(Bug Bite Counter: 18 19 – another one just now can you believe it?)
Not going to lie, I am pretty sure the mosquitos in Costa Rica view me like Winnie the Pooh views honey. Could be my blood type, could be me in general, but as long as I am around, the rest of my fellow gringos (terminology Costa Ricans use to call us foreigners) are essentially invisible to them. While this was not how I envisioned my first few days of Costa Rica to go, I am glad that I haven’t had the time to think about it from the moment we touched down in the capital city, San José.
Despite the constant awareness of bugs clinging on me, Costa Rica has been nothing but caring and welcoming to me and to the GMI team. Many of the other blog posts will focus on our times observing patients in hospitals and clinics in the San José region, while others will share about our recent five-day medical innovation short course that could easily be surmised as an inundation of information. While I plan to spend some time discussing some of the highlights about those experiences, they only reflect a fraction of the memories I have gained from the past 11 days. From one end, it goes without saying that the food here is incredible: casados (a Costa Rican dish), gallo pinto (rice and beans), Subway (Eat Fresh), and even their Chinese food deserves an honorable mention. Fun fact, because of the rich microclimates of Costa Rica that contribute to 5% of the world’s biodiversity, we had the opportunity to taste strawberries grown in volcanic earth. On the other hand, our group arrived into town at just the right time, as the hype for the FIFA World Cup qualifiers buzzed through the country. This past Thursday, we managed to scalp enough tickets just hours before the game to get into the Costa Rica vs. Panama World Cup qualifier, and while the game ended scoreless, the cheering crowds and ecstatic atmosphere did not leave us empty handed. This is just a sample of the rich culture that Costa Rica can offer, something that you need to experience for yourself to truly appreciate.
However, as the program name suggests (“GMI” – Global Medical Innovation), we primarily set out to innovate and inspire global medical solutions, and our immersion into the health care scene in Costa Rica has been nothing but eye-opening: eye-opening in the sense that the culture of health can be so radically different from what I have experienced in the United States, and eye-opening in the way that a single day of observation can yield a host of needs to be solved.
What do I mean? So often in my coursework and internships have I taken a question and immediately sought to find a solution. However, to properly observe a clinical setting, it is more important to observe and question the process of what is happening rather than saying “I can solve this problem by doing this.” In fact, thinking of solutions during the observations can lead someone down a narrow path of believing their solution is the end-all-be-all, when in reality, it could be very wrong. This has been a struggle for me as a person and as an engineer, where I often think of solutions when I see a problem. Nevertheless, this served as a worthwhile exercise and experience for me as it taught me to understand the entire problem statement and the ramifications driving an issue to make an informed decision.
As I mentioned earlier, we partook in a five-day short course of design innovation with students from local Costa Rican universities. From 8-5 every day for an entire week, we learned the entire innovation process, starting from needs statements to brainstorming to concept selection to prototyping. In fact, we are presenting our final designs to families and news stations tomorrow morning, so keep us in your prayers! Now by no means is our prototype something ready for manufacturing: it’s held together by Popsicle sticks and uses more pompoms than any art project I conceived as a child. Pompoms, you ask? These things…
Yeah, we created what are called “low-fidelity” prototypes, designs that you can put together with every imaginable thing in your house. They are not meant to be pretty (though ours is pleasantly colorful because of the pompoms), but they are meant to get the point of your project across successfully. I always thought that we had to have the right tools or top of the line materials to get a functional prototype out, but this exercise taught me that the only limitation on design is your imagination. This is something I’ve learned to cherish, and it’s something I plan to continue throughout my time back in the states.
As one of the professors put it during a lecture about needs findings: innovation is not a game of chance. To his credit, he is 100% right. I had the opportunity to observe a bronchoscopy procedure to retrieve a mucus sample, a spinal tap to gather bone marrow for analysis, and even a pacemaker implementation into a woman’s heart within 24 hours of each other. Despite the varying levels of difficulty to any given procedure, the ultimate point is that my job entrusts the faith of the patient in my device. There is really no room for chance, especially when the patient is lying on the table. In my eyes, that was one of the most grounding moments in my education as a biomedical engineer – we develop solutions to save lives.
In Costa Rica, in the United States, or anywhere around the world, people depend on us to improve the process and reduce harm, and in just 11 days, I am more inspired to take on this challenge full force than from any lecture or talk from a classroom spent over the past 6 years. That is why I believe that Rice’s GMI program has something truly special: it speaks to the engineer in me, not the student. Dr. Eric Richardson, the program director, has developed a program that can truly inspire a generation of engineers to put their best foot forward, and alongside 7 other GMI students this summer in Costa Rica (shout out to Ryan, Josh, Tasha, Sanjana, Anna, Karlee, and Callie), I believe we can do just that. Pura Vida.
Oh, and check out this quick video I put together about our day in La Paz, just in case you didn’t believe me before about how beautiful Costa Rica is. Pro tip: their coffee is pretty good, I can confirm.