Discovering Costa Rica

Wow! It feels like much more than 13 days since we started the GMI program. Already, we have completed two short courses, visited hospitals, worked with Costa Rican students, visited international church, attended a soccer match, and hiked to beautiful waterfalls. I have had a great experience so far. I have learned loads, grown personally, been challenged, worked hard, and made many new friends. Because you don’t want to read a book, this post will only be a snapshot of the last 13 days. But first, some fun-facts about Costa Rica:

  • “Pura Vida” is the Costa Rican equivalent of “Hakuna Matata” and governs daily life
  • Ambulances and health care are free to everyone (paid by 9% income tax)
  • Traffic often makes driving slower than jogging
  • Black beans and rice (“gallo pinto”) are a staple at every meal

Typical Costa Rican dish called “casado.” This one contains the rice and beans, salad, fried plantains, and fish.

We kicked off our time in Costa Rica with a short course about how to find needs taught by Dr. Fearis, a professor at JHU. He explained that successful innovations start with identifying a need, not a brilliant idea. This ensures that the innovation is useful and wanted instead of just a novelty that will quickly be laid aside. He then detailed the process of “needs finding” for medical devices. It starts with observation in hospitals and interviews with health care workers. Then, we must analyze our notes and discuss our observations to uncover need statements. These statements are very specific about what the problem is, who it affects, and what the desired outcome is and guide the rest of the design process. Needs finding will comprise a chunk of our time in Costa Rica and also the fall semester.

The morning after learning how to find needs, I went to a distribution center with three Costa Rican students to put into practice what we had studied. Once we arrived, we began a tour of the facility. It was gigantic! The facility handles most of the health care supplies for the entire population of Costa Rica, over four million people! We started our tour at the reception area where the trucks deliver pallets of supplies. Here was where we spent most of our time interviewing an energetic pharmacist who was taking inventory of the arriving supplies. She was more than willing to share various needs that she experienced daily. Then she explained more about her work in her office and we finished our tour by gawking at the enormity of the warehouse itself. It had six-story tall shelves for the pallets that stretched far into the distance (see picture below). Sadly, we ran out of time before we could watch the process of loading pallets onto the sixth story. However, we were still able to tease several need statements from our observations.

The giant distribution center warehouse that we visited for needs finding.

On Sunday, we took a (well-deserved) break from working and were privileged to visit an international church close to our hotel. Luckily, three of the church members were able to translate for us. Even in English, it was definitely an experience for me. I had never been to a charismatic church before and so I didn’t know what to expect when a woman offered to prophesy over me. But she respectfully encouraged me with words from God. So our morning was spent in cultural immersion, and I spent the afternoon in the park across the street. Towards the end of the day, we played volleyball over a soccer post because there were no nets. Everyone who walked by stared at the strange Americans who preferred volleyball to soccer. Ironically, several days later, we attended a soccer match between Costa Rica and Panama. It was a high stakes game as they played for a spot in the world cup; the fans were very energetic as well. We even joined in on some of the Costa Rican cheers. Unfortunately, our cheers were ineffective as the game ended in a tie. But the game was one of the highlights of my week, not in the least because it was my first soccer game.

Costa Rica vs. Panama soccer match. My first soccer match ever.

Our next three days were spent on more needs finding at local hospitals. It was enlightening to me to see the sheer number of patients in the hospital and the length of the lines. The hospital that I visited serves half of the population for Costa Rica, so it was very crowded. My favorite part of the visit was observing a catheter operation. We entered the operating room and watched as the surgeon threaded the wire through a man’s arm vein to his heart. Then, a machine showed us the network of veins in the heart as the doctor injected a dye through the wire. It was amazing! We could see the outline of the heart and the movement as it beat. It looked like a sci-fi movie but was real-life and in real-time.

The hospital in San Jose where we saw the heart catheter.

