Chance to Help People Inspires Emily McDowell

December 15, 2004

by Gabriel Chen

Emily McDowell

Observation one: Soft, bright flaxen hair; kindly, thoughtful blue eyes and an earnest, penetrating smile reaching like sunshine into the heart of anyone on whom it shines.

Observation two: Cheerful-looking flowered chintz dress and dark rimmed glasses.

Combine the two and voila! – The prototype for your kindergarten school teacher? "Perhaps not," said Emily McDowell, a biomedical engineering (BME) senior, who strikes you as an effusively warm person and who describes herself as "fun and considerate."

"I get nervous speaking in front of large groups of people; so I don’t see myself being a teacher," she explained. But that has not stopped the Ohio native from teaching middle school children for about 10 hours a week. As part of her Techtronics Fellowship, McDowell, along with five other fellows, designed the curriculum for an engineering after-school program and facilitated the program at a local Durham public school. For most of the projects, she works in small group settings with the kids.

Techtronics is an after-school academic enrichment program partnering the Pratt School of Engineering and Rogers-Herr Middle School. Graduate and undergraduate engineering teaching fellows introduce students between grades six and eight to four branches of engineering (electrical and computer, civil and environmental, mechanical, and biomedical) through hands-on projects. Students build solar ovens, robots, and balsa wood bridges. Students also learn to use computer tools and equations to build systems. Measurement, estimation, and prediction are central themes in the design process.

McDowell said her favorite part of the program is when the kids are exposed to the unit on BME. She said she taught them about laparoscopic surgery, which is a type of surgery that uses a laparoscope, a tube containing a tiny camera that allows the surgeon to see inside the abdominal cavity. Incisions made during this type of surgery tend to be smaller than with conventional types of surgery. McDowell also tried to give them an insight into what the daily life of a surgeon might be like. The kids, she said, were given a web camera, surgical instruments and a flashlight for the project. They had to stick their instruments into the shoeboxes, which had holes at the top, and had to wriggle them around in order to complete some kind of task, e.g., picking up little balls and moving them from one container to another.

"Some of the kids found the process difficult, but they learned how to do it quickly after a couple of practices," McDowell said. "It can be definitely frustrating at times because not everyone is interested in engineering. It’s hard to motivate them, but it can be especially rewarding if you do so."

McDowell said she got the shoebox idea from her summer research fellowship at Akron City Hospital’s surgical research department in Ohio last year.

"I was hired to investigate the effects of a drug on the performance of vascular graphs in the carotid arteries of dogs. They do a lot of surgery on dogs and pigs, and I got a hands-on experience as a surgical assistant," she said.

McDowell’s experience at Akron, however, has reaffirmed her stance that she does not want to be a doctor anytime soon. Engineering, she said, remains her number one passion.

"I’ve thought about [doing medicine] a lot," McDowell said. "It kind of scares me to know that someone’s life is in my hands, which is funny because my engineering professor once told me that when a doctor makes one mistake, he kills one person, and when an engineer makes one mistake, he kills 10,000. However, engineering is exciting because I love solving problems. By being a biomedical engineer, I’ll also get the chance to work with doctors."

McDowell knew she wanted to do BME the moment she came to Duke. During her time here, she has taken a variety of courses including Transport Phenomena in Biological Systems, Biomaterials, Mechanics of Solids, and Anatomy of the Lower Extremities. As part of McDowell’s Pratt Engineering Fellowship, she is currently investigating the mechanical properties of the cytoskeleton of eukaryotic cells using a novel imaging technique, Spectral Domain Phase Microscopy (SDPM). The results will be presented at the SPIE Symposium on Biomedical Optics (2005).

Founded in 1955, SPIE is a not-for-profit society that has become the largest international force for the exchange, collection and dissemination of knowledge in optics, photonics and imaging.

"I get the feeling that whatever I’m working on will help someone," McDowell said. "I’m doing research now to make someone’s life better. But hopefully, several years down the road, I will work for a BME company instead of doing academia. I want to have a family eventually. Having a real job, you probably have regular hours. In academia, you’re involved heavily in research, and I know a lot of professors who lead very hectic lives and spend a lot of time in their labs."

McDowell said she would be sad to leave Duke when she graduates next year, just as she was reluctant to leave Ohio some four years ago to go to college.

"Getting into Duke made my parents really excited," McDowell said. "It was hard leaving Ohio, but thinking about it now, it was good for me. I wanted to get away. Duke is so beautiful and has a nice environment. I like the trees and the buildings too."

McDowell, who is applying for a Ph.D. program at Duke and Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, and to a joint health, science and technology program offered by MIT/Harvard, has had fond memories of her Duke experience.

"I had a good psychology professor who was interesting, as he often talked about how he was the drummer for his own band," she laughs. "I’ve made some really good friends and I’ve had great times with my sorority Alpha Phi. My favorite part of college is tailgates. It’s the only time when you can see people from different groups on campus socializing with one another. Myrtle Beach during my freshman year was fun too. It’s amazing because everyone is transplanted from Duke to the beach."

McDowell graduated in May, 2005.