The BioTECH Quarterly
Students have found a variety of ways to experience BE/BME firsthand in industry at biotech/life sciences-related companies in the summer. In this section, the following students share their experiences:
Uche Enuha ’05, EECS - GUIDANT
Optimizing Procedures for the Pacemaker and Defibrillator Industry
Working with Guidant is always a blast. This was actually my second internship with the company, and I was very pleased with my experience the second time around.
Guidant is in the pacemaker and defibrillator industry, and their main goal is to deliver highly efficient technologies to improve the quality of people’s lives. They continue to collaborate with leading medical institutes to develop more appropriate methods to solve heart related diseases and are very successful in doing so.
My main job function was to research and evaluate tools for the test engineering department in order to optimize their testing procedures. Most of the work was software-related, but I was able to get a feel for the actual devices that they test, even though I did not work directly with them. I was given all the training I needed for the job once I arrived on Guidant’s campus, but I will say that having already done a UROP, the research aspect of my job was familiar territory. Also, having taken 6.033 (Computer Systems Engineering) and 6.170 (Laboratory in Software Engineering) enabled me to assimilate the testing procedures a lot faster, as I was already familiar with certain terminologies.
Apart from the work I did at Guidant, there were so many other great sides of Guidant that kept me having fun all through the summer. Guidant provides a lot of fitness information to keep its employers healthy. They also have fitness classes onsite and a clinic that’s very accessible. Guidant also sponsors a lot of events for the community which includes food drives and races to raise awareness about heart diseases.
The main reason I continue to be an advocate for Guidant is because they truly value their people. The atmosphere at Guidant is one that I have not found in other companies, and the people I have worked with are brilliant at what they do. The work they do is also something that keeps you motivated to wake up every morning and put your best foot forward. They save lives. Not many companies can say that. If the kind of people you work with and the impact of your work are important to you, then I would highly recommend working for Guidant.
No More Knots: Testing a Design for Nitinol Sutures
Working for a company like Convergent Care is one of those eye-opening experiences that comes with its own unique stories. A medical devices company started by the chief cardiothoracic surgeon at Aultman Hospital in Canton, Ohio, Convergent Care was in its early stages of development. The six interns worked in a makeshift physical therapy room that was converted overnight into what would be our office and testing area.
The main project of the summer evolved around developing and testing a design for a new type of suture made from the memory metal, nitinol. Memory metals, after undergoing a shaping process, can “remember” its shape even if it is forced into another form, and it will exert force in an attempt to revert back to its original shape.
Currently, surgeons must tie approximately 7 knots for each suture, and in surgeries such as valve replacements, over twenty sutures may be used to secure the prosthesis, which could substantially lengthen the procedure. I saw a few open-heart surgeries to experience just how tedious a process it is. Using nitinol, we tested a design that would allow surgeons to sew up a patient without the hassle of tying knots and conducted tests on fresh cow and pig hearts (apparently, slaughterhouses are fairly common in Ohio).
As a chemical engineer working with two other mechanical engineers, I was clearly the odd one out. One important lesson I learned about working in industry is that almost anything can be learned on the job. I might not have taken the same classes as the other two interns, but I had a similar engineering background and it’s amazing how fast people can learn from each other.
Since it is a startup, what kind of experience you get from this type of internship solely depends on you. Taking initiative goes a long way in a small company, and the work that you do has a huge impact. By the end of the internship, I had drafted up a patent and a paper, which I’m currently submitting to a cardiothoracic conference, and I’m also researching ways to develop a better prosthetic mitral valve. I would definitely recommend this internship to people who are self-motivated and love a hands-on experience.
Biosensors, Signal Processing, and the World of Diabetes
According to the American Diabetes Association, 18.2 million people in the U.S. have diabetes. A significant portion of these people must test their blood glucose levels several times per day. Testing requires a person to draw blood and apply it to a meter, which returns a concentration of blood glucose. Regrettably, this process can be tedious, painful, and inconvenient. That’s where AgaMatrix, Inc. comes into the scene.
AgaMatrix combines digital signal processing with innovative biosensors. The digital signal processing is the key. It makes it possible to test more accurately with a smaller sample of blood. Consequently, tests are less painful and more trustworthy. The AgaMatrix meter will be on the market in the near future.