For the past several days, we have been working with some Costa Rican students on design projects from the needs that we identified in the hospital. We, as the Rice students, took the lead in introducing our respective topics to our teams. I really enjoyed this, even though it was difficult at times to guide my team. I grew a lot personally through the experience as I learned how to reconcile various personalities and keep us on track with the fast and furious deadlines. We worked together to design a device that reduces the pain associated with removing stitches. We even built a low-level prototype in only 4 days. Our final presentations are on Monday and I am proud of how far we have come. I have been honored to work with many outstanding students and have learned a lot about leadership, teamwork, aesthetic design, and the process of taking a product from ideation to production. It has been a very long, but even more rewarding week.

A drawing of our stitches removal device.

Our low-level prototype of stitches removal device.

Today (Sunday, June 11), we took another well-deserved break, and visited La Paz park as a team. I had a blast! We started the morning by hand-feeding hummingbirds with a plastic, nectar-filled tube. The birds buzzed around us like giant bees, but thankfully were harmless. Then we got to see some animals at the mini-zoo including jaguars, monkeys, snakes, birds, and sloths. There were also various walk-through exhibits where butterflies, frogs, and toucans moved around us. Then, we hiked to a series of five waterfalls, all along the same river. Lastly, we ended our day at the park with a soak in the hot-tub before driving back. On the way back, we bought some strawberries grown in the volcanic soil nearby and tried some fresh cheese. The cheese was quite delicious, but the strawberries just tasted normal to me.

One of five roaring waterfalls at La Paz.

The rainforest at La Paz. Looks like an Indiana Jones movie.

One foot away from a toucan. Not something you see in Oklahoma!

It’s been a fantastic 13 days so far and I am excited for the next part of our adventure. We will move on from San Jose and begin Phase II of our time in Costa Rica tomorrow. Stay tuned for weekly updates!

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Week 2: Hitting the Ground Running

Week 2 has been another long and exciting week. I am exhausted, but excited for our day off tomorrow where we’ll be traveling to La Paz, a famous water fall garden not far from San Jose! This will be our first (and hopefully not our last) opportunity to get to see some of the natural beauty of Costa Rica. I love the outdoors, so this trip will be some much-appreciated food for the soul.

The main reason this past week was so tiring was the short course on medical device innovation we have been participating in over the past 4 days. Essentially, each of us was put into a team with local Costa Rican students to present a design for a medical device that we had scoped over the past few days. What would normally be spread out over months or maybe years was compressed to four days. That meant we always had to move faster than we wanted to, making broad assumptions and general calculations. This was very challenging for me (and from what I’ve gathered, many of us in the cohort). I wanted to know more about the need we were addressing and the technology we were using in our design, but was frequently told my team needed to move on to finish everything in time for our presentation. Upon reflection, I’ve noted this tendency has its pros and cons. On one hand, it will push me to gain a depth of understanding on problems I work on in the future. On the other, I suspect I will also have to be able to make engineering decisions without all the facts. If everything else was a bust from the course (which it wasn’t), I at least got better at having to make impulse decisions.

Low-fidelity prototyping with bajajs

The course had plenty of high points though. One of the most entertaining was the introduction to low-fidelity prototypes where we designed a “bajaj” to safely carry ping pong balls as fast as possible down a zip line and into a collision with a wall. I’ve attached a picture of my team’s design, which got dubbed “the purse.” I’m confident we would have had the best design (gone down the zip line fastest without losing the ping pong balls) had the bottom of the zip line been more than a foot off the ground. Due to our tall and heavy design, we ran aground and never made it to the wall. But alas… Maybe the competitive side of me is still a little bitter. 🙂

A low-fidelity prototype of our final design: a device to control posture of patients with cerebral palsy in wheelchairs

After being introduced to low-fidelity prototyping with the bajaj, we began prototyping for our actual design in the short course. The idea was to physically embody our idea in the simplest way possible to get a better understanding of its performance in a short amount of time. Each team was able to choose from materials like popsicle sticks, cardboard, pipe cleaners, and good ‘ol duct tape. I found this to be surprisingly helpful in evaluating our ideas! My team was able to determine very quickly that our first idea would not be able two requirements we had set for it, which allowed us to pivot while we still had time. This tool will definitely be one that I take with me for a while.

