STEMinista, do you even do STEM?

Do you even DO STEM?Yay! I thought you’d never ask! Since you asked, I’d love to take a few minutes to talk about my job tonight. I work in the Smart Sensors and Integrated Microsystems Laboratories at Wayne State University.

Want to guess what we do?

I’ll give you a hint: it has to do with sensors and microsystems – but I presume you used your context clues to figure that one out on your own already. So beyond that, what do we do? Most of the work we do is biomedical, and ALL of the work I do is biomedical. If you aren’t into biomedical problems, don’t worry – we use lots of other areas of science and engineering to solve biomedical problems, so this may be of interest to you, too.

We start with a problem. Sometimes our partners approach us with a specific problem in mind. Sometimes, we immerse ourselves in a clinical environment to identify problems ourselves, and sometimes, we come up with our own problems. I think it’s safe to say – in all areas of STEM – if you don’t have a really good understanding of your problem, you can’t come up with a viable solution.

Learning about surgical problems - by spending serious time in the operating room

Learning about surgical problems – by spending serious time in the operating room

I bet you can guess our next step….

Next, we brainstorm potential solutions. My boss (he’s kind of a big deal) likes to say we take an ‘atoms-to-man’ approach, meaning that we look at solutions at all scales – from the atomic or molecular level, to organs or parts of organs, to whole-person or process based solutions, and everything in between.

We’re stepping through the scientific process here, so I bet you can guess what happens next….

We evaluate the potential solutions to see what’s been tried before, what is viable and what isn’t. We have some traditional tools to do this (like libraries for research), but we also have a really cool and pretty unique design and simulation laboratory with teleconferencing capability to include all the key players (doctors, funders, scientists, engineers, etc) and all the latest and greatest design and simulation software (more on that in a future post, maybe?). A lot of times, we’ll also do some preliminary clinical or laboratory studies to test out our hypotheses before we proceed with a solution.

This is where things start to get cool, my friends.

Once we have an idea, and a simulated design, we have a whole series of micro- and nano-fabrication facilities to build solutions (usually sensors are involved in some way, hence the name smart “sensors”).

What is microfabrication? It’s basically the process of making really small-scale things (like sensors!). Again, this is an overview – we’ll probably talk more about this in future posts. For those of you not used to the names, micro is 10-6 meters, and nano is 10-9 meters. The features on the sensors and devices we’re making can be as small as ~0.000000003 m. For reference, a human hair is typically 20 – 200 micrometers (0.000020 – 0.000200 m). So the patterns we’re designing are much, much, much smaller than a human hair – cool, huh? Fabrication is done in a ‘clean room’, which is a room with specialized ventilation to prevent contamination from dust or other particles that may interfere with the device you’re building. Clean room ventilation is also designed to keep users safe, by preventing them from being exposed to chemicals or biological contaminants that are being used in the room.

Suited up to work in a clean room - no contamination is coming off of us!

Suited up to work in a clean room – no contamination is coming off of us!

We also have the equipment necessary to take a sensor and build it into an “integrated” (there we are with the creative naming system again!) circuit board, so that it can be placed into an actual electronic device.

How do we make sure that the sensors we make turn out correctly if they’re so small? Good question! We have another entire laboratory dedicated to characterization. For now, you should know that means we have a bunch of REALLY powerful microscopes, to look at things up close, as well as a whole bunch of other materials science tools to study the various properties of our sensors (or anything else whose properties we might find interesting).

Big microscopes come in big boxes - I couldn't resist!

Big microscopes come in big boxes – I couldn’t resist!

Lastly, we have a number of ‘translational’ labs, where we can test out the final or near-final devices. Within our clean room fabrication area, we have a dedicated lab for doing biology work. Then, a sensor can be built, packaged into a device, and tested in a biological laboratory without ever leaving the ‘clean’ environment.

Working in a biology tissue culture laboratory - and perfecting the foot pop!

Working in a biology tissue culture laboratory – and perfecting the foot pop!

So, that was a quick, broad overview of what my lab does, without any actual mention of any of the projects I work on – do you feel cheated??? I feel a little like a cheated you….

Before we go into detail about the projects I work on, let’s talk a little about my role, and the other types needed to make the lab a success.

One of my primary jobs is to serve as a ‘clinical interface’. What does that even mean? I have a pretty good understanding of the science and engineering work we do, but I also have a pretty good understanding of the medical side of what we do, so I spend a lot of time meeting with doctors and researchers making sure the science matches the medicine and the medicine matches the science. This is important to make sure experiments are setup correctly, and to make sure the experiments we do in the laboratory will be relevant to the doctors who will use the final product we develop.

Another part of ‘clinical interface’ is managing administrative paperwork – a lot of it. It is tedious, and it’s not science-y at all (at least not the kind I want to spend my time with), but it is absolutely required anytime research is performed on humans or animals. In the past, there have been a LOT of really unethical experiments done on both people and animals, so the government-mandated regulations to make sure that people and animals aren’t unfairly exploited. Even if it isn’t fun, it’s important, and the systems are in place for a reason. Unfortunately for me, I really understand the system and processes, so I’ve become the go-to girl for managing all that paperwork.

I’m also expected to write peer-reviewed research papers and grants, so I spend a lot of time analyzing experimental data, formatting it for presentations, papers, and grants, and writing the accompanying documents to go with the data. Since I work in a big laboratory, I also get to mentor a constantly-rotating group of students (ranging from high school students, to graduate students, to medical students, to post-medical or graduate-school researchers) to help them on their various research projects. This is fun because a lot of the projects are outside of my specific areas of expertise, so I’m constantly researching new topics to help out students.

Oh, and on my lucky days between everything else, I get to go in the laboratory and do science too. Those are my favorite!

As you may have guessed, it takes a big, diverse STEM team to go from identifying a problem, to designing, building, and evaluating a solution.  The types of STEM jobs we need in the lab where I work aren’t unique to biomedical problems. They are universal to problem solving. The team I work with includes scientists (physicists, chemists, biologists, etc), mathematicians and statisticians, engineers (of all disciplines), medical professionals (doctors, nurses, veterinarians, etc), artists and designers (you have to make the device look good AND be easy to use), and business people (to commercialize final products). I love working in a job where I can clearly see the importance of each of those specialties. In a lot of big companies, you can lose sight of exactly how diverse a STEM team is needed to solve problems.

Thanks for sticking around to read this far. I think we’ll stop here for now. I didn’t mean to type nearly this much, and I still didn’t tell you about all the cool projects we’re doing at my job. I’ll save that for a series of future posts – promise! For now, I hope all of my on-the-job pictures give you a little peak into what my daily job is like and you’re looking forward to hearing more.


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