Healthcare and medical tech: engineering solutions for life
From research labs and medical equipment companies to healthcare providers, the options are vast and the outlook bright
One engineer helped build a device for a NASA moon mission whose principles could be configured for the treatment of brain cancer
By Sonya Stinson
Healthcare and medical technology professionals are in high demand, with jobs in some categories projected to grow much faster than average over the next few years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The BLS is expecting 41,000 new jobs in medical records and health information technology to open up between 2012 and 2022, a 22 percent increase. Biomedical engineering jobs are projected to increase by 27 percent over the same period, adding 5,200 new jobs.
The health tech pros spotlighted in this article show the wide range of career possibilities in this evolving field. Among them are IT specialists who provide software support for medical device manufacturing; engineers who design medical and research equipment and help improve the production process; and a former research scientist who now lends her expertise to the marketing of medical products.
Debbie Richerson engineers solutions for sick children at St. Jude
As director of biomedical engineering at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital (Memphis, TN), Debbie Richerson supervises a twelve-person department that is responsible for an assortment of medical and research equipment, including made-to-order products.
One example is a table her team designed to allow patients to lie comfortably while receiving whole-body radiation treatment from the hospital’s linear accelerator. There was no such device on the market, so the group worked for more than a year in the hospital’s machine shop to create it. “That table is used weekly at St. Jude,” Richerson says.
Richerson studied biomedical engineering at what was then State Technical Institute at Memphis (now Southwest Tennessee Community College), where she received an associate of engineering degree. After she started working at St. Jude in 1979 as a biomedical technician, she took eight years of night classes at the University of Memphis, earning a BS in electrical engineering in 1989.
Engineering for a humanitarian cause
When she arrived at St. Jude, the hospital had two iron lungs that had long been out of commission. Doctors treating a terminally ill child who had spent his entire life hooked to a ventilator wanted him to spend his final days in the iron lung, where he could breathe more comfortably. Richerson and the other technicians refurbished the device and even customized it by enlisting a local automotive shop to paint it to look like a race car.
“The young patient spent the last several weeks of his life in there,” Richerson says. “His parents said he was probably more comfortable than he’d been in a long, long time.”
Edwina Payne leads global IT teams at Zimmer
Edwina Payne works at Zimmer, an orthopedics manufacturer in Warsaw, IN. She leads the team that’s responsible for implementing and supporting IT applications for the company’s research, sales, manufacturing, distribution and finance functions.
“I like to say ‘If it plugs in, it’s our responsibility,’” says Payne, who has been vice president and chief information officer at Zimmer since 2012. “In addition to traditional application support, anything from telephones to video equipment to faxes and copiers are all the responsibility of our IT department.”
She manages a global team of IT pros at locations in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia. The IT department comprises more than 400 employees and contract workers.
The IT department partnered with R&D; on a recent new product design, the development of patient-specific instruments for use in total knee replacements. These tools for guiding surgical incisions take the geometry of each patient’s femur and tibia into account so surgeons can fit Zimmer implants more precisely, Payne says.
Guided by her father, she now guides others
Payne earned a BS in computer technology from Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN) in 1986. She was the first in her family to go to college. Her father, a coal miner in southwestern Virginia, encouraged her to study computers because, he said, “You’ll always be able to find a job.”
“As you might imagine, finding a job was pretty important to someone who had grown up in a poor family,” says Payne, who joined Zimmer in 2010.
Payne serves on the advisory board for the School of Computer Technology at Purdue and on the dean’s council. She also returns to campus to speak to students, who often ask her whether she ever feels intimidated or impeded as a woman in the very male-dominated IT arena. Her answer is no.
“People don’t care if you are male or female, or from a particular background,” Payne says. “They just want the smartest person on their team. I tell those students to ‘do your best. Bring your A game to the table, and you’re going to get noticed.’”
Medtronic senior sourcing engineer Jennifer Brooks works in spinal implants
Jennifer Brooks is a senior sourcing engineer at Medtronic Spinal (Memphis, TN). The business makes a variety of spinal and other health-related products. Brooks is primarily involved in the biologics division, which makes bone grafting products.