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First 10 Days in Costa Rica

 

First Days in Costa Rica

As I am sure that my fellow colleagues have already emphasized this point, the last 10 days have been both one of the most intense and rewarding experiences of my academic career. We wasted little time as soon as we landed in Costa Rica. In coordination with Dr. Richardson and TEC (Tecnológico de Costa Rica), one of most prestigious engineering schools in the country, we had a very interesting project proposition placed in front of us. The 8 GMI students were paired up with a few TEC students to work on a project and “find needs”. Paul Fearis, who works in conjunction with Rice and Johns Hopkins had lectured us in preparation for this seemingly vast task. He hammered home the point of “insight informed innovation”, a concept of observing root causes to problems thoroughly before proposing solutions—something we as engineers struggle with.

 

Needs Finding with TEC Students

My group was tasked with the project of visiting a student with cerebral palsy in the more rural town of San Marcos. We took up a winding road through the mountains of Costa Rica to the student’s school. The school is about what you would expect from a rural school in Costa Rica—unleveled concrete, corrugated steel roofs, chalkboards and outdated furniture, yet there was this student who emitted so much energy and joy that I forgot about the environment around me. He was intelligent, funny, and very outgoing and if not for his cerebral palsy, would be enjoying life to the fullest. He was confined to a wheelchair in a setting where there was not enough room for him to maneuver. On rainy days, he would sometimes lose control of his wheelchair altogether. After meeting with his teachers, classmates, and parents, we as a group continued with our needs finding and articulated what we thought were major problems for the student. The TEC students will continue to pursue the project, but the GMI students had diverged to continue working on needs finding in other locations.

Drive to San Marcos

Meeting with Cerebral Palsy Student at His School

 

 

 

 

 

Hospital Observations

The Rice students had the opportunity to visit a few hospitals near the San Jose area and watch different medical procedures. Two procedures that my group of 4 were able to see included a bone marrow aspiration and a heart catheter examination of a patient who experienced chest pains. There are a few things that this experience taught me:

 

  • The application of certain methods can vary from doctor to doctor.
  • Finding major issues in healthcare doesn’t necessarily come directly from a person, sometimes it can come from just simple observation.
  • There is still room for improvement in the most fundamental areas of medicine.

 

Although Costa Rican public hospitals do not have the resources and access to technology that U.S. hospitals do, the life-expectancy of a Costa Rican citizen is higher than their U.S. counterparts. This concept was absolutely baffling to me at first, but after being immersed in observations, I now see why this is the case. Preventative care is a point of emphasis here, and there are very talented medical professionals to ensure that proper measures are taken.

 

Short Course in Innovation at FOD

The last few days have been focused on bringing a product from concept to a low-fidelity prototype in a matter of four days. This course was held at Fundación Omar Dengo and consisted of the GMI students and Costa Rican students who were interested in medical device innovation. Once again, our team was divided into teams and instructed to solve a specific problem. Stemming from my visit with the cerebral palsy student, I wanted my group to focus on developing a concept that could help a caregiver lift a child with cerebral palsy in and out of their wheelchair to mitigate the risk of injury. Our team spent the first day team-building and understanding the fundamental mechanisms of our problem.

 

The next day Dr. Richardson and Dr. Wettergreen (also from Rice) gave a crash course over various aspects of device innovation. At the end of the day, we had a friendly competition with the other groups to see who could build the best bijaj (a three-wheeled taxi that is used in Ethiopia) out of material you would find at an arts and crafts store. Our team finished in a solid 3rd place. The next days were spent on prototyping our idea out of the same materials used for the bijaj and finishing up a presentation that we will be giving Monday (6/12). These are some of the things I learned from this course:

 

  • A “low-fidelity” prototype is really useful in understanding the concepts of a device and relating that information to other people.
  • IP strategy for a product can be complex.
  • Being thorough and clear as a team facilitator is essential, especially when group members may not be fluent in English.

