Engineering students get hands-on experience in creating medical devices

This summer, Frank C.P. Yin, M.D., Ph.D., the Stephen F. and Camilla T. Brauer Professor of Biomedical Engineering and chair of the biomedical engineering department, led nine biomedical engineering students through a two-week international experience in China.

Students worked on research projects with faculty at two Chinese universities, Hong Kong Polytechnic University and Sun Yat-Sen University. Students gained knowledge about the fabrication and application of orthotics and functional electrical stimulation. Among other projects, students worked firsthand with children with cerebral palsy at Dongguan Rehabilitation Center.

The experience was inspiring as the students immersed themselves in a different culture. Not only did they get hands-on experience in creating medical devices to aid patients, but they also gained a stronger understanding of how to make that technology accessible in other parts of the world.

Specifically, students will use their experiences in China to develop ideas for their senior design projects. Two students candidly shared reflections from their experience.

“My experience in China not only gave me a new cultural perspective, it changed my way of thinking about engineering,” senior Ian Pearson said. “When I asked the mother of the patient I was working with how long it had taken them to get to the hospital that day, I was amazed. They had to come because it was the only facility of that caliber in the area.

“That’s when I realized it’s not always about building something new and better. Sometimes it’s just about taking existing technology and making it accessible to everyone, wherever they need it,” Pearson said.

Senior Corinne Pascale said the trip was a wonderful experience. “We were able to obtain practical, hands-on experience by creating a medical device and applying treatment to a patient.”

Pascale said the trip built bridges between the WUSTL and Chinese students. “After long days of fabrication and working in the hospital, we would return to the hotels and tell jokes, teach each other tongue twisters and learn about a new culture,” she said.

Pascale was caught off-guard by how much this trip changed her view of industry. “I now realize how ‘U.S.-centric’ my way of thinking had been,” she said.

“When I used to think about medical devices and therapies, I’d only consider how they could be used in the United States or how to push them through the Food and Drug Administration. Not only am I now aware of the State FDA in China, but also how the user’s needs can and will vary by country.

“As I begin to apply for jobs at medical-device companies that sell to international markets, I’ll be prepared to learn about how the devices are used in each country,” Pascale said. “This may ultimately be reflected in changes to the design or a new therapy entirely.”

She said the engineering school is developing a wide range of internships and international educational experiences specifically for engineering students. Next summer, students studying other aspects of engineering will have the opportunity to monitor air quality in Beijing. The opportunity is available through collaboration with researchers from Peking and Tshingua universities, partners in the McDonnell International Scholars Academy.

Other McDonnell Academy partners will offer programs as well, including Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey, and the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay in India. Other engineering undergrads will have the opportunity to study engineering’s role in sustainable development in Amman, Jordan, and research renewable energy technology and resource economics in Iceland.

Increasingly global, interdisciplinary and socially conscious, the engineering field is changing, and the School of Engineering is pushing its undergraduate students to help lead that revolution.