ME and PhD opportunities at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute

Three Master of Engineering and PhD project opportunities are open to candidates interested in computational modelling, or would like to get involved in building skills such as tissue preparation and imaging, the development of physical models of a system that leads to new ultrasound technologies, and more. Please contact Dr Alys Clark for more information about any of the following projects.


Babies born too small: Can we predict and improve their growth?

In New Zealand around 5000 babies are born smaller than they should be due to a condition called intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR), which affects 5-8% of pregnancies. The problem in many cases is that the baby has not received the nutrients it needs for healthy development. This can be because the blood vessels in the placenta (our only source of nutrients in the uterus) hasn’t developed as an effective nutrient exchange organ. This project focuses on developing computational models to understand what makes a good nutrient exchanger, what can go wrong, and whether treatments aimed to improve blood vessel development can make a difference.

To do this we must quantify what is normal and abnormal in terms of blood vessel structure, and predict what this means for function. We will develop tools to assess vascular growth and function at the organ level. This project will involve development of models of blood flow in vascular networks, and finding efficient ways to predict exchange function. If interested, the student will develop experimental studies with a second PhD student in Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, to image blood vessel structure across spatial scales. You will work with collaborative teams in NZ the UK and Australia and will have opportunities to visit labs in this network.

 This will be achieved by:

  • Use and/or obtain images of the placental blood vessels to quantify how placental structure differs in normal and IUGR pregnancies
  • Predict the impact of placental structure on function, at the organ scale. 
  • Work closely with experimental collaborators to develop experimental protocols that can be used to test model predictions, and to assess the impact of therapies


The twists and turns of blood supply in pregnancy. What is ultrasound really showing?

We all started life in the same way, in our mother’s uterus. But how did she feed us? The nutrient supply to the fetus is via a complicated highly coiled and twisted network of unique blood vessels. These vessels change their structure dramatically during pregnancy to supply the placenta (and so the fetus). Our group, and collaborators in the UK and USA have developed new ways to look at these blood vessels and have started to show that there is more than meets the eye to the function of these curious blood vessels. They are so small that they can’t be seen easily when ultrasound scans are taken in pregnancy, so interpreting ultrasound relies on understanding how changes we can’t see reflect in the ultrasound measures we can see. Typically, research has focussed on one aspect of the system (the blood vessels closest to the placenta).  This project takes a new approach, by treating the organs involved in our earliest development as a system, rather than individual components. Our team aims to develop new imaging, computational and physical models of the system to better understand how its component parts interact.

This will be achieved by:

  • Obtaining and quantitatively analyzing images across spatial scales to determine the size and shape of uterine blood vessels in pregnancy.
  • Simulating blood flow in these structures and predicting 1) the rate of blood flow to the placental surface and 2) the shear stress within the vessel walls (which controls subsequent development).
  • Working closely with clinical collaborators to develop models that can guide interpretation of clinical obstetric imaging.


Sleeping in pregnancy: Can lying flat do more harm than good?

Women are often told to avoid lying flat on their back in the third trimester of pregnancy. The conventional wisdom is that the weight of the baby compresses mother’s major blood vessels and restricts blood flow to feed the baby. In some cases, this may lead to still birth, but for a lot of women its absolutely fine to lie flat on their back, so what is it about different women, different babies and different postures that makes the difference. Researchers at Auckland City Hospital and the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences are trying to answer this question with MRI studies of pregnant women in different postures. They have shown that in some women, the reduction in systemic arterial blood pressure expected from lying flat on their back is sufficient to almost completely remove the driving pressure that allows mother’s blood to flow to the uterus. But there are many unanswered questions: Which women are at risk? Does compression of the placental tissue contribute to reduced blood flow (is it worse to have a placenta that is located posteriorly)? What does all this mean for oxygen delivery to the fetus? We can measure these things in MRI, but we need computational models to explain the biomechanics of the process and to quantify how much each contributing factor matters, and who is really at risk. 

In this project you will:

  • Assess from MRI the extent of compression of the placenta under the weight of the baby across postures and placental locations
  • Determine whether the MRI derived flow and pressure driving blood through the uterus is a function of these factors
  • Use computational models to predict oxygenation of the placenta for estimated blood flow rates, and develop these models to incorporate the effect of placental compression
  • Compare models to MRI estimated oxygen profiles in the placenta and work to determine the primary reasons for differences between individuals.