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There is a very bubbly side to Deepti Aggarwal, Melbourne’s now popular research scientist who made news recently for her invention of the ‘smart socks’. Aggarwal laughs and brushes off the fact that she is popular but says the publicity has at least given her the possibilities of, say, getting some funding and extending her project. As part of her PhD (which she has just completed) at the University of Melbourne, Aggarwal was studying the current practices of video consultations and the challenges that physiotherapists face. “From that study it occurred that lower body movements are more difficult to understand over video and hence we need a technology that can help physiotherapists to understand patients better, that’s how I came up with this idea of socks,” she says. After working with a team of engineers, Aggarwal developed the smart socks in about six months’ time making sure that the design was comfortable for patients and the interface provided sufficient data to help both physiotherapists and patients. At the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne, where she is an honorary appointee, three patients were successfully tried for the smart socks. Quite a breakthrough, but Aggarwal says there are bigger questions now that need to be addressed to make the smart socks commercially available. For instance, it needs to be part of the health care system at hospitals. So she is now thinking of new directions to extend this research.
Born in Uttar Pradesh, Aggarwal completed her Masters of Science in Research from the International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad, and came to Australia in 2014 to pursue her PhD. Passionate about her work, she says she hardly feels homesick and loves Melbourne, its uncertain weather notwithstanding. “It is really a lovely, peaceful and beautiful city.” In conversation with Deepti Aggarwal, who tells Indira Laisram more about her life, work and research interests.

How did you become a research scientist?
The first thought of being a scientist came to me when I watched the movie, Mr India, in my eighth grade. I was very impressed with the idea of a scientist making a wrist watch that makes people invisible but visible in certain lights. Since then the dream of becoming a scientist was there in my subconscious mind. But I was never confident that I will be a scientist someday.
In fact, the dream of becoming a scientist started to blur as it looked so infeasible. The path was not clear. I had no live examples to follow. But I was fortunate to get a good support from my teachers, friends and family who motivated me to do the hard work and keep questioning the seemingly small questions. Eventually I ended up finishing my PhD in Australia.
I had always thought that scientists wear white coats, have curly white hair, always look sleepless and always play with beakers and test tubes – a figure like Albert Einstein. And I imagined myself a lot in that outlook. But unfortunately, it is nothing like that – you sure look sleepless and tired but nothing else is true for a computer scientist.

How did the idea of inventing the new wearable “smart sock” technology come about?
The motivation to develop smart socks came from my first PhD study, which was to understand how physiotherapists organise video consultations and what challenges they face in assessing and treating patients over a distance. Through this study, I found that physiotherapists are not able to understand the subtle differences in a patient’s lower limb movements when the patient performs exercises such as walking, squats or tip toes during video consultations. Lack of complete understanding of a patient’s movements reduced the physiotherapist’s confidence in the assessment and made the treatment less specific.
Therefore, I wanted to develop a technology that can provide physiotherapists with more details on how the patient is doing the lower body movements, and hence, I developed SoPhy.

Could you please explain how SoPhy or the smart sock technology works?
The technology name, SoPhy, has two parts: One, a pair of socks with sensors is attached that captures data related to weight distribution, range of movement and foot orientation. Two, a web-interface present captures information on a screen. During a video consultation, when the patient puts on these socks and performs movements like walking and squats, the socks capture the movement data and sends it to the physiotherapist in real-time through Internet. The physiotherapist can then see how the patient is distributing the body weight over their feet, how they are orienting their feet and how far the foot is moving for different exercises in real-time.

What type of patients would benefit most from it?
The SoPhy system is useful for anyone – from the young to the elderly – who is struggling in doing lower body movements normally. Some examples include people undergoing lower limb rehabilitation after stroke, fracture, sports injury and those having chronic pain conditions.

When or how do you think the technology would become part of common clinical practice?
The trial at the Royal Children’s Hospital showed positive results and the clinical staff is willing to incorporate the system as part of their clinical practise at the hospital. However, it is only the tip of the iceberg. There are many hurdles along the way. Firstly, video consultations are still an emerging practise, and only a few hospitals in Australia as well as across the world have accepted video consultations as a formal clinical practise. To bring SoPhy into the clinical practise, these hospitals should first start to offer video consultations services to their patients. Other challenge includes making the socks commercially available so that a larger audience can avail its benefits. In short, it would still take a couple of years to see the technology as a common practise at the hospital – the day I am eagerly waiting for.

What are the hurdles in implementation?
Right now the biggest hurdle for me is the funding to extend this work to another level.

What are your other research interests?
I am interested in doing research that has real-world applications, and that can make some difference as small as the smallest dust particle.
In Australia, research in video consultation has a promising outcome because Australian population is ageing and because the population in Australia is sparse. Video consultations can provide a platform to connect remotely available patients with their doctors in cases when they can’t make a physical trip to the hospital, e.g., in severe pain.

You are winner of Fresh Science Victoria 2017. What are the other achievements in your career trajectory?
I have been successful in getting recognition to my research through best paper awards in the academic venues, such as at CIS Doctoral Consortium 2017 and at CHI 2015. I have also managed to get some highly competitive scholarships to do research or to travel to academic conferences. Some examples include ACM-Women Travel Grant in 2013, ACM travel scholarship 2016, and MIFRS and MIRS scholarships to support my PhD from 2014-2017.
The biggest achievement for me is the strong relationship that I have developed with the Royal Children’s Hospital and Murdoch Children’s Research Institute through my PhD work. In February 2017, I also got an Honorary Appointment at the Royal Children’s Hospital.
What are you working on next
I just finished my PhD. My PhD research has opened several directions to extend this work further at the hospital setting with physiotherapists and patients. Currently, I am in conversation with the hospital staff and my supervisors at the university to decide which path to take forward.

What is your professional dream?
I am interested in pursuing a career in academia, and would like to be known as an expert in video consultations.

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