Meet Dr Nikola Krstajić: EPSRC IRC Proteus Research Associate

Nikola discusses working from an industry background and the challenges he faces at PROTEUS.

PROTEUS is a hugely interdisciplinary endeavour. What is your scientific background?

Strictly speaking, my background is engineering. I’ve worked in electronics and the design of new scientific equipment. If I had a dream, in ten years time, I would be attacking a biological problem because I’m really keen to learn more about clinical physiology and other sciences.

What attracted you to engineering?

I actually wanted to study physics, but I would have been required to enrol in military service. Engineering did not require this. However, physics informs engineering to a great extent so I decided to embrace it.

Why PROTEUS? How did you become involved?

I met Kev Dhaliwal and Mark Bradley who are both very engaging figures and I really identified with PROTEUS’ goal, particularly the clinical and engineering aspects of it. I really admire their dedication. Kev goes to hospital every day, he sees patients, and is trying to improve peoples’ lives by developing something that will have significant clinical impact. It will be applied directly in the clinic, so this is where I hope this research differs to that which just aims to be published. In the next couple of years we will be testing in humans, which is a really exciting prospect.

How does your research background link into the whole outcome of the Proteus project?

I’ve worked in a number of fields including electronics, optics and medical physics. Therefore I have a broader field of expertise than colleagues who have spent many years focussed on one domain of science. In the context of this project, this is an advantage because we’re integrating a variety of techniques. Hopefully, we can realise our goal sooner.

How are you finding working as part of such an interdisciplinary team?

It’s very fulfilling, but comes with its own unique challenges. For example, each scientific field uses different terminology to explain their research, which may confuse experts from other disciplines. Each field also works on different timescales: some experiments can be completed in a day, whilst others can take longer. The problems addressed by PROTEUS as a whole are relatively simple; however each team member faces their own individual challenges which are more intricate. Overall though, I’m enjoying working as part of such an interdisciplinary team as it has been a very interesting learning experience.

How can the achievements of the PROTEUS project be further applied?

One obvious answer is that the instrument we develop must be attractive to clinicians. Not only that, the instrument needs to be certified and safety tested. The NHS doesn’t invest in expensive technologies unless those technologies are substantially better than what is currently in use. What we want to do is have something that is not only novel, but efficient and affordable.

Your background includes a lot of commercial work. What are the differences between working in industry as opposed to working in an university research institute?

It’s completely different. In industry you have to do things very quickly and with a very clear goal. You’re somewhat limited by deadlines for marketing and selling a product. Industry relies on ones specialised expertise – programming in my case – but I felt restricted in that I was solely focussed on one thing. The advantage of commercial work is that things are done fast: equipment is always available immediately and tasks are completed rapidly. It works differently at universities because initiating a project takes time and there is a more open approach to research.

Would you say there’s more freedom to conduct your own research at university?

There’s more scope to be curious and more freedom for research. There’s also a risk in that you can be curious in your research and potentially develop something that may be never used. In the case of my research, it was always clear from the outset that application was the primary goal.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far on this project?

The biggest challenge is to discover new physiological mechanisms using existing tools and also to enable clinicians to detect disease. A lot of clinical research is sometimes not so much about finding a cure but understanding the pathology behind a disease. So the biggest challenge for us is to provide tools that detect bacteria, it is as simple as that. There’s an engineering aspect to my work where I’m helping to utilise various sophisticated detectors. These detectors are amazing. They do not only detect the intensity of light, they also detect how soon light arrives. With devices like these we can make new discoveries!

What’s been the highlight of your time at PROTEUS?

The highlight was realising that, with relatively simple kit, we can see through endoscopes in multiple colours to gain clinically relevant knowledge. It also makes us question how we can continually improve on that. It’s a question of doing considerably better than the currently available kit. The moment I saw fluorescence, when I put the endoscope next to the skin on my hand, I knew that we had cracked one part of the challenge in imaging tissue. Now we need to do the same using lung tissue. The end product may not reflect the current equipment, but we understand how the system works. We can then analyse an image and, if necessary, replace components from the test system. Personally, that was my ‘Eureka’ moment: seeing an image fluoresce in multiple colours.

What advice would you give to people who want to learn more about your field?

The end application drives you. The technical details are initially irrelevant, your focus should be on solving a problem. At PROTEUS, we want to provide a tool that helps clinicians find a certain bacteria. That’s what drives you: the application. So if you find an application that motivates you, that’s all you need.

And finally, what do you do when you’ve not got your scientists hat on?

I enjoy walks with friends and family, but it’s hard to switch off. The job is so good, it’s almost a hobby. I’m curious about other aspects of science as well, I’m currently reading about biology!

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