Jennifer Dickson

'This is work that saves lives...'

  • Jennifer dickson

Bachelor of Engineering with Honours in Mechanical Engineering

PhD in Mechanical Engineering

Combining her strong maths and physics skills with an interest in biology has led Jennifer to undertake a PhD in Mechanical Engineering in an area where UC is world-renowned for its research.

‘I am part of a group that works at controlling the blood sugar levels of patients in hospital intensive care units. This is work that saves lives,’ says Jennifer. ‘It gives you real clinical experience and the chance to apply engineering and medical knowledge to actually change lives because having normal blood sugar levels improves healing times and mortality rates, and reduces the risk of infection and reliance on support systems.

Jennifer’s research is primarily aimed at the control of blood sugar levels in pre-term babies, which, due to their under-developed body systems, can end up with blood sugar levels that are too high, in turn leading to further issues and higher risk of death. Insulin lowers blood sugar levels, but as the body’s response to insulin depends on a wide range of things, and changes over time, getting the correct dose of insulin can be risky and tricky.

As such, she helped develop a tablet application which takes patient condition into account to safely dose insulin, and which is currently being used in Christchurch Women’s Hospital as a standard of care in the neonatal intensive care unit. Due to its success, the app will also be used in a trial looking at outcomes in insulin treated babies in Auckland. It has also led to a life-changing trip to Budapest, Hungary to install the app’s use there. ‘It is exciting to be part of a network of research groups working on similar problems, and to be able to expand the use of our developed insulin therapy internationally. It also provided opportunities to travel, experience life in a different university and culture, and meet new people,’ she says.

Originally from rural Taranaki, Jennifer chose the University of Canterbury because of its reputation for providing the best foundational engineering degree in the country. She soon discovered that Engineering is not a degree where you stop learning upon completion, whatever your area of work or study.

‘In undergraduate Mechanical Engineering you study a wide range of subjects which gives you a solid foundation for later studies and work experience,’ says Jennifer. ‘It gets really exciting as you move through the Professional Years, when you begin to see how different subjects are inter-related, and how simple concepts can be used to model complicated systems.

‘This really helped broaden my understanding of how the same fundamentals can be used in a different area of expertise. It’s not just about increasing the content of your knowledge, but learning to apply it in different areas. I can work in a medical research field because I have been trained in a way of thinking and given a skill set that enables me to take what I know and apply it in a different context.’

Grateful for their support, Jennifer has been awarded six different scholarships throughout her degree. Two of these were from UC and four from external sources – Contact Energy, NZQA, Beca Engineering and the Federation of Graduate Women, Canterbury.

‘At UC, I’ve especially enjoyed engaging with people of like minds, who are interested in learning and discovering new things,’ says Jennifer. ‘There is always plenty happening, both academically and socially, and plenty to be involved with. In addition, Christchurch is a great base from which to see the rest of the South Island – there is plenty to see and do in almost any direction!’

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Emily Gualter

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Hanh Nguyen

'Both of my internships during the summer increased my interest and contributed a lot to my confidence...'