William Pinney is from Charlotte, Vermont and is currently a senior at Champlain Valley Union High School. Next year, he will attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with the goal of studying Biomedical Engineering, inspired in part by his experience at this past summer.

The Day it All Began

On the May 27 of last year, my grad challenge began. Shortly after the bell rang to signify the end of my day at Champlain Valley Union High School, I slid into my car and began the short journey to the University of Vermont Medical Center.

Already, this constituted several firsts for me – my first time taking the interstate from Tafts Corners, my first time parking in a parking garage, my first time entering a hospital alone, and my first time walking through a door with a big blue and white “Authorized Personnel Only” sign, although this list of firsts would grow almost daily as my project progressed.

At the time I was on my way to meet with Sharon Mount, MD, to discuss my grad challenge project, and find out if she would agree to be my community consultant. Her office was at the end of a long L-shaped hallway nestled in a corner of the hospital. I’ll admit, I had a little trouble finding it at first, but when I finally knocked on the door she was very welcoming. After a short conversation she offered to give me a tour of the pathology department, and I followed in step.

“A 45-Hour Experience That Changed My Perspective”

We made it only a short distance along the hallway before Dr. Mount paused, turning to me with a simple question “Are you squeamish” I answered with a simple “No.” That day began my grad challenge, a 45-hour long experience that changed my perspective on medicine, and how I want to be involved with it. A community experience that had me marveling at the readiness with which the people of the University of Vermont Medical Center opened their labs, offices, and Petri dishes to me, and one that helped me to be certain of my interests in a career as a biomedical engineer.

There are many things that stand out to me as I recall my Grad Challenge hours. From looking at cells through a microscope with 10 individual periscopes, to the hard-to-describe and equally difficult-to-experience smell of the Microbiology department, all the way to the odd bubbled texture of human fat. Each of these were astounding new experiences for me, but from the very beginning my goal was to use my time at the hospital to learn more about the role of technology in medicine.

For many years now I have been interested in becoming a biomedical engineer, and I wanted the opportunity to see the impacts this field has on the treatment of diseases. To that end, there are two moments that stand out for opening my eyes to the true importance of biomedical engineering in modern medicine: my morning in Clinical Chemistry, and my time in diagnosis conferences.

The Room in the Basement

Hundreds of people pass through the University of Vermont Medical Center every day, however few realize that a single room nestled below this medical complex contributes some of the most important parts of their treatment. The room I speak of is a large basement space filled with a constant hustle of people and machines. The simple purpose of this chamber is, in part, to process a significant portion of the medical testing carried out at the hospital. An elaborate pneumatic tube system brings samples from across the medical center down to this space, where they are dispatched to whatever testing procedure must be carried out in order to yield the necessary information. It’s a process however, that is heavily dependent on machinery. There are devices that sort incoming samples, running them through a track at blinding speeds, cataloguing and differentiating in a blink of an eye. Then there are the baby elephant-sized white boxes that can automatically run a wide variety of chemical processes. There are even mechanisms that can take a tiny sliver of DNA, and replicate it thousands of times over, until what was once an indecipherable huddle of nucleic acids can be easily understood. The diversity and utility of the technology in this space was simply stunning, mechanical marvels completing things I didn’t even know could be done, let alone be automated with such alarming speed. As I was walked around the space I came to realize just how important technology is to the workings of the hospital. In many ways, it was the foundation for the care of the patients many floors above.

In just a short time, I came to see just how worthwhile and meaningful medical technology is, and how much good can come from its development. This was a realization that truly reaffirmed my interests in becoming a biomedical engineering, in working to build and improve upon these devices and help advance the care of patients through technology.

Learning from Others

Throughout my time at the UVM Medical Center, I spent many afternoons at medical conferences. They happened constantly, from lectures on new techniques full of abbreviations that flew far above my grasp, to presentations on new research and its implication, to group discussions of patients and their treatments. It was during one of these diagnosis meetings that I was able to see a CT scan for the first time. It is difficult to explain how remarkable it is to watch a complete 3D image of a person’s inside scroll across a screen, watching how the heart and lungs unfold, ribs manifesting and evaporating as a certain area of interest is examined. It was a tool that was important to nearly every discussion held about patients, providing from what I could tell, invaluable information about the inner workings of the sick or injured. This experience gave me a true appreciation for just how inscrutable the human body is, and the importance of having a window into this hidden world. More than this though, it was yet another moment that inspired me, thinking about how amazing it would be to help improve that technology, making it clearer or more easily accessed, perhaps developing the next generation of the CT scan to give even better information to doctors deciding how best to treat their patients. Once again, it was an experience that made me certain of my interest in biomedical engineering.

Looking Toward the Future

Through the many hours I spent on my grad challenge the biggest takeaway I have is an understanding of the impact of biomedical engineering. I was able to look at true, real-life examples of how the world is impacted by the technological products of this career, and even further, how they go on to change the lives of so many. From devices that radically improved the testing of samples, to technologies that allowed doctors a view of organs below the skin, I was truly impressed by the importance of technology in modern medicine. As I look to my future I intend to pursue a career in biomedical engineering, in no small part because of the time I was able to spend shadowing in the Pathology Department at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

William Pinney is from Charlotte, Vermont and is currently a senior at Champlain Valley Union High School. Next year, he will attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with the goal of studying Biomedical Engineering, inspired in part by his experience at this past summer.

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