An introductory college chemistry background is enough to understand the basic concepts. Beyond that, many academic backgrounds are relevant to AgaMatrix: chemistry and biology are needed to develop test strips and reagents; mechanical engineering is needed to develop the meter; electrical engineering and computer science are needed to implement the digital signal processing technology.
As a research associate, I studied the medical device market to better understand the world of diabetes. I came in contact with the company through Devon Biondi from the UPOP program at MIT. She spoke very highly of AgaMatrix. After working there, I too left with a very positive impression.
The working environment is one of the best parts. There are opportunities to get involved with many aspects of the company from lab work to design work to marketing work. All the skills that an employee has are put to use – employees aren’t locked into a repetitious job day after day. The mission is to get things accomplished.
Over the summer I felt myself genuinely getting caught up in the successes of the company. I wanted to make things happen — not just put in 8 hours per day and go home. Without question, I would recommend AgaMatrix as a strong, growing company in the Boston area that offers great internship opportunities.
Alleviating Pain, Restoring Health, Extending Life
The thought of entering the “real world” is frightening, for many reasons. However, when we first walked into Medtronic last summer, we were met with nothing but enthusiasm, intelligence, and creativity.
Medtronic leads the world in medical technology, by providing products such as pacemakers, insulin pumps, and neurostimulators. Even though its almost 30,000 employees around the world have different cultures, academic backgrounds, and languages, they all have the same three goals in their everyday work: to alleviate pain, restore health, and extend life.
We cannot tell you how many times we heard people around us mention the mission statement in a typical work-related conversation. According to our observations, employees are undoubtedly driven by the mission statement, and they are very passionate about upholding those three values. Medtronic is truly a company with a vision that molds its culture.By Becca Luger-Guillaume ’05
My assignment for the summer was to create a graphical application for viewing pacemaker simulations. This was part of an overall goal for my software group in the Cardiac Rhythm Management research area to speed up testing and productivity. The part of this project that had the most impact on me was its importance. I’ve had UROPs and other internships, but nothing I’ve done will ever have as much impact on a person’s life as what I did at Medtronic.
On my recent trip to Minneapolis when I stopped by to see my boss from the summer, he beamed as he brought up a window that he was currently using: my program. Since I left, my group has been using my program to speed up the process of starting new pacemaker algorithm tests as well as the general productivity of the group, making it possible for new patients to receive better pacemakers sooner.
Although my programming classes prepared me to learn the programming languages I needed for my project, they couldn’t prepare me for the significance of what I did this summer and what Medtronic does in general. I wished I had paid more attention to dreaded 6.170’s lessons on documentation techniques. Success of a medical technology company does not come with sloppy code or laziness.
The environment I was in encouraged me to come up with my own solutions to unknown problems, defend my opinions, and learn from others. You may say this is typical of most companies, but as a computer science major, I was intrigued by biotechnology…enough to now want to go to graduate school for it.
I had an eye-opening experience at Medtronic: I learned that I love biotechnology, I was pushed to my limits and succeeded, and I discovered a company that truly does focus on its customers and not on politics. Medtronic is a place for people with enthusiasm to help others, as well as for those who love to learn. If you don’t want to be passionate about your work, don’t go to Medtronic.
By Muyinatu Lediju ’06
My experience at Medtronic was rather unusual in that I had the opportunity to work on a number of different projects. One of my projects was to help with the testing and analysis of leads. A lead is basically the insulated wire that connects to the pacemaker; it’s inserted into the heart for communication between the pacemaker and the heart, and it also serves as the mode of stimulation for pacing the heart.
I composed a simple model of the lead and conducted a non-linear finite element analysis (FEA) on the lead in order to identify component bending stresses in the lead. Since these stresses are very small, they can not be readily identified by simple testing of the actual lead. This project helped me to gain an appreciation for the FEA modelers in the group. Their job requires a deep insight and understanding of Medtronic’s products and their resulting uses and applications. For example, there are many situations in which the lead bends: it bends during assembly, it bends during insertion in the heart, and it also bends as the heart beats.
After speaking to the employees in my area, I was able to identify another project that interested me. My supervisor was gracious enough to allow me to assist those employees with the ongoing project. This project entailed building lead stimulation prototypes. I enjoyed this project because of the freedom associated with assembling the leads.
