LCW spoke to Bianca Albanese, Biomedical Engineer and PKU Advocate about what it means to be a woman in
engineering and living with PKU.
LCW: Bianca, you’re a Biomedical Engineer working for NeuRA – tell us what an average day looks like?
B: I am involved in quite a bit of report and paper writing, ethics applications, statistical analysis and general meetings, but my typical day is quite exciting. It could involve heading to vehicle auctions to hunt for study vehicles and more recently, I have been involved in developing and designing in-built video monitoring equipment to monitor driver and child passenger behaviour. The most exciting part though, has to be my previous work conducting crash tests (pics). We also now have our own in-house crash sled where I am 1 of 3 researchers at NeuRA qualified to operate it. As part of our motorcycle work, I have run mechanical performance tests on motorcycle protective equipment, along with home visits to inspect motorcycle crash scenes and interview crashed motorcycle riders.
LCW: In a predominantly male dominated industry, how did you feel about pursuing engineering?
B: To be honest, being a minority in the engineering field never deterred me. My father is an engineer and I shared his love of science, maths and physics growing up. I was fascinated with all things science and nature; I would ask questions non-stop about how things worked and why, and can imagine that would’ve been very frustrating to my parents – whoops. My curiosity in this area led me to follow my passion, studying a Bachelor of Mechanical (Biomedical) Engineering and a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) at the University of Sydney.
It is true that the ratio of female to male students in my undergraduate classes was low but I never really thought much about it. I had great supportive friends and we made a lot of great memories. I do encounter surprise and sometimes admiration for being a woman in the engineering field, and to this day it still catches me off-guard. I see engineering as a field which suits my interests for discovery, development and change. An engineer isn’t defined by gender but our individual differences which give us unique perspectives to solve problems and create change.
LCW: What advice would you have to other young future women leaders in the engineering and science space?
B: Having a positive ‘can-do’ attitude is essential. I didn’t step into engineering or science thinking it was a male-dominated field filled with obstacles. I just saw it as a cool industry where I could live out my passions and love of science and discovery. Have a ‘can-do’ attitude and follow what you love and enjoy. My attitude was probably shaped by other aspects of my life growing up, which I talk about ↓ below. Have a mindset that you are capable of anything you put your mind to.
LCW: Bianca, you’ve been living with PKU, a rare genetic condition since birth – can you tell us a bit more about that and how it’s affected you?
B: Phenylketonuria (PKU for short) is a rare (1 in 15,000 rare!) metabolic condition which means my body can’t break down one amino acid, phenylalanine (Phe), found in protein. Everyone (yes, you included!) in Australia and most developed countries were screened for this condition since 1973 via a blood spot at birth. If left untreated, high levels of Phe in the blood become toxic to the body, causing severe mental retardation. Treatment has come a long way since 1973. It was once thought a special diet only had to be followed until the brain ‘stopped growing’ at 10. As years went on, cognitive deficits, declines in IQ, and many other problems were seen in these patients. Today, we live by the mantra ‘Diet for life’. Everyone’s tolerance is different, but I am limited to only 6 grams of protein from food a day. That’s equivalent to one egg, a tablespoon of peanut butter or less than a glass of milk. Shops and supermarkets don’t really offer much by way of low protein foods, apart from fruits and vegetables. Thankfully there is a limited range of specially made (but expensive) low protein foods (pasta and flour) that we can source from overseas. Essential vitamins, minerals and other amino acids which we miss out of due to our restricted diet is supplemented by formula. I must admit it was tough growing up in an Italian family, surrounded by amazing food that I unfortunately couldn’t eat. Despite that, I didn’t see my condition as a barrier to my dreams; rather just something I had to accept. Being diligent with my protein count, blood tests and attending specialist appointments all became routine and are now second-nature to me. My path venturing into engineering, research and science has really fostered my interest in the treatment and management of PKU. There is still a lot that is unknown about living with PKU. It is a relatively young condition; at 27 I am within the first generation of ‘diet for life’ patients. A lot of patients, despite being on diet, still experience symptoms associated with PKU. I am currently an executive member of the Metabolic Dietary Disorders Association (MDDA) which is an organisation that represents a variety of disorders affected by Inborn Errors of Metabolism (IEM). They aim to support, educate and advocate for those living with an IEM. The MDDA holds retreats for affected families to bond, share experiences and educate about developments in research and management. They have successfully lobbied the Government regarding IEM management, fundraised to enable research, created a fantastic Australian IEM community and just recently participated in the formation of the first global association for PKU. My drive for development and to create change led me to recently join the Metabolic Dietary Disorders Association (MDDA) as an executive member. The MDDA Despite the challenges I face day-to-day in living with this condition, I believe it has shaped me positively and provided me with a unique skillset and mind frame that fuels my drive to achieve and excel. Whether it be a medical condition or being a female in engineering, nothing should be viewed as a barrier to living your best life.
LCW: You’re a fierce advocate for PKU and promote both those with PKU and without to live a happy and balanced life – what are some of the ways you make sure you live a happy and balanced life?
B: The most obvious for me is to eat right. I love fresh fruit and vegetables and love trying new recipes (though not always successfully) and new foods. I find being active a great stress relief. I play hockey competitively, I also play in social netball comps with my work friends and I love hiking on the weekends. I strongly believe in doing what you love and to build on your skills and strengths. Get involved in things! Follow your passions be it work, community or hobbies! I love attending MDDA retreats. They have fostered such a sense of community and support which brings nothing but positivity to our lives. I also love travelling, even if this is a challenge with an IEM. The sights you see and the experiences you gain make the extra effort worth it.
LCW: What’s in the future for you? Career dreams? Personal dreams?
B: It’s very simple but I hope to be happy, I hope to continue my learning and I hope to lead a meaningful life. Career wise, I predict a lot of hard but exciting and rewarding work. I plan on beginning a new chapter in my career, starting a PhD next year. My project focuses on the design of child restraints to optimise their correct use whilst maintaining their crash performance integrity. Outside of my career, I would love to continue my involvement within the IEM community. I have much to learn from the amazing community of people who share a rare condition to me. And that serves as great inspiration for me to drive for change and push for improvements in the management and quality of life for people affected with IEM.
LCW: Favourite place to travel?
B: Anywhere and everywhere? I did love Italy though. The history, food and culture made me feel at home.
LCW: Favourite vegetarian restaurant in Sydney?
B: Lebanon and Beyond in Randwick. Homely Lebanese food with lots of low protein options. Always a plus! The MDDA have also teamed up with The Grand Hotel Warrandyte to create the first ever Australian low protein menu. We are hoping to roll this concept out nationwide so hopefully this list will grow in the future