CAD Drawing of FOD Project Concept

It’s not all work

Costa Rica is a beautiful place. With as hectic of a schedule as we’ve had in last 10 days, it is always refreshing and relaxing to look outside and get lost in awe of your surroundings. So far, we’ve been able to see a fútbol match (which I think my ears are still ringing from), hike through La Paz (yes, there are toucans and sloths here) and get to know more about the Costa Rican culture. Although it is hard work, these last 10 days have been some of the most memorable! We will be heading out to Guanacaste tomorrow, which I expect to be just as awesome of an experience.

Toucan!

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Pura Vida

 

Remember how I said this year would take me way out of my comfort zone?

It turns out that it only took about four days. Those four days, from landing in San Jose to our first free day in La Sabana, have included both of my suitcases being left in Houston, realizing that I have no idea how to communicate in Spanish, some very crazy driving, a three-hour lecture with a brilliant Englishman, touring a private hospital in a different country, and working with several Costa Rican students. I have felt overwhelmed, frustrated, and a little sad realizing that I’m really away from home for the first time (although the mountains remind me of home– see picture!), but I have also had a lot of fun getting to know my classmates, eating the food (arroz con pollo is my favorite so far), and learning more about the field that I am so passionate about.

 

 

There have been many components to this experience that have challenged me in a more personal manner. For instance, there hasn’t been any routine in our schedule, we often don’t know all of the details of what we will be doing in the days to come, and we never start on time. This has been a struggle for me, but I am trying to embrace the “Pura Vida” lifestyle and accept the fact that there will be unknowns and I have to be flexible. There is a huge potential for personal (and professional) growth this summer in terms of patience and temperament when working in different environments than I’m used to. This program is fast-paced, intense, and definitely requires a steep learning curve, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The past week and a half have felt like a lifetime. Somehow, we’ve managed to squeeze in all of the following

  • Needs finding in 3 different hospitals (I got to watch a doctor implant a pacemaker—see the picture art the bottom!!)
  • Completed a needs scoping and market analysis project with a group of other Masters students
  • Toured Boston Scientific (they spelled my name wrong, picture below, but hey, Pura Vida!)
  • Determined a need to focus on for a different project, which focused on central line insertion
  • Completed a short course on innovation with a group of undergraduate students from all over Costa Rica—this included learning the entire engineering design process
  • Made four different low-fidelity prototypes
  • And got to watch the Costa Rica vs. Panama soccer game from 5 rows back! Check out some of the pictures we took.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Needless to say, it has been a crazy 11 days. Despite the exhaustion that many of us feel, this experience has already been incredibly rewarding. After the short course with Dr. Richardson and Dr. Wettergreen, I finally feel like I am capable of reaching my goals as an engineer and innovator; I can see the potential in my abilities, and that is extremely satisfying.

On Monday, we are headed to our second destination—Guanacaste! And the adventure continues.

 

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What a Week!

Week one of ten in Costa Rica is over, but most of us would agree it’s felt more like weeks or months since we began. We are all looking forward to having a little break before continuing on with our activities here.

The program started with a day and a half of orientation at Rice University that was packed with leadership lectures from Dr. Van Kleeck and administrative information. Dr. Van Kleeck talked to us about what attributes make up a good leader, how to work as a team despite differences in working styles and personalities, and goal setting. After these lectures, I made a goal for the summer to develop a basic understanding of the working styles of the other members of the cohort, especially the three I will be working most closely with (Callie, Sanjana, and Josh). Additionally, I will continue to observe my own behavior to discern my relative strengths and weaknesses within the group. This information will be very helpful to obtain for our work here in Costa Rica, but even more so for when we are back in Houston.

