Thanks to coronavirus, remote work has become the norm for many Canadians. For Dr. Emily Bishop, communicating with colleagues at a distance is at least partly business as usual. In addition to being a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Calgary, Bishop is also a clinical research associate with Spring Loaded Technologies, a medical device manufacturer based in Nova Scotia. Her dual roles have led to the creation of a fruitful partnership between the two organizations.
Originally from Nova Scotia herself, Bishop obtained her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. In 2009, she relocated to Alberta to pursue graduate studies in biomedical engineering with Dr. Janet Ronsky, an Alberta Innovates Chair in Advanced Diagnostics & Devices at the University of Calgary. As a recipient of Alberta Innovates’ Graduate Student Scholarship, she was able to focus on her studies and pursue opportunities to share her research.
“Through the funding I received I was able to attend national and international conferences to share my research findings, and I got to connect with other experts in the field. Being able to do that as a student was extremely valuable and rewarding,” says Bishop.
After completing her PhD, Bishop worked with Calgary biotech companies, including Zephyr Sleep Technologies and Orpyx Medical Technologies, both of which have also received support from Alberta Innovates. In 2019, she had the opportunity to take a job in her home province … sort of.
A cross-country collaboration
While Bishop was looking for a job in Canada that would allow her to apply biomechanical expertise to the development of medical devices, she came across Spring Loaded Technology’s posting for a clinical research associate. The company produces a bionic knee brace for people with knee injuries or arthritis, with an innovative design that allows it to unload all three compartments of the knee. Traditional knee braces tend to shift weight from one side of the knee to the other, which is effective when only one side of the patient’s knee is affected. That’s often not the case – in many cases, osteoarthritis impacts both sides of the knee as well as the kneecap.
“It was right up my alley,” says Bishop.
And despite being on nearly opposite sides of the country, they found a way to make it work that didn’t require her to relocate, by applying for Mitacs funding that would enable Bishop to complete the work required as a post-doctoral associate at the University of Calgary.
It was a win for everyone, including Albertans. Bishop got to stay in Calgary, where she’s close to the Rocky Mountains she loves, and where her research can drive innovation in her adopted province. Spring Loaded was able to establish a new research collaboration with the University of Calgary. The company works with universities across the country, including Dalhousie University, the University of New Brunswick and University of Guelph, to test and validate their products. Bishop’s project focuses on biomechanical and clinical research, working directly with patients to understand how the knee brace influences biomechanics as well as patient outcomes including pain, function and quality of life.
A patient-centred approach
It’s not the kind of work Bishop imagined when she started her undergraduate degree. “When I went into engineering, I had no idea about this path. I tended to always gravitate towards math, physics and the sciences and less towards the humanities. But it’s worked out that I’ve found a really neat area of engineering that I feel passionate about,” she says.
Clinical research requires a human touch, so Bishop and her team have been implementing a patient-oriented research approach. This allows patients to participate in the study as members of the research team, not just study participants, and enables patients to provide input on study design, methodology, and the interpretation of results. The research team recently received a grant from the Canadian Institute of Health Research to fund a preliminary clinical evaluation of the knee brace.
Of course, that human element has been complicated by COVID-19. While Bishop’s work with Spring Loaded’s headquarters in Nova Scotia is mostly online, her actual research takes place at the University of Calgary’s McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health and involves working directly with patients. “We’ve had to put a pause on collecting any new data for the time being until it’s safe to do so. But in the meantime, everyone’s become comfortable with meeting remotely and being able to collaborate on projects from home. It’s been great in that way,” Bishop says.
While Bishop’s regular trips to Nova Scotia to work with her colleagues in Dartmouth are currently on pause, her cross-country work continues to demonstrate the positive impact of collaborative research and innovation.
This story originally appeared in the July 2020 edition of Innovate Alberta’s digital newsletter, The Loop. Subscribe now.