IMED profiles showcase the passion and dedication of our innovative students
Story and photos by Susan Reich
They’re driven. They’re visionary. They thrive on challenges—in the classroom, in the laboratory and in their personal pursuits—and they could change the face of medicine as we know it. They’re the students of IMED (Innovation Medicine), a groundbreaking new program designed to prepare future physicians for careers at the intersection of medicine and technology, where they will channel their clinical experience and engineering talent into lifesaving and life-enhancing biomedical innovations. Here, three M1 students from the inaugural cohort of the IMED program talk about the paths and passions that led them to the COM—and their hopes and dreams for the future.
A blow to the head clarified everything for Emil Klosowiak. The Northwestern University mechanical engineering undergrad’s “aha!” moment arrived unexpectedly in March 2012, after a nasty accident during a collegiate cycling event. Hunched over the handlebars of his racing bike and hurtling forward at top speed, he’d been jockeying for position with the cyclists in the front pack when his front wheel bumped up against the back wheel of another bike. What happened next is still a mystery to Klosowiak, who remembers nothing about the collision that left him lying on the side of the road with severe lacerations on his face and knees, a concussion and a cerebral hemorrhage.
When he regained consciousness, he was dazed, disoriented and only dimly aware of the wailing of the ambulance siren as he was rushed to the emergency room. But as he was cleaned up and subjected to a seemingly endless series of X-rays and CT scans at the hospital, his mind began to clear and his curiosity about the medical profession was piqued.
“This was my first major experience with medicine and health care, and I found it fascinating,” he says today. “Because of my engineering background, I was asking a lot of questions about the medical equipment and how the body worked. I realized that I had a lot more curiosity about the field of medicine than I’d ever had about mechanical engineering.”
Klosowiak was released from the hospital 24 hours later. But the knock on the head that had caused his brain bleed had also changed his priorities. “I realized that I didn’t want to be a mechanical engineer sitting behind a computer every day,” he explains. “I wanted more human interaction. So I decided to pursue a career in medicine and bioengineering to combine my desire to work with people with my passion for science.”
By fall 2012, Klosowiak had switched his major to biomedical engineering—a move that would eventually lead him to the College of Medicine and its Innovation Medicine program.
“I spent a post-college gap year in Poland on a Fulbright Fellowship, conducting research on synthetic materials for implants that were being developed to promote spinal cord regeneration in humans,” he notes. “So when I learned about IMED, I was very excited. I knew that I wanted to work clinically as a physician, but I also wanted to augment my clinical work with innovation in design and engineering. Working clinically, I can affect the patients who come through my door. But as an innovator, I will have the potential to help far more people.”
This desire to help more patients by working at the intersection of medicine and technology is a common sentiment expressed by the members of IMED’s inaugural student cohort. These 12 budding physicians and future IMED students will be positioned to be the “game changers” of tomorrow—the interdisciplinary innovators who will use their clinical insights and experience to inform their research and product development as they harness technology to solve real-world healthcare problems.
“Interdisciplinary research and development has produced some of the most exciting medical advances of our time,” notes COM Executive Dean Dimitri Azar, MD, MBA. “By grooming our IMED students for dual careers as physicians and biomedical innovators, we can close the knowledge gap that often exists between the clinician and the engineer or research scientist and help pave the way for the development of new medical devices, products and systems that will be truly life-changing.”
IMED student Charlotte ter Haar believes that the new program will be instrumental in bridging the knowledge divide that has hindered biomedical innovation in the past.
“We need physicians who are engaged in and excited about medical innovation, but also knowledgeable about what it takes to go from needs identification to product design and development,” says ter Haar. “There can be a disconnect between researchers who aren’t familiar with the clinical context and clinicians who understand the clinical needs, but may not understand the design process. The IMED program appealed to me because it provides a systematic approach to innovation in clinical practice.”
Ter Haar’s own path to IMED began during her high school years. “Some people close to me had medical issues,” she confides. “I saw them go through a lot, but they received amazing medical care. That was inspiring to me.”
But it wasn’t until she began her studies at Northwestern University—first as a premed major and then as a bioengineering and design major—that ter Haar had her own epiphany.
