July 12, 2021
Growing up in Northampton, UK, Dr. Rebecca Bryan knew exactly what she wanted to do: work as an automotive engineer on a Formula One race team.
“Northampton is a center of racing, and I was immersed in the sport from a young age,” she recalls. “As I watched the races every weekend with my grandmother, I pictured myself on the pit wall, wearing headphones and monitoring the performance of the car. I had always excelled at math and science, and it seemed the perfect way to apply those skills to something I was passionate about and travel the world.”
After graduating from high school, Rebecca secured a position as a student design engineer with Cosworth Racing, a leading racing engine manufacturer. For five years, she balanced various assignments at Cosworth with earning her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Southampton. She was on course to achieve her dream.
But, as Rebecca contemplated her future, she realized her dream had changed. “I began to question the value of what I was doing, the bigger picture,” she says. “I could engineer a component that would make a racecar go faster, but what did that ultimately mean? Although I loved the environment and industry, youthful idealism made me feel that at the end of my career I would want to look back and be able to say that I had made a positive impact on the world.”
Encouraged by her professors at Southampton, Rebecca enrolled in a Ph.D. program in Biomedical Engineering at the University. One of these professors offered her a fascinating project in the orthopedic biomechanics research group. She focused her doctoral studies in that area of biomedicine, and was instantly hooked. “I loved the idea that I could potentially design a new hip implant that could dramatically improve the quality of life for one person, or thousands of people, every day,” she explains. She had found her calling as an engineer.
As a doctoral student, she used statistical modeling techniques, supported by Ansys Mechanical, to design a methodology to allow the evaluation of orthopedic devices across populations of femur models. “There is so much variability between each of us, imagine testing a new design on a young, 6-foot-6-inch commando and then expecting it to work the same way for your 90-year-old, 5-foot grandmother!” says Rebecca. “It was exciting to try to capture that variability and use it to better understand how implants would perform using computational modeling. It was hard work, but I loved it.”
One of the challenges was converting tens of patient data sets, typically CT images, into 3D models suitable for computational modeling. When Rebecca learned that a startup company called Simpleware had created software specifically designed to do this, she applied for a job there. “I turned my thesis in on Friday and started working at Simpleware as an application engineer on Monday,” she says. “I was enthusiastic about the product and wanted to get right to work.”
Simpleware ScanIP Medical, combined with Ansys simulation software, helps clinicians build reliable models for pre-surgical planning.
Rebecca has been at Simpleware for over 11 years, through its acquisition by Synopsys in 2016, and has advanced steadily through roles in alliance building, sales and business development. She has become a global advocate for using advanced computational technology to model and simulate medical outcomes, an approach known as in silico medicine.
“If we can use medical imaging to generate 3D, high-quality computational models of a patient to predict how implants will actually perform in their body, or provide insight for surgical planning, then we can start to customize health care and dramatically improve outcomes,” she explains.
“Equally exciting, we can use in silico approaches on a massive scale to test new devices or treatment plans in a simulated environment and help provide evidence for regulatory approvals,” she continues. “Not only can in silico clinical trials be significantly faster and cheaper than traditional human or animal studies, but they pose zero risk ― giving researchers freedom to innovate.”
Supported by artificial intelligence and machine learning, Simpleware’s solutions significantly reduce the time needed to generate simulation-ready models, supporting mass adoption of in silico approaches. 3D imaging, such as CT scans and MRIs, can be rapidly and seamlessly translated into 3D models that are ready for design and simulation studies. Via an automated process, Simpleware can accurately processes images, obtain measurements and statistics, and export high-quality models in a fraction of the time required for manual processing.
Meshed human body model generated from CT images in Simpleware.
Because Simpleware exports models directly to Ansys software, the two companies have formed a partnership to communicate the benefits of in silico medicine. “Working together, Ansys and Synopsys aim to eliminate the technical barriers to in silico clinical trials,” Rebecca points out. “Now our shared mission is to overcome cultural and educational obstacles through outreach, advocacy and example. We want to spread the word and see in silico medicine reach its full potential.
“Maybe it’s a gender-based stereotype, but as a female engineer I have always felt drawn to communication and outreach,” Rebecca continues. “Nearly all my jobs have been focused on bringing people together and collaborating to create positive change. I have a lot of natural empathy, and that translates into being very passionate about patient outcomes. I truly believe in silico medicine has the power to transform health care, and I’m happy to be part of that transformation.”
It’s encouraging to note that Rebecca never felt hindered in her engineering education and career as a woman in a male-dominated field.
“Looking back at my time in automotive racing, I was the only female engineer on the shopfloor, and maybe that should have felt intimidating ― but it didn’t,” she says. “I was focused on my goals and never really thought about my gender. I thought, ‘Of course I can do this, why not?’” She was also encouraged and supported throughout her time at the University of Southampton, as well as her career at Simpleware/Synopsys.
In February 2020, she became a mother and, for the first time, was aware of how her gender might impact her career path.
“First of all, let me stress that my colleagues at Synopsys have been wonderfully supportive about my new role as a parent. It’s a very family-oriented environment,” she emphasizes. “But I think all women face societal pressures related to starting a family that men simply don’t encounter. They have to manage a work-life balance that is really challenging at times.
“As a practical example, I could be traveling anywhere up to100 days a year prior to becoming a mom,” Rebecca says. “That’s simply not possible now. My professional role has had to change. I don’t regret my choice for a moment, but I am aware it will impact my career trajectory in the future. The challenge now is to ensure that path is still the one I want to follow. I will continue to get out there and communicate the benefits of in silico medicine, but I also need to be present for my daughter.
“I think we’ve made great strides in pursuing career equality, but we need to keep working,” Rebecca concludes. “We need to create an environment where women are not held back by their life choices, parental responsibility is truly shared and employers are supportive of that. I’m hoping my daughter will be able to live in that world.”