Brooks manages vendor relationships, purchase orders and evaluation of any processing changes proposed by suppliers. “It’s a lot of firefighting as well,” Brooks says. “If something happens in manufacturing, we have to work to resolve it.”
Brooks received a BS in biomedical engineering from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville in 2008, an MS in biomedical engineering from the University of Memphis in 2010 and an MBA from Christian Brothers University (Memphis) in December.
As an undergrad, she co-oped with Kimberly-Clark Corporation at its Neenah, WI and Roswell, GA locations.
Fascinated by different parts of the process
“I was involved in a product launch and got to go into the store and see my product on the shelf,” says Brooks, who conducted tests on a new nonwoven material for Kimberly-Clark. “I worked on three different projects and got to learn all phases of the development process. I had one in early feasibility, which was in the medical device division. I had one that was getting ready to launch, and I also worked on improvements for a product that had been on the market for years: Huggies baby wipes.”
Brooks, who joined Medtronic in 2010, is now transitioning into a role that focuses on marketing the company’s products. “I want to get more interaction with our customers and our surgeons,” she says. “In my current role, I’ve gotten some opportunities to learn more about that side of our business.” She also hopes to travel to some of the company’s international sites.
Operational and excellence director Nina Kohnen takes the initiative at Covidien
Nina Kohnen is in charge of “design excellence” in the research and development organizations of medical device and supply company Covidien (Mansfield, MA).
She measures performance of the new product development organization by examining metrics like time to market and comparisons of projected revenue from each project to actual earnings. The goal is to identify areas of Covidien’s product development process that need improvement. “We choose our improvement projects based on any blips we see in the process,” says Kohnen, whose title is director of operational excellence/design excellence.
She’s also in charge of the organization’s Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) training and certification curriculum. DFSS gives Covidien engineers useful design tools, and ensures that the creativity of the whole project team is harnessed. DFSS tools can also assess and manage risk in a product design, and lead to predictable and efficient delivery of the product to market, she explains.
Not a typical tinkerer
Kohnen earned a BS in mechanical engineering from Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN) in 1994. She also received an MS in mechanical engineering from Stanford University (CA), with concentrations in fluid mechanics and thermo sciences, in 1995. She says she isn’t the proverbial childhood tinkerer-turned-engineer.
“I wasn’t a hands-on kind of person, so when I chose mechanical engineering as my major, my parents were pretty surprised,” Kohnen says. “But what drew me to engineering was the problem-solving aspect.”
As an undergrad, Kohnen participated in a co-op program at McDonnell Douglas Aircraft, which merged with Boeing in 1997. “I did everything from CAD design to experimentation in wind tunnels to design of test equipment to systems engineering,” she says. “That experience helped me determine what I wanted to focus on and, probably more important, what I didn’t want to focus on. I was more interested in the new product development side than the manufacturing side.”
Kohnen started at Covidien in 2004 in its Boulder, CO supplier quality group, where she supported both manufacturing and new product development. On her own initiative, she worked with her manager to develop a model for increasing the focus on new product development. She wound up managing a group of engineers dedicated to that purpose.
Recently Kohnen helped develop a program for rewarding innovation at Covidien, not only in technology, but also in areas such as business processes and expansion into emerging markets.
“We had our first awards last year, and we got an overwhelming response from people across Covidien globally,” she reports. “I find the focus on innovation here exciting.”
Francy Sinatra works on varied projects at Draper Lab’s Bioengineering Center
Francy Sinatra’s first assignment as a fulltime mechanical engineer with the Draper Laboratory Bioengineering Center (Tampa, FL) was a NASA project, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE). Draper Lab built the mission’s ultraviolet and visible light spectrometer, used to determine the composition of the moon’s atmosphere.
In 2011, Sinatra began working with the project’s principal investigator to make four components of the science payload on LADEE: a spectrometer, a solar diffuser, a telescope and an optical fiber. “Together, the components collected light twenty-four hours a day and transmitted it to the spectrometer, which analyzed the information,” she explains. The unit was launched aboard a Minotaur V rocket that orbited the moon from September 2013 until April 2018.
