Academic profile: Associate Professor Tracie Barber

A/Prof. Tracie Barber

Describe the type of research you are currently engaged in

Most of my work is related to blood flows. There are two main areas I’m looking at – arterial stenosis, which is where the arteries narrow and restrict blood flow; and dialysis, where waste and excess water is removed from the blood.

My research uses computational models and laser measurement systems to study blood flow dynamics and behaviour, the results of which have a direct impact on clinical practice. We’re modelling the blood flows as opposed to working with the blood itself.

We’re working with clinical people – doctors and nurses – to help them further understand their work with blood flows, and the effects these flows have on clinical outcomes.

What would you say most motivates you as a researcher? 

I guess I’m motivated by interesting work that I know is directly improving people’s lives.  I’m an aerospace engineer and my major focus used to be research on making race cars go faster. In the last 5-6 years I’ve moved from this field into the biomedical side of fluid dynamics.  

I’m still working with the same ideas and principles – the underlying dynamics are exactly the same, even though the language has changed. And now, my research is directly implemented to help people. I really like that we’re making a difference.

Laser sheet flow visualisation

What are you most excited or passionate about?

I love fluid dynamics – I always tell the second years how interesting it is and where it can lead! Even better than fluid dynamics as a whole is the fact that I know my research is having such great clinical outcomes. Plus, we’ve got some really cool toys in the labs. It’s a lot of fun working with lasers and seeing the different flows come to life. I also like seeing what equipment other researchers are working with – we have some people doing brilliant work with some awesome equipment. It’s interesting and inspiring, even when I’m unfamiliar with a particular machine. Which is probably a good thing given my work in setting up the labs for our new building!

How did you come to be involved in this type of research?

I guess I’ve been headed in this direction my whole life. When I was growing up, I absolutely loved birds. I was planning on being an ornithologist until I realised I loved physics a whole lot more than biology. So then I decided to be a pilot which eventually led to me studying aerospace engineering.

Fluid dynamics really grabbed my attention in my second year of university, and then I found aerodynamics, which I thought was even cooler. I just wanted to keep doing what I loved, so when the opportunity arose for me to do a PhD, it seemed like a good way to keep on with fluid dynamics. I didn’t plan on being an academic, I’ve just kept doing what I love.

Actually, I can credit my lecturer, Mr John Page (who is still teaching here and is now a colleague!) with giving me some excellent advice back when I was a 2nd year student, thinking of swapping out of aero. He said to me “Do what you enjoy, you’ll probably do better at it”. Smart man.

What were you doing before you came to UNSW?

When the NZ Airforce didn’t want me, I moved to Sydney to study aerospace engineering. After completing a PhD in ground effect aerodynamics, and working as a CFD consultant, I became a lecturer at UNSW in 2001.

Laser sheet flow visualisation - detail

Describe one of the projects that you are currently working on

One of our current projects involves the study of arterio-venous fistulae, which are used to provide vascular access for dialysis patients. These are surgically formed by joining an artery and a vein, usually in the forearm, and create a high-speed blood flow which is suitable for dialysis. Unfortunately they have high failure rates and we are using computational models and experimental analysis to look at different surgical options proposed by vascular surgeons we are working with. The results have been really interesting and will hopefully allow better clinical outcomes in the future.