Dr Faezeh Marzbanrad remembers watching her mother work long hours to meet the burgeoning demand for healthcare in her hometown of Shiraz, Iran.
People would flock from the surrounding regions to access the high-quality care the popular doctor provided.
Helping others was the family stock; when local medical specialists couldn’t solve a patient’s problem, it was Faezah’s father, Bijan, an engineer, they turned to help.
“My father would find technical solutions, and build equipment that medical doctors needed,” says Dr Marzbanrad. “That’s why I decided to become an engineer.
“The idea and the opportunity to do something that could help people was very appealing to me.”
Engineering is clearly in Dr Marzbanrad’s blood, but so, too, is the fundamental belief that life-saving medical technology should be affordable and accessible to everyone, regardless of whether a person lives in a developing country, a remote area, or an overcrowded city .
Inspired by her visionary parents, Dr Marzbanrad completed her undergraduate and master’s studies in engineering at Shiraz University, Iran, then took up a PhD research scholarship opportunity in Melbourne, where she focused on developing new fetal heart monitoring techniques, as well as automated diagnosis of congenital heart diseases.
Read more: Pregnancy monitoring from home – a device being trialled globally
Today, she’s at the forefront of developing technology and med-tech devices that can save the lives of our most vulnerable babies and children, and reduce healthcare costs.
Her achievements were recently recognized with the Women Leading Tech Award 2022 in the education research category.
Matters of the heart
Inspired by a need for innovative healthcare across global communities, Dr Marzbanrad began investigating ways to make existing fetal heart monitoring technology intuitive and affordable enough to be used by midwives and doctors in rural and remote areas in every corner of the world.
To do so, she took an existing hand-held ultrasound device that monitors the baby’s heart sound, and added a new AI capability that automatically estimates fetal heart rate and development, and transmits them for remote assessment.
In collaboration with Emory University and Georgia Tech in the US, and Wuqu’ Kawoq – Maya Health Alliance in rural Guatemala, Dr Marzbanrad is now conducting tests of the technology in remote communities, and has been awarded a 2021 veski Victoria Fellowship in support of this work.
“The magic is in the software,” she says. “We can now automatically and remotely assess the baby’s health and development from the recorded signals, and easily identify any health risks.
“With a bit of training, a traditional midwife or local doctor can easily provide this care right at home in the community.”
Lived experience translated into tech
Following the birth of her daughter, Dr Marzbanrad found her research interests expanding into technologies that not only support the developing baby’s health, but also maternal health – based very much on her own experience of being a new mum.
She vividly recalls the turning point, when she was visiting her obstetrician while pregnant and feeling unwell.
“The first thing the doctor asked was, ‘How much is the baby moving?’ I could only guess, because I hadn’t had the time to keep a careful track, and this was stressful and worrying as an expectant mum.
“As an engineer, I thought, ‘Why don’t we have a device that can measure a baby’s kicks, and take the burden off women to do it all themselves?’”
Fast-forward, and Dr Marzbanrad is now part of a multidisciplinary research team of engineers and obstetricians developing exactly this type of device. In 2020, the team was awarded a $1 million National Health and Medical Research Council Ideas grant.
She hopes the device will reduce stillbirths by revolutionizing the way fetal movements are evaluated.
The soft, inexpensive smart patch the team is developing can automatically detect and report fetal movements anytime, anywhere, using advanced electronic-skin sensing technologies and AI.
“I’m the only researcher on the team who’s actually been pregnant!” Dr Marzbanrad says.
“My lived experience means we have the right insight into how to sense the movements automatically, and how to ensure the best user experience with the device. We hope this device significantly reduces the incidence of stillbirths in the future.”
Dr Marzbanrad has also been developing a monitoring device that can accurately measure a baby’s breastmilk intake.
“My baby wasn’t putting on enough weight, and there were concerns about her feeding, which was another stressful thing to handle,” she says.
So, she again went back to the drawing board to develop a device idea.
Her solution involves placing a small device on a baby’s neck while feeding, which applies an AI algorithm to sensor data that can automatically measure the milk intake.
Still in development, the device aims to be safe and unobtrusive, and has the potential to significantly improve the care of sick or premature babies transitioning from tube feeding to breast or bottle feeding.
Initiatives such as International Women In Engineering Day on 23 June highlight the critical contributions women such as Dr Marzbanrad make to engineering research and practice, yet their numbers continue to stay stubbornly low in Australia.
Engineering For Australia Taskforce’s recent report on women’s participation in engineering education finds that engineering hasn’t achieved the gender equity realized in other industries, with women comprising only 12% of the Australian engineering workforce, and 16% of students enrolled in engineering courses at our universities.
“I want to use my skills as an engineer to design solutions to problems that matter to women,” says Dr Marzbanrad.
“This hasn’t necessarily been the case in the past, but the more women we can encourage to become engineers, the more our solutions will better reflect our own needs.”