This class of stimulation leads was a novel idea, and there were no set guidelines to follow. In fact, I was responsible for documenting my work in a laboratory notebook so that others who followed me would be able to replicate the prototypes that I built. In retrospect, the class 2.671 (Measurement and Instrumentation) was very helpful for this type of work. It teaches you how to conduct laboratory experiments, document procedures, and report findings.
In the medical industry, documentation is very important. It’s one thing to create devices for inanimate objects, but when the device is for living human beings, the repercussions are enormous. In many cases, dealing with medical devices is a life-or-death situation; it’s very important to document your work so that steps can be revisited, retraced, and repeated.
I enjoyed the time I spent at Medtronic. The internship helped to strengthen my desire to work in the medical industry. I certainly identify with Medtronic’s mission statement and it’s essential that every member of the company embraces the mission to alleviate pain, restore health, and extend life.
Gene Therapy for Ovarian Cancer Cells
Past the conference rooms, white lab coats, and instruments, an innocuous clear liquid waits in an Eppendorf tube on a lab bench. Less than a milliliter of this liquid holds a treatment, a future, an entire summer of work. At the Lankenau Institute of Medical Research (LIMR) I had the opportunity to create a new gene therapy vector for ovarian cancer.
LIMR began as a research department in Lankenau Hospital and became a separate non-profit organization in 1925. Since 1925, LIMR has expanded to include conference space, sixteen labs, and support staff. LIMR continues to encourage an educational and collaborative relationship with doctors at Lankenau Hospital. The unique patient and facility resources available to LIMR are mainly due to its close relationship with Lankenau Hospital.
At LIMR, Dr. Janet Sawicki, gave me the opportunity to work on gene therapy in her lab. As I learned, gene therapy has experienced many unfortunate set backs. However, it is still one area of scientific research that exemplifies the idea of bioengineering. Making a gene therapy vector is equivalent to going to the hardware store and collecting four tires, a frame, a steering wheel, and an engine that are individually useless, but once pieced together make a car.
To build the ovarian gene therapy vector, I pieced together a diphtheria toxin gene, a promoter from ovarian cancer, and a yeast recombination enzyme gene. Together these genes worked to successfully kill ovarian cancer cells, while sparing non-ovarian cancer cells.
LIMR’s summer internship program not only gave me lab skills, but I was also introduced to the possibility of research and educational collaboration between physicians and researchers. LIMR gave me more than I could have ever asked for this summer: an opportunity to help 16,000 women battle ovarian cancer.
Comparing Research in Industry to Research in Academia
Pfizer Inc. is the largest pharmaceutical research and development company in the world, marketing products in 150 countries. It leads the industry in discovering, developing, manufacturing, and marketing prescription medicines for human and animal consumption. The company has three business sectors: health care, animal health, and consumer health care. With a wide range of research projects in 18 therapeutic areas, the company pioneers new developments in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology area.
Throughout high school and my freshman year, I’ve only been exposed to working in research labs in academia. I enjoyed the experiences and expected to do the same the summer of my sophomore year. Nevertheless, out of curiosity, I sent my resume to some pharmaceutical and biotech companies. After a number of interview requests, I decided to work for Pfizer at their main Research and Development campus in Groton, Connecticut. The experience proved vastly different from working in academia.
First of all, the facilities were better, and resources were more readily available. Even as an intern, I was given my own cubicle, half a room of lab space, and the opportunity to use specialized equipment. Also, most of the researchers weren’t worried about funding.
Second, the environment puts more emphasis on good communication and interpersonal skills. I met with some upper-level managers during lunch, and they all stressed the importance of soft skills for every company employee. Scientists, engineers, and managers must all associate with each other on a daily basis. There is also great collaboration among the different departments.
Third, company research is conducted based on market value. Research and development efforts are expected to bring profit, so there is less personal freedom in choosing research topics than in academia, and people tend to multi-task.
Fourth, there is more career movement within industry. For example, most of the employees that I spoke to have transferred between several departments or have moved up the corporate ladder over the years.
Although I find my experiences in both academia and industry very stimulating, I am glad that I decided to explore beyond academia this summer. It was worthwhile to try industry, even if it was just for a different perspective from academia.
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