerned with innovation in anaesthetic delivery.
“When an anaesthetist is giving an anaesthetic to a patient, there’s a gas that comes through a tube and mixes with oxygen and other gases. It’s then fed into the patient via the breathing system,” he says. “What we’re working on – although it’s not my idea – is to have a new way of carrying and delivering the anaesthetic vapour. The system doesn’t require a piped gas supply so could be used in areas with limited resources such as for the military. It’s also much safer because the anaesthetist doesn’t have to constantly turn knobs and can ensure it stays a constant level.”
Having initially set out to work on projects that will use his skills to help improve people’s lives, it is good to ask how satisfied he is by what he has done so far:
“It’s certainly very different to the HIV diagnostics I previously worked on, but just as worthwhile,” he replies. “While I’m still young, I’d like to get a wide variety of experience. I’m surprised by how many different topics there are in anaesthesia alone. It’s interesting and that’s definitely a good thing.”
Clark’s conversation is cordial, his interest is evident and really, although he is still at the beginning of his career, it is obvious that he is on the right track to becoming a person thoroughly satisfied by helping to improve the every day lives of people around him by using the skills he has learned along the way.