It’s one thing to design medical equipment. It’s quite another to design medical equipment that holds up in a dust storm, or still operates after being struck by a bullet or run over by a tank.
That’s one of our key challenges at Vivonics, where we research, develop and manufacture innovative medical devices with a wide range of military applications. Our devices might be used by active duty soldiers in the field, by medics or even by veterans needing quality care long after they serve. We design equipment that helps with many kinds of illnesses and injuries, including diabetes, amputated limbs and traumatic brain injuries.
One device our company is well known for is the I.PASS – which stands for Intracranial Pressure Assessment and Screening System. It’s a non-invasive monitor that detects pressure on the brain in post-concussion events like a hit on the head or an explosion. These portable monitors – which use one near-infrared sensor on the head, one on the ear, and one on the fingertip – will allow medics to quickly assess intracranial pressure in battlefield conditions and determine who is at critical risk.
The I.PASS is currently in feasibility clinical trials and will transition to a multi-site pivotal study in upcoming years. It holds huge promise for being used for monitoring sports concussions as well.
Being personally involved in the development of devices that improve the treatment of injured soldiers is deeply meaningful to me. My grandfather, Frank Destito (who our family affectionately called “Puppy”), was on his 23rd mission with a B-17 bomber crew when his plane was hit by enemy fire over Belgium during World War II.
My grandfather was hit by anti-aircraft ammunition that blew out his knee. Because he was at a very high altitude, his blood froze, saving his life. The B-17 crew tried to get back to England in their damaged plane, but could not make it and had to crash land in the English Channel. He and the crew floated for 10 hours waiting for air sea rescue. He was barely 18 years old and spent 18 months in a full body cast.
So my grandfather always had knee problems after that. One day, he fell down just three steps at my uncle’s home when his knee gave out. He was immediately paralyzed. This happened before I was born, so I unfortunately never knew him when he wasn’t bedridden. My grandmother became his nurse for the rest of his life, and I admired her bravery during that time as well as his. Whenever I’d visit and see him like that, I just wanted to be able to help. He’s since passed away, but that feeling has always stuck with me. It’s been one of my main reasons for going into the biomedical field.
You can be one person one minute and then a completely different person the next.
My Path to Becoming an Engineer
When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a doctor. I remember doing a middle school research project on being a pediatrician because I wanted to help other kids. That goal eventually faded away, but I always loved math and science. During my sophomore year of high school, I went to a “Women in Engineering Day” event at Lockheed Martin. I was immediately hooked. I really liked music, too, and thought a lot about going into acoustical engineering. But I realized that biomedical engineering was the perfect fit because it tapped into that wanting-to-be-a-doctor thing. Doctors do amazing things, but they wouldn’t be anywhere without the engineers who develop their tools.
So I wound up majoring in biomedical engineering at Boston University with a minor in mechanical engineering. Two of my professors really stood out as mentors. The first one was Prof. Muhammad Zaman of BU’s Lab for Engineering Education & Development (LEED), which designs medical devices and trains health care professionals in developing countries. I worked with him one summer and found his work inspiring. I’ve been fortunate enough to never have to struggle in my life, so to be able to create things that help so many people is something I knew I wanted to do, too.
The second BU professor I found particularly inspiring was mechanical engineering Prof. Dan Cole. I took a lot of his classes, which focused on product development and innovation. One of his assignments required us to keep a notebook called our “Idea Journal.” You know how you wake up in the middle of the night with a brilliant idea? Well, we were supposed to write those ideas and more down in this book. By the end of the semester, it was filled with 40 or 50 ideas. I’ve kept that journal going ever since.
BU connected me with a three-month summer internship at Optimum Technologies, which made optical devices, including ones that helped treat macular degeneration. I have a great aunt who has macular degeneration and finding that connection really convinced me I had chose a meaningful career. The people I met that summer, who later became my co-workers when I was offered a full-time job, were amazing mentors. I just tried to be a sponge with these engineers who had 30 or more years of experience. Everything just kind of clicked for me there. It wasn’t a stretch to say that I had found my “dream job.”
“Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day”
That picture of the cute little girl is me. I used to love fingerpainting, playing with Legos and K’nex, and my dad helped me make birdhouses and beds for my American Girl dolls in his woodshop. I was the only girl I knew who used power tools!
During National Engineers Week, my profession promotes “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day,” which this year falls on February 22. It’s a theme that resonates strongly with me and motivates me to volunteer with The Possible Project, a Boston organization that teaches career skills and entrepreneurship to inner-city youth. I recently spoke at a career day with them and all four presentations were made by women in engineering. A girl came up to me afterwards and told me she liked physics and was encouraged by a teacher to explore engineering. “But you know, it seems like that’s mainly a career for guys,” she said.
“Did you see that there were all women who gave the presentations today?” I replied. “Don’t be scared of liking math and science. Don’t be scared of going into a male dominated field. You’re going to be judged on your work.”
At my first job, I remember walking in and immediately realizing I was the only woman there except for the office manager. But then a few other women came onboard – a CAD administrator, a software engineer, a program coordinator and a technical lead. I’ve always felt respected by my male co-workers, but I’ve heard from friends at other companies that not all women are so lucky. We’re a lot closer to 2020 than 1920, though sadly we still have a long way to go.
One funny thing I remember about being the only woman on the engineering team is how I dressed on my first day on the job. I showed up WAY overdressed. They always tell you in school about how important it is to dress nicely at job interviews, etc. Then I remember my CEO walked in with a Hawaiian shirt and cargo shorts. Dress code wise, the engineering world is a different universe from the business world!
Career Advice for Kids
For kids who are interested in engineering and technology careers, I recommend that they start taking things apart and try to put them back together. I don’t want to get in trouble with all the parents out there, so let me stress that I’m not talking about letting kids take apart their iPhone or laptop or anything that’s currently in use. But let them try deconstructing an old appliance or remote control and have them closely look at all the parts.
There are so many parts that go into making products, little screws, PCB boards, all this tiny stuff. Just seeing it all laid out and trying to remember how to put it all back together really challenges you. I highly recommend this exercise.
And should this curiosity lead to an engineering career, it’s important to stress that you should always try to make a personal connection to your work or build a story around it. Not every product is going to help humanity or change the world. Even if you are designing something basic like a can opener, you should know who you’re making the product for, where it will go, and how it will be used.
You can learn all the math, science and algorithm stuff, but once you’re applying it, you should always be thinking about “How will this device be working in the real world?” Making that leap from book learning to practical application is something we need to focus on more with kids.
I still occasionally go home to New Jersey to talk to elementary and middle school students about my career experiences. Many schools now have 3D printers, which is a technology that didn’t exist when I was growing up, so who knows what these kids will have access to when they enter the workforce. The next generation is already so tech-savvy and I look forward to them helping us push the limits of engineering.