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Interview with Lisa Prahl Wittberg

Published Dec 21, 2021
Lisa Prahl Wittberg

Hello Lisa, tell us a little bit about you, where do you come from, your academic background, etc?

I grew up in Täby, but left Stockholm area when starting university. I started off by studying Oceanography in Hawaii but changed direction and moved back to Sweden for engineering studies. I received my MSc (Mechanical Engineering) from LTH/Lund University and later also my PhD (Fluid mechanics) from Lund. In 2008 I came back to Stockholm and joined KTH for a PostDoc at the Department of Mechanics, and I’ve stayed since then. Starting off with my MSc studies, I’ve spent time abroad with internship as well as MSc project at Virginia Tech and later on longer research visits at University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati’s Childrens’ Hospital, where the latter set the platform for the research direction that I’m now perusing.  

Taking up a new position is a challenge on its own. How has your time as a professor been so far, any significant changes compared to your previous position?

Honestly, not a significant change, but I may have to get back to you on that since I was recently promoted.

Tell us about your research, what makes it important?

I’m at large focusing on flows found in the human body and in artificial devices for the critical ill with the aim of improving our underlying understanding of pathological processes as well as device performance in clinical applications. Examples of such applications are therapies where extracorporeal life support, hemodialysis and respirators are needed. These therapies include the use of several artificial components for example cannulae and blood pumps in which the blood is exposed to situations much different from the physiological situation, that may increase the risk for complications. From a treatment efficiency perspective, it is also important to understand how the flow interacts with the native blood flow when returned into the body making understanding of the circulatory system important in my work, both in healthy and non-healthy conditions.

The research is both applied and fundamental. The focus is on translating new engineering-based knowledge to the clinical practice and stimulates engineering-based development of both mathematical frameworks and experimental methods from clinical needs. In this lies another important aspect of my work, which is the assessment of the uncertainties associated with methodologies used to capture the blood flow dynamics of these flows, improving the relevance of the research output.

Can you briefly discuss what is your specialization in multiphase flows about?

Multiphase flow is a branch of fluid mechanics in which we study flows where the fluid consists of more than one phase, such as drops in air or particles suspended in a continuous phase. Multiphase flows are found in numerous industrial applications as well as in biological flows, where the blood flow in our body is one example of a complex fluid flow which under less favorable conditions may lead to blood clots with severe consequences. Droplet and particle transport (pollution and drugs) in the human airways is another example of multiphase flows with clinical application.

What are the biggest challenges your research combats?

We are still evolving our understanding of the physics of complex fluid flows. This combined with the highly cross-disciplinary research questions I’m focusing on where large time and spatial scales simultaneously need to be considered constituents the challenges the research faces in moving the knowledge forward. A specific example is being able to predict and reduce risk for thrombus formation associated with clinical treatment.

Does your work have practical applications, if so, what would those be?

It certainty does! Part of the work is directly coupled with the treatment of the critical ill needing for example extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), heart assist or hemodialysis therapy. Collaborating with both the treating physician and device developers is essential.  

Have you have any interesting collaborations within our outside KTH regarding your work?

I’m fortunate in that I’m involved in several very interesting collaborations! They are mostly in the field of medical fluid dynamics. At KTH I’m working with Dept. of Laser Physics, SciLife Lab, Dept of Health and Technology and Dept. Fiber Technology. I’m also working closely with Karolinska University Hospital, both at Solna and Huddinge. Together with my colleague at ECMO centre Karolinska I’m supervising several PhD students, forming a highly cross-disciplinary team merging engineering with medical and clinical sciences and challenges. Besides this I’m also involved in European collaborations focusing on extracorporeal life support.  

Why did you choose your field of research in particular?

It has not been a straight road where I directly identified my research niche. I remember a guest lecture in my first fluid mechanics course about prosthetic heart valves. This opened my eyes to a new application area. In the back of my head, it gave me a direction, but also made me realize the importance of the interdisciplinary knowledge components I needed to acquire in order to understand the background and challenges posed by biomedical flows. My interest into such flows grew gradually and matured first after my research visit to the US.

What made you interested in your field?

Fluid mechanics caught my interest due to its wide range of applications; we find fluid dynamics everywhere! My medical flow interest emerged due my sincere will to contribute in helping fellow individuals and bring one piece to the puzzle in improving treatment of the ill. Luckily, I’ve found a way to combine the two.  

Is it important for you to communicate your research to the world, if yes why and how do you do that?

Yes! Mostly I do this through research publications and conferences/meetings within both the engineering and medical community. When getting the opportunity, I also discuss my research with younger individuals, from elementary schoolers and up to the university students, giving a glimpse of how I as a researcher look upon the world and maybe in the process trigger curiosity of the life of an engineer and a researcher.

What would be your message or advice to youngsters who are interested in perusing scientific professions?

Take the opportunity to explore and widen your perspective, a road that in the beginning does not to be the most straight one, may turn out to be the one that gets you to your destination. Endurance! Last, but now least, identify the topics and individuals to work with that makes you smile. A good laugh together with friends gets you through most obstacles that you may encounter.

Text: Elina Charatsidou