Engineering endless possibilities - Professor Sunita Chauhan
6 March 2017
Insatiable curiosity and a passion for fixing things by hand have driven world-leading bio-mechatronics and robotics expert Professor Sunita Chauhan since childhood.
The director of Monash University’s mechatronics program, chief investigator at the University’s Biomechatronics, Robotics and Automated Systems laboratory, and inventor of a series of non-invasive robots that can kill cancer cells via soundwaves, Professor Chauhan grew up in India enchanted by her father’s inventions and determined to try such things for herself.
“I did not know I would like to be an engineer,” she recalls, “but I knew that I wanted to make practical mechanisms and devices, and do something that was related to science, especially physics and mathematics.”
At university Professor Chauhan took a vertical double degree and gained Masters in both physics and instrumentation and controls engineering. She worked with industry and in several national research laboratories in India, researching and developing robotics, process control and biomedical instrumentation, before moving to London to undertake a PhD in medical robotics at Imperial College.
It was there that she was involved in the design and development of one of the world’s first robots for targeting brain cancers using non-invasive soundwaves, with no need for surgery or radiation.
“It’s a bit like a miracle - it spares all the overlying normal tissues on the way to the cancerous target. We got lots of media attention and publications afterwards because it was a very new idea at that stage,” she said.
For the next decade she worked in collaboration with a range of clinical experts to further the technology to cancers of the breast, liver, kidney and prostate, and achieved great results in pre-clincal experiments.
“It’s pretty exciting exploring from one part of the body to the another. We have designed a series of what we call FUSBOTS – Focussed Ultrasound Surgery Robots,” she added.
These days, surgical robotics accounts for around 70 per cent of Professor Chauhan’s research time, allowing her to broaden her scope to automation and robotics in aeronautics and infrastructure (think climbing robots that clean windows and maintenance robots for railways).
Professor Chauhan also applies her mechatronics expertise to sports engineering, medicine and performance.
“For example, I look at how to enhance the performance of Olympic level athletes, where performance really matters,” she said.
She uses bio-mechatronics to monitor and improve everything from elite swimmers’ and cyclists’ breathing to the lateral disturbance of archers’ arrows on release, helping them analyse and refine their techniques and even heal injuries like minor muscle ruptures and bone fractures using ‘sound’ methods such as ultrasonic waves and ultrasound.
Professor Chauhan says her broad interests and lifelong curiosity have been major assets in her career.
“I have four degrees, two masters, bachelor and PhD, and no two are in the same area,” she says with a laugh. “You sit on the top of a complete system, with expertise to understand it from the top and bottom. If you do only one side you have to imagine many unpredictable things.”
Despite her success, working in a male dominated industry has been galling at times.
“Quite a few times I’ve been in situations that really look like harassment,” she said.
Yet Professor Chauhan has persisted with her work, and says that the field has endless possibilities to offer women or men with diverse interests and a collaborative approach to problem solving.
“There’s a lot you can learn from almost everybody,” she said.