An Ahwatukee native’s choice of subjects to illustrate his speech in a prestigious Australian competition has catapulted him into a contest with some of the top emerging scientists around the world.
Cody Frear, a Desert Vista High School alumnus, recently used an episode from the kids TV show “Teletubbies” to win the FameLab Australia 2020 Three-Minute Thesis (3MT) Competition.
His talk, “Out with the Old, In with the Noo Noo,” was a creative analogy explaining his research into treating pediatric burns with negative pressure wound therapy.
He compared it to episode 67 of the British children’s television series that was a popular toddler staple in the U.S. from 1997 until 2001.
Winning the FameLab live science communication competition means Frear, a fifth-year medical PhD candidate at the University of Queensland, will now go up against STEM winners from more than 25 countries worldwide at the International FameLab Science Competition in the United Kingdom this October.
If COVID-19 travel restrictions are still in effect, it may be done via teleconferencing.
The FameLab competition is described as an effort that “aims to discover charismatic early career scientists who can inspire people to see the world from new perspectives.”
The germination for Frear’s unusual focal point was inspired by a young burn victim he’d met in the hospital burn center.
The youngster - whom he named “Ellie” to protect her identity – suffered serious injuries to her arm and leg after an accidental cooking oil spill.
Ellie, an ardent “Teletubbies” fan, recounted a particular episode for Frear, an MD-PhD student at the University of Queensland’s Center for Children’s Health Research.
In Episode 67, Po, one of the four Teletubbies, spills her Tubby Custard, which then threatens to overrun their earth home, Tubbytronic Superdome, until Noo Noo saves the day by tidying up the mess.
Noo Noo is the Teletubbie’s sky-blue vacuum cleaner and is similar in appearance to the negative pressure wound therapy vacuum device Frear uses.
“By applying a vacuum to the burn wound, this is hypothesized to improve healing by removing rogue immune cells, decreasing the swelling, and directly stimulating the growth of new skin cells and blood vessels,” Frear explained in his three-minute speech.
He conducted a clinical trial of 100 burned children tracked throughout their recovery process.
“Those with negative pressure were 83 percent less likely to require long-term management, and if given negative pressure within 48 hours of that injury, healed an average of three days faster,” said Frear.
“To put that in perspective, you can watch 173 episodes of the ‘Teletubbies’ in three days,” he quipped, rewarded with a subsequent audience chuckle.
He then pointed out that healing three days sooner meant one fewer “painful and expensive dressing change” and resulted in a reduced risk of scar formation – which can be important for young burn victims.
Frear, a 2011 Desert Vista grad, National Merit and Flinn Scholar, received his undergraduate degree in anthropology and biology at Arizona State University in 2015.
As a college senior, he traveled to Queensland, Australia as part of an exchange program.
He met his future wife Louise, a law student, while studying in the University of Queensland library. Following his ASU graduation, he returned to Australia, enrolling in medicine at University of Queensland, and marrying Louise, in 2018. She is now a practicing family law attorney.
Frear’s poise and delivery while giving his speech at the Australian finals bore witness to his year with the Desert Vista Speech and Debate Team.
He also played Thunder volleyball, was a member of the Scholastic Bowl team, and the DV film club while in high school.
“I owe a debt of gratitude to all of my high school teachers for developing my communication skills throughout my time at DVHS,” said Frear.
His father, Darrel Frear, has a PhD in material science, his mother Tracy holds a masters in engineering, and his older sister, Darcy, has a PhD in speech and hearing bioscience.
“My parents and sister have always been a wealth of support and guidance for me,” said Frear.
A planned trip by Frear and his wife to visit with his Ahwatukee family was cancelled due to the COVID-19 restrictions.
“That was a major disappointment as I was looking forward to seeing family and friends,” he said. “We stay in touch online, of course, but nothing beats catching up in person.”
Now in the fifth year of his studies at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, the capital city of the Australian state of Queensland,
Frear’s attention is focused on his MD-PhD thesis, which is about the Negative Pressure Wound Therapy method that could improve the health outcomes for children sustaining thermal burns.
When possible, he carves time from a jam-packed schedule to hike with his wife, and pursue other hobbies like cycling, reading and playing piano.
“Louise and I do enjoy hiking through the beautiful rainforests around Brisbane, and we’ve made a number of trips to the beaches along the Gold and Sunshine Coasts - all novelties to someone who grew up in Phoenix,” he said.
He noted he keeps apprised of the ongoing lifting of restrictions in Arizona, and said in Australia, there has been a more gradual easing.
“Thankfully, the Australian government acted swiftly and mounted a coordinated national response that has effectively reduced transmission of the virus,” he reported. “Nationwide, there have been fewer than 20 new cases a day for nearly the past two weeks, and just over 100 deaths in total. In Queensland, the state where I live, we currently have just six active cases.”
Like his home state, Australian restaurants are beginning to open with “significant limits” on capacity, and schools reopened Monday, May 25, though gyms, clubs and theaters remain closed.
The quarantine didn’t particularly affect Frear.
I’m in the thick of writing my thesis, so, to be honest, my daily routine hasn’t changed too much except, instead of typing away at a computer in an office building, I’m typing away at a computer in my back room,” he said. “And I’m spending a lot more time telling colleagues to mute their mics on Zoom.”
He praised the FameLab competition for the experience and the widening of his own awareness of other specialties.
“It was a wonderful opportunity to share my research with a wide audience, and to learn about the incredible work being done by other early-career scientists around Australia,” he said. “ I’m eagerly looking forward to the international competition.”