After orientation, we flew here to Costa Rica and began a short course in needs finding. As a part of the course, we each went with some local bioengineering graduate students to separate hospitals to conduct some observations with the goal of determining some needs for future design challenges. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the hospital, they were not as ready for us as we had hoped. Our original contact was apparently unavailable, and we had to do some asking around and waiting before getting to talk to someone. We did get to talk with two individuals at the hospital eventually, a physician and an engineer, but were unable to conduct any observations or ask many questions about their problems. Therefore, we weren’t able to learn enough about any one of their problems to start a meaningful design process.

From this experience, I learned that making observations may not always be as efficient as I might hope, especially in smaller, more-chaotic hospitals like the one we visited. Expecting to make one visit to a hospital to see everything I want about a particular process may be unrealistic, and therefore I should take that into account for future planning. However, many of these issues may be able to be mitigated by more extensive communication with my hosts at the hospital.

All in all, I’m excited for this opportunity here in Costa Rica. With a background in mechanical engineering, I’m hoping to gain a sufficient understanding of the medtech industry, especially in an international context, to know where my strengths and interests might lend a good fit. Additionally, I hope to greatly improve my Spanish skills while here. I’d say I’ve made considerable progress on these goals considering the 3 days I’ve been here so far.

But now it’s time to kick back a bit and enjoy Costa Rica. Until next time…

 

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Full of Excitement!

Hello everyone! I can’t believe it’s already time to go to Costa Rica. The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of emotion – I’ve graduated from college, said my goodbyes, and prepared to embark on the GMI journey for the next year. I will admit that it’s also been a scary few weeks – change is always hard, but I’m also very excited. I’ve always been an adventure-seeker, and I know these next 10 weeks will be full of excitement. 

I’m most excited about the opportunity to work with Costa Rican communities. I love meeting new people, and I know that talking with and understanding the individuals that I encounter will be a huge component of this program. I am looking forward to learning more about Costa Rican healthcare firsthand, and using my observations to drive our projects for the next year.

As I progress through the GMI program, I hope to develop not only as an engineer, but as a human being. Going into this experience, there are a few key qualities that I aim to keep at the forefront in all my interactions with patients, doctors, nurses, professors, and my teammates:

Empathy – Empathy is the ability to understand the people around you, and I believe this is will be an integral ingredient in everything we will do in Costa Rica. Being able to put yourself in the shoes of another human being (whether it be a patient, doctor, nurse, or professor) is an invaluable skill to have, and I will work to actively keep the feelings and needs of others at the forefront.

Open-mindedness – Open-mindedness is a willingness to consider new and different ideas. This can apply not only to my interactions with my teammates (when we inevitably disagree on some topics), but also with how I view Costa Rican healthcare as a whole. It’s important to remember that just because something is done in a different way than we are used to doesn’t make it wrong – just different. Remembering this during our observations will make a huge difference in how we approach our projects.

Optimism – Keeping things positive! I know the next couple of months are going to be full of challenges, and sometimes it’s easy to let that discourage you. I am challenging myself to view each day as a reward (because it really us) and remember that I am really blessed to have the opportunity to participate in such an awesome program! 

Overall, I’m thrilled to be working with the rest of the GMI cohort and Dr. Richardson, and can’t wait to see where this summer takes us!

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Working at Baxter

As I’ve been working at Baxter since the end of January, it surprises me how quickly the time has flown! With only two months left in my co-op, I’m excited to start picking up new projects. Next week will determine whether or not the project I’ve been working on most will continue to move forward or not. While thus far I’ve mainly been on the technical side (running tests and then collecting, summarizing, and presenting the data) I’m excited to see more of the managerial side of the group. This is my first time working for a large company, so it will be interesting to observe that dynamic and decision-making process. In the coming weeks I hope to pick up more risk-management related work, as I enjoy being able to add some variety to my workday. Additionally I will have the opportunity to learn more about human factors engineering, which closely relates to some of the work I had to do as part of my senior design project. I’m interested to see how the same fundamentals I learned in the classroom scale up for use in a large company. I’m happy to be at Baxter, and excited for the rest of the summer!