It seems like a big leap from the NASA project to Sinatra’s current work designing tools for laboratory experiments and working with tissue culture platforms. But as is often the case with technology, she says the device she helped build for the moon mission has potential applications here on Earth.
One possible use would be for intra-operative tissue imaging for the surgical treatment of brain cancer. “You can image the brain pre-surgery using an MRI to locate the tumor, but once you go into surgery and drill into the brain, the intracranial pressure is lowered and the brain tissue shifts around,” Sinatra says. Cheaper, portable instruments like optical spectrometers can give surgeons a real-time, accurate guide for where to cut right in the operating room, she says.
The Draper Bioengineering Center employs about thirty people, including chemists, biologists, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers and other technical professionals. Three or four team members typically work on each project, and they usually juggle two or three projects at a time, she says.
Game for challenges
Sinatra was hired in June 2009 as a co-op student at the center. She was working on her masters at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa, and also working at the center, which is housed on the USF campus. She completed a five-year BS/MS program at USF, taking some graduate courses while studying for her bachelors degree. She received both her BS in mechanical engineering and MS in mechanical engineering and bioengineering in 2010.
For the future, Sinatra is exploring opportunities in systems engineering, because she’s interested in gaining a broader understanding of complex device operation and how various subcomponents interact.
“I’ve been trying to take a few classes outside my comfort zone,” she says. “For example, last semester I took a computer programming class to refresh my software engineering skills.”
James Vaughn: product management director at Thermo Fisher
In 2012, Thermo Fisher Scientific (South San Francisco, CA) brought James Vaughn aboard as its director of product management for genetic analysis software and informatics.
“They were looking for someone who had a real broad mix of experiences: a technical background in software and informatics, solid product management, plus entrepreneurial experience,” Vaughn says. “This is a role that’s essentially creating a new business inside of a business. And they were also looking for someone who had some large-organization management experience.”
Impressive business track record
Before he joined Thermo Fisher, Vaughn, who is African American, worked at Abbott Diagnostics doing similar work, but with more emphasis on clinical products. Prior to that, he was a management consultant for medical product and bioinformatics companies. He also started several businesses, including an employment services firm and a mobile technology development company, which he ultimately sold.
Vaughn received a 1999 BS in mechanical engineering from North Carolina State University (Raleigh) and a 2004 MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business (Evanston, IL).
He says his job offers both challenges and rewards. One of his biggest challenges is managing change and persuading his co-workers to embrace new methodologies. “I am operating in a large organizational ecosystem and culture, coming in and doing something very new and scary to some people,” he says.
One of the greatest rewards of his current job is the opportunity to help develop other leaders. “There’s a satisfaction I get when I see progress and growth in my team.”
Program manager Angela Patsios empowers others at BCBSMA
Angela Patsios says one of the goals of her job is to reduce the fear factor for employees using computer technology to service customers. Patsios is a program manager for strategy and implementation at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts (BCBSMA, Boston). She works with BCBSMA technical teams to help them effectively explain the technology to end users at the company.
Patsios spent ten years as a contractor with BCBSMA before becoming a staff employee in 2010. “I came into Blue Cross for a twelve-week stint to replace an employee going out on maternity leave,” she recalls. That temporary job became permanent.
Patsios started out in dental hygiene, earning a BS from the School of Business at the College of Mount Ida (Newton, MA) in 1982. After graduating, she worked at Massachusetts General Hospital for two years, teaching post-graduate dental students “four-handed dentistry,” or how to work alongside a dental hygienist or assistant.
Turning to project management
After a few years, she was ready for a career change. She found a job at a call center as an agent for Heritage Communication, LLC, a Pennsylvania-based telecommunications firm. There she got her first experience in project management.
“The people that I worked for saw potential I didn’t think I had,” Patsios says. “I ended up in project management because I was good at problem solving and had good people skills.”
At BCBSMA, Patsios wrapped up a three-year project earlier this year that switched the company from a Blackberry-based mobile communication system to a Bring Your Own Device model.
With every project Patsios leads, her people skills are put to the test. “For a project to be successful, you have to be able to bring people together,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the end result, and letting people know that they’ve made a contribution. I want them to own it like it’s theirs.”
