Raising the Bar
It’s been nearly a decade since Lisette Manrique and Shruti Pai first crossed paths at WPI. Manrique, pictured, a Massachusetts native whose parents had come from Colombia and Puerto Rico, was starting her sophomore year after transferring from Boston University. Pai, the daughter of Indian parents, had spent her childhood in Zambia before attending boarding school in South Africa, and then traveling across the Atlantic to college in Worcester. At various points in their WPI careers, the two biomedical engineering majors took the same courses, lived in the same dorm, conducted research in the department’s labs, and did their IQPs in Costa Rica. Both developed close relationships with professors George Pins and Kristen Billiar, as they worked toward their BS and then MS degrees. They also shared a lifelong interest in art. Today, although they live on opposite coasts—Manrique outside of Boston and Pai in Seattle—they remain good friends. In separate conversations, the two women talk about the life-saving projects they’re doing, and how WPI helped launch them into the biomedical field.
In the cafeteria at Codman & Shurtleff Inc., Lisette Manrique is animated as she discusses a promising new device to treat a swelling condition in the brain called hydrocephalus. Eyes sparkling, golden earrings swinging, she describes the work that has kept her engineering team busy for months, that will send her to India to check out a manufacturing facility, and that—if all goes right—will lead to a new product next year. Wearing a stylish black dress, cropped sweater, and sleek black boots, Manrique looks like the last person on the planet who would ever sport a pocket protector.
And yet the 26-year old with a BS (’03) and MS (’05) in biomedical engineering is a rising star. She leads an interdisciplinary team of more than a dozen people at her Raynham, Mass., company, a division of Johnson & Johnson. She is involved with every step of the product development process, concept to launch. She is as comfortable charting the pathways of the brain as the personality types that comprise her group. Most of all, she is brimming with enthusiasm.
'It has been my experience that if you have the desire and drive to achieve something, then nothing should be able to keep you from attempting it,' she says in her profile on Engineer Your Life, a website created by WGBH and targeted at high school girls. For as long as she can remember, Manrique has received complete support from her family, her high school teachers in Tewksbury, Mass., her professors at WPI, and the employers who have benefited from her cando attitude. She recalls the scroll saw she received at age 13 from her father, who works in high tech; the many visits to ACCION, a microfinance nonprofit where her mother is vice president of human resources; the ’Human Body Program' she attended as a 15-year-old, in which she studied with Boston University medical students and visited an emergency room and a morgue; and the high school job at a physical therapy office. ’I realized that I didn’t necessarily want to be touching people all day,' she says, ’but I got so excited about the tools'.
’No one ever told me, ‘You should go into something woman friendly,’ she notes. And so Manrique happily followed her love for tools into biomedical engineering, where she was able to combine her passion for tinkering with her desire to do something that would help people. At WPI, she worked with professors Allen Hoffman and Holly Ault in the Assistive Technology Resource Center, eventually doing her MQP and graduate thesis in conjunction with the Massachusetts Hospital School, in Canton, Mass. Her first effort centered on devising a saddle for youngsters with disabilities to use while engaging in physical therapy on horseback. Manrique rattles off the challenges she encountered— individuals of varied ages and sizes and muscle tone—and the ultimate reward of aiding an activity that could improve the children’s physical condition and sense of well-being. For her master’s thesis project, Manrique helped develop an obstaclesensing system for a child’s wheelchair that could produce auditory feedback, signaling the child to change direction.
A good word from Professor Pins helped Manrique land her first job, at a medical device company in Andover, Mass., where she focused on spine discography. ’I learned a tremendous amount there,' she says. ’I had to do tests, write reports, follow protocol. I got to dabble in everything.' Before long, she brought this passion for crafting solutions to a Johnson & Johnson company concerned with the spine, and then to her present position in a company specializing in medical devices for neurosurgery.
’The best part of being an engineer is being able to solve problems with a hands-on approach,' Manrique says. (On the walls of her cubicle, a large chart of the human brain hangs across from a cartoon featuring Snoopy clasping Charlie Brown and the words HUG IT OUT!) Whether she is guiding her coworkers or designing a sophisticated piece of machinery, Manrique keeps her touch grounded as much in humanity as in skill.
On a January evening, Shruti Pai ’04, MS’05, has just walked in the door—not from her challenging work studying diabetes and foot injuries, but from a session on an indoor climbing wall. 'I do rock climb outdoors, where it’s most fun,' she says over the phone. 'I love being in Seattle. We’ve got the beach, the mountains. I’m a fishing woman. I go backpacking and snowshoeing. And I love the city side of things. There’s a lot of life here.'
Before long, it becomes clear that there’s a lot of life wherever Shruti Pai is. A doctoral candidate in biomechanics at the University of Washington, Pai is happiest when she is exploring, both intellectually and geographically. She can claim three continents as home: Asia, since she is a citizen of India; Africa, where she grew up; and North America, where she has lived since entering WPI in 2000. 'When I was younger,' she admits, 'I always felt like an outsider. Now I feel so at home everywhere.'
Pai’s professional efforts are geared toward helping others feel more comfortable in their worlds. At Seattle’s Center of Excellence for Limb Loss Prevention and Prosthetic Engineering— within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs—she investigates the connections between diabetes and foot problems. She spends a lot of time sampling tissue from the feet of cadavers, trying to 'understand the difference between diabetic and normal tissue.' Such knowledge could lead to better insoles to relieve pressure, and therefore to fewer unhealed ulcers and amputations among patients with diabetes.
'I love brainstorming,' Pai says. Speaking from Seattle, she traces her excitement back to WPI: 'My MQP really spurred me on.' For that research—which she has published and presented at a professional conference—she investigated utilizing metal plates rather than wires to stabilize the sternum in open heart surgery patients. Pai measured the forces on different plate configurations applied to synthetic human bone. 'I really liked being given a problem, testing, doing the data,' she explains. She also feels lucky to have worked with Billiar and Pins as both an undergraduate and graduate student.
Had it not been for a teacher in her high school in South Africa, however, Pai might not have found her niche so readily. As a teenager, she was most interested in biology, physics, and art. 'I had no idea until the very end how I was going to tie this all together,' she says. 'But a teacher encouraged me to take an aptitude test.' When it pointed to biomedical engineering, Pai was intrigued. Up until then, she admits she thought that an engineer 'sounds vague and so masculine.'
Now, several years away from completing her PhD, Pai imagines a career in biomechanics, possibly in Africa. She plans to keep traveling and seeking adventures. And she hopes she will be able to inspire other young women to discover options they never knew they had.
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Last modified: March 27, 2009 14:53:49