Dr Jessica Dobson at her graduation. Photo: Aristo Risi

How a former pro surfer discovered a love of science

How a former pro surfer discovered a love of science

Dr Jessica Dobson focused on creating better footwear for coal miners

Dr Jessica Dobson didn’t think that she wanted to go to university. Growing up in the quiet beachside town of Moruya, on the NSW Far South Coast, she dreamed of being a professional surfer. Science was not in her future. 

But, on the recommendation of a careers counsellor at her high school, Jessica enrolled in two degrees – exercise science and marine biology – at the University of Wollongong. She was interested in anything that kept her active and close to the water. In the end, she chose a Bachelor of Exercise Science, because she “liked exercising”. 

Fast forward eight years later, and Jessica has truly found her niche in the world of research. Yesterday (6 November 2019), she graduated with a PhD from the School of Medicine, joining hundreds of other graduands in the Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health ceremony.

Dr Dobson’s doctoral thesis focused on improving footwear for underground coal miners. It was an area she came to by chance, but one that has given her the opportunity to examine the mechanics of the human body while having a tangible impact on the lives of others.

“I never really enjoyed physics in high school, but when I was studying my undergraduate degree, I did a subject in clinical biomechanics, and I loved learning about physics as it applied to the human body,” said Jessica, now known as Dr Dobson.

“I loved learning about movement and about optimising our physical performance. I was particularly focused on walking, on gait mechanics.” 

Dr Dobson stayed connected with the Biomechanics Research Laboratory at UOW throughout her undergraduate degree. When she was looking for a topic of research for her PhD, in a dash of fortuitous timing, the laboratory had recently been awarded a grant from Coal Mining Health and Safety Services. Jessica saw it as a chance to work with the local community while furthering her interest in the way we move.

“I decided to look at the types of work boots that underground coal miners wear and whether they contribute to injuries. I could see that a lot of coal miners were getting lower limb injuries”.

“There had been some research into military boots before, but no one had ever looked at the footwear of coal miners. That was exciting to me, being able to start fresh and studying something that was unique.”

After surveying hundreds of local coal miners, Dr Dobson found that they were being offered two different types of footwear for working underground – a flexible, steel-cap gumboot and a stiff, steel-cap leather, lace-up work boot.

The first gave the miners lots of flexibility, but minimal support and thus were responsible for countless ankle injuries. On the other hand, the leather boots gave greater support but no movement, resulting in injuries to the knees.

“The ground in underground coal mines is uneven and the miners are often working in very dark conditions,” Dr Dobson said. “Many of them roll their ankles, end up with knee issues or have pain in their feet.”

Dr Jessica Dobson at her graduation. Photo: Aristo Risi

So Dr Dobson set out to design a work boot that would minimise injuries to the lower limbs and also allow the workers to traverse the often-treacherous conditions that miners face underground.

She visited a mine herself, but due to strict conditions that are in place for coal mines regarding electrical equipment underground – “I even had to take off my watch” – Dr Dobson decided to create her own mine, in the Biomechanics Research Laboratory at UOW.

“I went to Bunnings and got a whole lot of dirt and gravel,” she said with a laugh. “It was a lot of fun, and not what I ever thought I would be doing.”

Working with company Mack Boots, and under the supervision of Senior Professor Julie Steele and Dr Diane Harland from the School of Medicine; Dr Alison Bell from the School of Social Sciences; and Dr Caleb Wegener from Mack Boots, Dr Dobson designed and created four prototypes of new work boots that would provide the appropriate comfort and support for workers and also allow them to do their jobs pain free. These prototypes were tested by 20 local underground coal miners.

She then took her designs to the local companies and made recommendations about the types of footwear their workers should be wearing.

Dr Dobson provided a flow chart that would allow the companies to match a boot to a type of work, surface worked on and foot shape.

“So the worker could look at the chart and say ‘I have this shape foot, and I work on uneven surfaces, so this is the boot I should wear’,” Dr Dobson explained.

Wearing proper footwear will allow the workers to mitigate injuries and improve productivity and efficiency at the coal mining companies, she said.

After five years of undertaking her PhD, Dr Dobson is thrilled to finally be graduating.

She might no longer be a professional surfer – she did tour with the World Qualifying Series in her late teens and early 20s – but Dr Dobson said she is amazed at the work she has done during her PhD. A highlight was presenting her research at Harvard University in Boston in the United States.

“There have been a lot of ups and downs, like there are in any PhD, but I’m really glad to have made it here. I’ve had eight papers published in highly ranked international journals, travelled to conferences overseas and I’ve really enjoyed being able to work with the local community.

“It has been a five-year journey so I’m looking forward to a break before the next chapter.”