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Orientation and Travels to Costa Rica

Hello everyone! If we’ve never met before and you’ve stumbled across my blog, I hope you’re entertained with my thoughts, experiences, and embarrassing story recaps. Welcome, Pura Vida, and let’s get started.

On May 30th, I met the individuals I’ll be working with all year. Eight of us were at Orientation, and two will be joining us in August (you can choose to work an internship in the States if that’s more favorable with scheduling). The orientation in Houston lasted two days, and it was fun to witness the awkward interactions of strangers transform into friendly conversation. A big thank you to Dr. Van Kleeck for starting us off on the right note and engaging us in conversation about our personalities and how to best use different personalities to our advantage in a team setting.

What’s a blog post without an embarrassing story? The plane ride to Costa Rica was enjoyable until I decided to read my textbook assignment. Everything was going well. I was learning about Needs Finding, turning these needs into tangible statements, and filling my book with copious amounts of orange highlighter. It turns out the perfect recipe for motion sickness are a combination of reading words, turbulence, and circling thoughts of flying over an ocean in a giant metal bird. (Thanks to Karlee and Callie for acting fast with the Wendy’s bag, I’ll never forget the smell of those leftover fries).

Embarrassing stories aside, these first few days in the GMI program have been an eye opening learning experience. The team started off strong – we’ve formed contracts to build trust and express expectations. These people I’m working with are so willing to work hard and go the extra mile – I’m very excited for what’s to come in the future.

“Things do not happen. Things are made to happen” – John F. Kennedy

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Initial Thoughts

The feeling of graduation has not quite set in yet. The culmination of four years of hard work, group projects and friendships has taught me invaluable lessons. They have grown me, shaped the person I am today. As I prepare for the next chapter in life with Rice’s GMI program, while many uncertainties lie ahead, I am certain of one thing– I will have one the most unique experiences of my life.

I grew up in Texas all my life. Although I do not wear cowboy boots, ten-gallon hats or ride a horse to school, make no mistake, I am 100% Texan. I say words like “y’all” or “ain’t”, words that really make no sense (and make many of my non-Texan friends angry) but to a Texan, are words of endearment. There are many similarities in Costa Rican culture that I feel will help me feel more comfortable. The “pura vida” lifestyle is not much unlike the slower way of life in the South. Immersing myself in a foreign culture such as Costa Rica’s will however take some getting used to at first. Being surrounded by new faces and a language in Spanish that has not be utilized since my High School days will be a unique challenge, but to have the opportunity to be a tico for three months and work alongside the engineers and students there will be such an enriching and eye-opening experience.

There is less than a week left before our cohort heads out to Costa Rica. There are a few things we still need to prepare for. Dr. Van Vleeck will be instructing us on group dynamics and leadership. Hopefully the things we will learn at boot camp over the course of two days will prove to be invaluable in Costa Rica.

 

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Along for the Ride

Hi everyone! My name is Chandler, and I am a recent graduate from the University of Rochester studying biomedical engineering with a concentration in biomechanics. Growing up, some of my fondest memories came from traveling to various countries around the world, where I had the opportunity to experience new things and meet different people from those back home in Los Angeles. When I traveled to the Dominican Republic for a service trip a few years back, however, I was taken aback not because of the climate or the people, but because of their circumstance. It is easy to listen to, and often ignore, news station and social media calls that stress the importance of making an impact in the lives of others, but I never truly understood the privilege I had until I saw firsthand the limited resources and sanitation issues that strike developing countries such as the DR. It was with this experience, supplemented with my engineering background, that inspired me to pursue medical device design with an emphasis on improving global health. There are billions of people in this world that would benefit from low-cost, effective solutions to ameliorate their current issues in health care, and Rice University’s Global Medical Innovation (GMI) program offers the integrated platform that will allow me to make that difference. Working with a world-class group of mentors that put the patient first, I believe that this graduate program will offer me the tools to be an understanding and successful leader in the medical device field. I look forward to working in a significantly warmer climate than Rochester, and I hope you will join me, along with seven other GMI companions, for the ride as we travel down to Costa Rica this summer!

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