Diversity and inclusion at BCBSMA
“We are an innovative company and passionate about attracting the best talent in all fields, including information technology,” says Sachin Sahney, senior director of human capital, workforce planning and talent acquisition at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. “We believe strongly that diversity and inclusion within our company results in better outcomes and higher performance.
“Diversity and inclusion is part of our overall talent acquisition and retention strategy,” Sahney continues. The company has launched employee resource groups for women, African Americans, and LGBT employees and friends, and debuted a “talent mobility” development program that offers associates a variety of work experiences to broaden their skills and expertise.
More than 700 employees have participated in the company’s diversity dialogue series, which discusses ways to promote a diverse and inclusive workplace.
At the community level, BCBSMA maintains partnerships with a range of professional and nonprofit organizations. “We are proud of our record and look forward to achieving more progress in the upcoming years,” says Sahney.
Belimar Velazquez uses her STEM background to market Carestream products
Belimar Velazquez, director of marketing and inside sales for the U.S. and Canada, leads the group responsible for marketing medical products that are made by Carestream Health (Rochester, NY). Carestream offers medical imaging, healthcare IT and testing products.
Among the products she’s been promoting recently are an IT solution that lets patients access their own digital X-rays, and a mobile X-ray device that can be used at the patient’s hospital bedside. Older X-ray models are difficult to move from place to place, but the Carestream version has a collapsible column that makes it easier to transport, Velazquez says.
Though she has spent much of her career as a research physicist, Velazquez says she relishes her current marketing role because it allows her to interact with customers and brainstorm solutions to their problems in a team environment. “I really like simplifying ideas and communicating them to the customer. And I enjoy learning what makes a customer buy our products,” Velazquez says. “I enjoy the creativity of that process.”
Velazquez began working in 1995 at a division of Kodak, whose health group was later acquired by Carestream’s parent company. She started out in Kodak’s government systems division, moved to the research lab and eventually wound up in the health group. Her job functions also changed over the years, from technical expert to project manager to researcher and back to project manager. After earning her Six Sigma black belt certification, she became quality manager for health IT.
Building a base for best practices
Velazquez received a BS in optics, a branch of physics, from the University of Rochester. She got an MBA from the Simon School of Business at the University of Rochester in 2009.
After getting her bachelors degree, she went to work for a contractor for NASA Lewis Research Center (now NASA Glenn Research Center, Cleveland, OH), where she designed instruments for measuring the behavior of fire under the microgravity conditions of the space shuttle.
Velazquez says her work finding the best solution to a problem unites her research, design and marketing careers. She adds that her STEM education has been a big asset in her marketing work.
“The marketing field is becoming more and more quantitative,” she says. “Big data is definitely playing a role in understanding what works and what doesn’t. Certainly mathematical thinking comes to play now in my job.”
DIVERSITY-MINDED EMPLOYERS IN HEALTHCARE IT AND MEDICAL TECHNOLOGY
Check website for current listings.
|Company and location
|Baxter International (Deerfield, IL)
|Biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and medical devices
|Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts
(Boston, MA) www.bluecrossma.com
|Carestream Health (Rochester, NY)
|Dental and medical imaging, healthcare IT,
|Covance (Princeton, NJ)
|End-to-end drug development and nutritional analysis services
|Covidien (Mansfield, MA)
|Surgical, respiratory, vascular and other medical products
|CVS Caremark (Woonsocket, RI)
|Retail pharmacy, pharmacy benefit management, retail medical clinics
|Draper Laboratory (Cambridge, MA)
|Nonprofit research and development for
healthcare, space exploration, energy and security
|McKesson (San Francisco, CA)
|Medical and pharmaceutical distribution,
|Medtronic Spinal (Memphis, TN)
|Medical technology for spinal and
|St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
(Memphis, TN) www.stjude.org
|Treatment of pediatric cancer and other
|Thermo Fisher Scientific (Waltham, MA)
|Laboratory equipment and analytical instruments
|UnitedHealth Group (Minnetonka, MN)
|Healthcare coverage and benefits,
technology-enabled health services
|Walgreens (Deerfield, IL)
|Zimmer (Warsaw, IN)
|Joint replacement and other medical technologies
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