“Although I was pretty sure that I wanted to be a doctor, I decided to use my college years to explore other careers that I thought I could be interested in,” says ter Haar, a cross-country athlete who shares Klosowiak’s appetite for athletic challenges and hopes to qualify for the Boston Marathon next year after running the Twin Cities Marathon this fall. “My explorations as an undergraduate confirmed that I wanted to go into medicine, but I fell in love with biomedical design and innovation along the way.”
Ter Haar also fell in love with Klosowiak after a mutual friend suggested that they get to know one another. Later, when Klosowiak, by then her fiancé, told ter Haar about the IMED program, she jumped at the chance to be a part of it.
“I think engineering and research can have a huge impact on patient care and biomedical innovation,” ter Haar reflects. “But I like the personal service and human interaction of medicine, which is why I’m drawn to clinical work. IMED allows me to pursue both.”
Ter Haar is particularly interested in the IMED curriculum slated for the summer between her M1 and M2 years—a time many students consider to be their “last free summer” before medical school becomes a year-round endeavor.
“This coming summer, we are doing a clinical immersion program alongside bioengineering students,” she notes. “It’s an opportunity to gain clinical experience and also to learn how to identify clinical needs. As an undergrad in biomedical engineering, I never had a chance to participate in the needs identification process because the client already had a problem that they wanted me to solve. This early stage of the design process is really important and challenging—and it will be essential in my future career as a physician innovator.”
IMED student Gardner Yost developed an interest in medical devices as a biology undergraduate at Cornell University.
“I took a class in medical devices and products at Cornell during my senior year and absolutely adored it,” says Yost, another accomplished athlete who represented the U.S. on the Men’s Eight rowing team that won a gold medal at the 2012 Under 23 World Championships in Lithuania.
“I was fascinated by the entrepreneurs and innovators who had figured out how to integrate their products into the anatomy of a human being in order to solve a medical problem or effect a cure,” he recalls. “I still find the idea of building something externally and then implanting it internally enrapturing. That course at Cornell led me to pursue a master’s degree in bioengineering at UIC.”
When he first heard about the IMED program, Yost was working on a graduate project at the UIC Innovation Center’s Medical Accelerator for Devices Laboratory (better known as the MAD Lab) with his graduate advisor, Thomas J. Royston, PhD, head of the Loan and Rick Hill Department of Bioengineering—a joint department of both the COM and the College of Engineering.
“Dr. Royston was collaborating with MAD Lab Director Dr. Miiri Kotche, Dr. Bellur Prabhakar and Dean Azar on the development of the Innovation Medicine program,” recalls Yost. “So I knew about IMED pretty early on, and it seemed like such a natural fit. I had been working on the development of a non-invasive system to evaluate the function of left ventricular assist devices that had been implanted in patients with advanced heart failure—and this seemed like the perfect way to carry my interest in medical devices forward into medical school.”
IMED Co-Director and Clinical Associate Professor of Bioengineering Miiri Kotche, PhD, notes: “During their first year, IMED students attended a series of lunchtime seminars, where they listened to case studies presented by physicians and engineers with product development and biotech startup experience. In doing so they gained insights into opportunities, entrepreneurial concerns and regulatory and intellectual property issues.”
As the IMED track moves forward, Program Co-Director and Associate Dean for Technological Innovation and Training, Bellur S. Prabhakar, PhD, remarks: “In the coming year, they will gain firsthand experience in medical product development—from needs assessment to prototyping—as they collaborate with bioengineering, industrial design and marketing students and faculty from various colleges at UIC on projects sponsored by corporate or internal clinical partners.”
Their experience will culminate with a capstone design project that they will choose and develop, which Klosowiak expects this summer’s upcoming clinical immersion program might help them to choose. Meanwhile, this first cohort is growing ever more cohesive as the 12 students move into their M2 year.
“It’s really rewarding to be a part of this community of peers who are interested in being clinicians and medical innovators,” says ter Haar. “It will be so cool to have an IMED reunion in 15 years to find out what everyone is doing!”