Leading the Blind

For his third career, MacDiarmid graduate David Garrett is aiming to restore sight to the blind. It may sound improbable, but not much more so than the path he has taken to get there.

You’d be hard-pressed to invent a more original CV. At age forty, he has secured his first academic post, working to prototype a bionic retina. When he enrolled in university for the first time, it was as a “mature student” after working for many years in the hospitality industry. At the time, he was setting out to retrain as a high school teacher, but he ended up with a PhD in chemistry. And he started out…as a professional ballet dancer.

Performing on stage from the age of nine, David had nearly a decade of professional dance experience under his belt when an injury ended his ballet career. After marrying his ballet dance partner, they competed on the ballroom dance circuit until she dumped him and he moved to England to forget his woes. End of career one. (In case you wondered, he’s actually never danced since).

In England, David found a job with a high-end catering company. He moved up quickly through the ranks and found himself organizing banquets for dignitaries as part of a provisioning guild dating to medieval times. On one occasion he even served the Queen (she was not amused). But the long, late hours and irregular schedule made the prospect of supporting a family daunting. So David and his new partner moved back to New Zealand to start his retraining as a high school science and maths teacher. End of career two.

Once back in school, David surprised himself by doing better than he expected. He finished his undergraduate degree, stayed on to do an honours project and just kind of kept on going.

“Finding out that you’re capable of something…I guess I felt obligated to see whether or not I could really do it,” David booms in his charismatic, gravelly voice.

His grades were good enough to earn him a Bright Futures Top Achiever scholarship to fund his PhD under MacDiarmid Principal Investigator Alison Downard at the University of Canterbury. His thesis involved creating nanowires to interface electrochemically with living cells.

“The idea was that we could have long, conducting nanostructures that penetrate into the walls of mammalian or bacterial cells.”

“We made electrodes that you can settle bacteria down onto, and you can record the respiration of these bacteria in real time. The electrons that they breathe out pass into your electrode and you measure the current. It’s kind of like a heart monitor on a living cell. You could look in real time at what happens metabolically in response to a new drug.”

David’s academic performance landed him a competitive three month student placement at IBM Almaden. That experience got him noticed when he applied for the coveted post-doctoral research fellowship at the University of Melbourne he now holds. He’s part of a large Australian team aiming to build an implantable, fully-functioning bionic retina, funded specifically to create a working device that can be sold by the end of the project.

David is responsible for prototyping and making iterative improvements to the diamond micro-channel-based design. He says if the device comes off, he may wind up with a fourth career: selling bionic eyes. Which would make for one hell of a CV. “Yeah. But why stop now?”