School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Getting back on track – Meet Amanda Brissenden

PhD candidate in Biomedical Engineering

by Phil Gaudreau, March 2020

Amy Cleaver

Bending, twisting, leaning, straining, sitting, slouching…our backs go through a lot in a day.

Few know this better than Amanda Brissenden, Sc’15. Her active lifestyle, which has included white water kayaking, rock climbing, and gymnastics to name a few, has caused more than her fair share of back injuries.

Nowadays, while she still keeps active, Amanda has put her back into her research. Amanda is a PhD candidate in chemical engineering whose research focuses on polymer spinal injections designed to restore the function of the discs of the spine and help alleviate pain.

“I was debating between enrolling in health sciences and engineering for my undergraduate studies, and Queen’s engineering seemed like a good fit with a strong community,” she says. “I particularly appreciate the fact the program has a general first year which allowed me to explore different career paths.”

In the final years of her undergraduate studies, Amanda had the opportunity to work with Dr. Brian Amsden on a summer undergraduate research project. These project were a part of a NSERC CREATE program at Queen’s and focused on soft connective tissues and applications of hydrogels.

This research experience led her to focus on biomedical engineering, a field which she knew would require a masters.

After enrolling in her masters courses and beginning her research, Amanda realized she needed more time to explore her research questions. She’s now into the final years of her doctoral studies.

Part of the work involves creating what Amanda calls ‘reverse JELLO’ – a kind of polymer gel that is liquid at room temperature and a gel at higher temperatures. This gel is intended to help provide a protective environment for stem cells which can then be inserted into the spine to help it repair.

“Surgical interventions to help repair intervertebral discs tend to have poor outcomes, so we’re increasingly looking at cell therapies to regenerate these tissues,” she says. “But the spine can be a difficult place to survive. So, this gel helps provide a scaffold that allows the cells to survive, grow, and stay in place.”

There’s quite an art to formulating just the right kind of gel. It must be strong enough to withstand the twists and turns a spine goes through in a day while also being soft enough to allow the spine to function normally. The gel must also stay intact, retain its shape, and avoid causing harm to the cells it is protecting. After building the initial molecules, Amanda is now testing several different mixes to confirm which performs the best.

Outside of the lab, Amanda volunteers at Kingston General Hospital providing tours to patients and visitors. She is also a past Queen’s finalist in the annual 3 Minute Thesis competition. These activities both relate to her interest in communicating science to non-scientists.

“I want people to be comfortable navigating healthcare and science and understanding the new developments in healthcare technology,” she says. 

Amanda has particularly expanded her community outreach beyond campus since she began her graduate studies, becoming involved in Kingston Women’s Soccer Club, attending a local climbing gym, and enjoying runs along the waterfront.

“Kingston is a beautiful city, she says. “I have a lot of hobbies and Kingston offers phenomenal access to the outdoors for kayaking and hiking. It’s a nice middle ground between the amenities of a larger city and the small city feel.”

She has also doubled down on her academics by completing a postgraduate diploma in public health and infectious diseases. Her hope is to leverage this additional knowledge to secure a post-doctoral opportunity that combines her interest in immunology and biomaterials. Eventually, she hopes to stay in academia or possibly work for a company developing vaccines.

As she enters the final stages of her studies, Amanda has been honoured to receive the Dr. Kimberly Woodhouse Fellowship. This award, named for the former Dean of Queen’s Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, includes direct mentoring from Dr. Woodhouse which Amanda has found quite valuable as she plans out the next stages of her academic journey and career.

To learn more about graduate studies in chemical engineering at Queen’s, or other graduate programs, visit the School of Graduate Studies’ website.