In Conversation with Dr Harrison Steel

Thursday, 16 July, 2020

In Conversation with Dr Harrison Steel

In Conversation provides a glimpse into the life of an ‘outlier’ — an exceptional person going above and beyond to improve outcomes in their field. Oxford University scientist and John Monash Foundation scholar Dr Harrison Steel has been directly involved in two significant projects that have impacted the COVID-19 health crisis. One is his research as part of a team of scientists at Oxford University that has evolved into a form of rapid testing for COVID-19. The other is OxVent, a project devised to answer the demands of the current global ventilator shortage.

Harrison Steel is the 2016 Roden Cutler NSW John Monash Scholar.

Tell us about your experience working on the frontline of COVID-19.

It has been a very busy time. Once the severity of the ongoing pandemic became clear, there was a worldwide realisation that fighting and eventually overcoming the virus would require a huge scientific and engineering effort. Many departments and research groups at Oxford immediately switched focus to working on this challenge, and I am glad to have been able to contribute my expertise.

What did you study at university that allowed you to be selected and involved in the medical frontline of a pandemic?

As an undergraduate I studied Mechanical Engineering and Science at the University of Sydney and worked in many industries including space science (at NASA Ames), quantum computing (at the University of Sydney) and particle physics (at DESY). I was then awarded a Monash scholarship to go to the University of Oxford, where I completed a PhD (here called a D.Phil) in Engineering, focusing on robotics and biotechnology.

My work focused on developing new biotechnologies for medicine and industry, and I also founded a spin-out venture that produces open-source robotic technologies. I now hold a fellowship at the University of Oxford, where my research spans fields from synthetic biology to experimental robotics to evolution.

Were you selected from a group of other talented Oxford scientists to participate in these projects? What was this process like?

The past few months have been frantic — across the university, projects have been accelerated to address many facets of the international response to COVID-19. In many cases these projects may have started with a few academic researchers or students, who then brought colleagues with expertise in related fields, quickly building large interdisciplinary teams.

I was already working in a laboratory that specialises in developing novel ‘biosensors’ — their work quickly transitioned into the project on rapid COVID-19 diagnostics. My experience in building new biotechnologies led to me being contacted to help on the OxVent project.

The collaborative atmosphere at Oxford has enabled widespread cooperation on many of these projects. A time of crisis is not a time for overly aggressive competition — researchers have been generous to lend their time and expertise to help on many different fronts, and likewise they have been quick to consult and include colleagues that can provide other skills and expertise.

Can you tell us more about the two projects you were/are involved with?

Most of my time in the past two months has been spent working on the OxVent ventilator project. This project was initiated by a PhD student in a biomedical engineering group here at the University of Oxford. A team quickly assembled to drive this project, for which I have been leading the electrical engineering effort. In the space of three days we rapidly produced a prototype of our ventilator technology, which we presented to the UK cabinet office as part of their Ventilator Challenge. OxVent was selected as one of the few novel ventilator designs to be funded in this competition, and we set to work on building, testing, and clinically validating our system.

The government ordered more than 5000 OxVent units, with initial deliveries scheduled within the month. Meeting this deadline would require a round-the-clock effort from our team. At this point we were very fortunate to be paired up with medical device manufacturers Smith & Nephew, who provided decades of experience in product development, manufacturing and logistics. A large part of our team travelled up to their manufacturing plant in Hull and worked in partnership with their engineering and manufacturing experts to refine our system and complete the rigorous testing required for regulatory approval of the device. Seeing our technology progress rapidly was very rewarding, with a personal highlight for me being the Queen lending use of her personal helicopter to transport circuit boards I had designed across the country.

In the subsequent weeks the evolving pandemic situation in the UK thankfully did not reach the ‘worst-case’ predicted scenarios. This was great news for us, and the British people as a whole, as it meant that the NHS would (for the most part) be able to cope with the pandemic whilst remaining within capacity. However, this also meant that OxVent (and the majority of the other Ventilator Challenge projects) would likely not be required for the domestic fight against COVID-19; pre-existing commercial ventilators would cover this need. Upon receiving this news we immediately began reaching out to our international networks, as many countries (particularly in the developing world) have very limited access to these life-saving technologies, and are still far from reaching the peak of their domestic pandemic. We are now working on several fronts to get OxVent units deployed where they are most needed.

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