A world of discovery: Undergrad innovator pursues meaningful biomedical solutions
When Claire Flanagan was 8 years old, she and her younger sister, Julia, drew a life-size human body, complete with bones and organs. They stuck PVC pipe in the back of the mouth, connected it to a baggie in the stomach and dropped a ping pong ball down the pipe to illustrate how you digested food.
A few years later, Flanagan still fuses her sense of creativity with a passion for science. Now, however, the accomplished biomedical engineering junior studies cellular responses to chosen materials for a variety of medical applications.
“At a very early age, I felt a prevailing pull toward anything with life in it,” says Flanagan, who is enrolled in the UW-Madison medical scholars program and may double-major in biochemistry. “I remember realizing how deeply ingrained that was in me.”
Flanagan, who once aspired to be a veterinarian because she felt animals were underserved, turned her sights on human medicine in high school through a mentored pulmonary research project through the Medical College of Wisconsin. There, she experienced firsthand how research can benefit, on a fundamental level, all of medicine.
Once in college, Flanagan felt the engineering field offered a unique opportunity to turn research into actual products. “Biomedical engineering provides the expertise to meet deep challenges with a breadth of knowledge,” she says. “And, it has the flexibility to target critical needs. It’s exciting to be a part of turning ideas into real products that can help real people.”
Among such endeavors was a “product” she co-developed as a member of the UW-Madison Engineers Without Borders (EWB) organization, which focuses on sustainable engineering projects for developing countries. She and two EWB members developed an innovative biomass shredder—a device that enables African citizens of Muramba, Rwanda, to more easily shred agricultural waste into material useful as an alternative energy source.
After receiving recognition in the 2006 Schoofs Prize for Creativity, a UW-Madison undergraduate innovation competition, Flanagan formed a team of six EWB members who submitted a business proposal for the G. Steven Burrill Technology Business Plan Competition to use fuel-briquetting technology to increase Rwanda”s energy supply. The team won the Exceptional Judges Award and $2,000 in the competition.
Several EWB members implemented the project in Muramba in summer 2007. “Ultimately, what is the sense of research if it’s not directed toward others,” Flanagan says of her involvement in humanitarian efforts. “To me, research becomes more meaningful when I can visualize an outcome that will serve other people.”
Since the Burrill, Flanagan has focused on honing her skills in biomedical engineering so she can create applicable products for both the developing and developed world.
Her research has affected her view of the world around her. “My involvement in biomedical engineering has changed my perspective on life,” says Flanagan. “Everything I look at has more promise and potential than I realized before. It’s an interesting way of appreciating life. It’s actually artistic.”
For her first foray into college research, Flanagan worked in Biomedical Engineering Assistant Professor Kristyn Masters’ laboratory as part of a team that created a three-dimensional gradient of growth factor that would help skin wounds heal more rapidly with less infection. Her next work shifted into testing cell adhesion to that growth factor, which ultimately could be applied to corneal replacements.
Flanagan has applied much of the terminology and many of the procedures she learned on those projects to recent attempts to apply the growth factor to aneurysms and vascular graft replacements. “The spirit of research and the ability to apply my knowledge is what not only cements my existing knowledge but motivates me to take it further,” she says.
The biomedical engineering undergraduate curriculum includes a design project every semester; Flanagan currently is working with other BME students to develop a device that will disinfect healthcare workers’ hands and electronic keyboards to make compliance with hand-washing regulations easier. (In spring 2007, she and fellow biomedical engineering student Ashley Huth received a Tong BME Research and Development Follow-on Award, which has enabled them to improve the clinical applicability of a bioactive wound dressing for large-surface-area wounds such as burns or skin-graft donor sites.)
Flanagan says she realizes more and more that she can’t stay away from research. “It’s fascinating to me to realize how much I’ve learned and how everything continuously interconnects to create innovative approaches to solving problems,” she says.
That creativity takes many different forms when Flanagan is outside of the laboratory. She enjoys playing volleyball in her spare time, and she’s also very interested in the arts.
“I’ve done a lot of painting and drawing in the past, and some are hanging in my apartment,” she says. Acrylic and colored pencil are her favorite media.
Flanagan says her friends and family keep her well-rounded and in tune with life outside of science. “Being in engineering, it can be hard to take a step back and focus on other areas of life, but my friends have helped me preserve my artistic and literary interests,” she says.
In the future, Flanagan wants to continue integrating medicine into her research. Whether she goes on to medical school or graduate school, she plans to be as “hands on” as she was in her childhood. The girl who made long, themed lists of Christmas gifts to give to her family and friends—and hid the lists in her graphing calculator—hasn’t lost her creativity and interest in using science to help others.
Only now, her lists of things to “give” include solutions to problems for people living continents away.