Discovering pieces of a puzzle by review writing.

I started as an early-stage researcher in summer 2021 on producing microstructures for medical diagnostics. My primary goal was to understand the state of the art in disease sensing and detection on microfluidic (low volume, controlled flow) environments.

As I read through the boom in the microfluidics space due to manufacturing advances and the urgency in producing rapid, accurate and sensitive devices for disease detection (identify a pathogen or a biomarker), I noticed there was a clear gap in the documentation of how novel platforms are built. Although COVID-19 has played a crucial role in how the scientific and industrial community viewed quantified diagnostics, researchers in next-gen diagnostics have a long way to go to tackling long term challenges in scaling and identifying gaps in outcomes (from traditional methods) while remaining user-friendly.

Thus, there is a clear need to account advances in disease detection and I decided to write about interesting and novel research in this space.

Cartoon Image of a mouse working in a labIn the pursuit of writing a readable and detailed review, I kept in mind three things:

  1. Identifying relevant information
  2. Organising information
  3. Continuity and storytelling.
  1. Identifying information: This is the most important yet challenging step, as I could find myself going on tangents with articles that overlap with the topic at hand but differ in goals. For example, although ‘Point of care devices’ is the common theme of this review, there is a plethora of innovation that are attractive to include such as incorporation of artificial intelligence in medical devices, improving cost effectiveness in devices, or the advances in detecting cancer biomarkers. To overcome this, I read several review articles to identify the missing yet much needed information and refined the focus of my own review. Respecting the scope while also recognising the value of reviews covering overlapping topics, I cited many works and added my thoughts on their relevance and inclusion in larger studies, such as meta-analysis and systematic field reviews.
  2. Organising information: Once relevant information has been identified, the pieces need to be assembled in a clear and technically meaningful manner. For example, pathogen detection on medical devices could be arranged by the detection method, the substrate material or the type of pathogen. This decision depends on the authors focus of research and expertise, existing gaps in literature and future experimental work the authors may endeavour. Having a background of molecular biology and chemical engineering, I chose to focus on the sensing/detection method while giving secondary preference to the type of substrate material.  From the example above, advances made to cost-effective devices (such as paper-based, visual read-out) despite sharing the same goal of pathogen detection, was replaced with published reviews under the detection method or assay. This is to ensure the spotlight is on the viability and reliability of the detection method, and not the material on which the assay occurs. One could argue, the performance of a method might depend on the material (interactions, compatibility, etc.), and so I clarified this by presenting the various metrics of adaptability of assays on microfluidic environments before delving into the details of each method.
  3. Continuity and storytelling: After assimilating an obscene amount of details, I thought to myself, “What does it all mean?”. During this time, I was reading a book titled “The structure of scientific revolutions” by Thomas Kuhn, a collection of stories behind scientific discoveries and inventions. Each chapter carried a piece of the final answer: the undeniable nature of anomalies contributing to paradigm shifts and the evolution of the scientific method. Humbled and inspired, I focused on the ‘undeniable’ aspects of my little project to connect the dots between the detection strategy, microenvironments and how they translate into the real-world application of medical diagnostics. Drafting an outline of the review plays two important roles: 1) establishing a story, 2) defining the questions to be answered. To ensure continuity, I decided to provide a clear summary of each section as a bridge into the next. For example, starting with the advances made on microfluidic devices, I summarised the potential of research outcomes and what they bring to the broader world of diagnostics. So, if a researcher or an engineer were to build a new diagnostic device, what features should they consider? I concluded with a list of characteristics for a prototype microfluidic device to progress to a competitive scalable product while justifying what I thought as the most necessary feature.

Through this experience of review writing, I learnt the process of scientific communication and articulating milestones and contributions to the field. I thoroughly enjoyed bouncing ideas with my team of supervisors and research fellows (without whom all this would be impossible) and crystallising different views into a paper.

As PhD students, we often tend to get lost in the details of our own experiments. Review writing is a refreshing and interesting endeavour that allows us to take a step back and appreciate the depth of our chosen field of research.