Lucy Fitzgerald, Ph.D. Candidate, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

People become engineers because they have a passion for creating knowledge and technologies that serve society. UVA Engineering’s "For Good" series shares their voices.

UVA Engineering, Lucy Fitzgerald, Graduate Student, Smart sensor

I'm kind of a hopeless academic at times. I don't know if it means I'll stay in academia forever, but I really liked the idea of learning and doing things that haven't been done.

I found that I really liked doing things with my hands, building things. I figured that an engineering route might be more for me, and I ended up liking the mechanical engineering part of it. The people I work with and the work that I do makes my brain feel alive. It fulfills me existentially. I get excited to talk to people at parties about it.

The project that I'm currently working on not only let me do mechanical engineering-type things for a biomedical, biological-type purpose, but it also had a greater purpose that drew me into it.

I’m figuring out the intersection between mechanical engineering, fluid dynamics and biomedical applications in biology. I'm making implantable biosensors for fluid flows, specifically a piezoelectric lung flow sensor. The device is a rectangular beam that deforms due to breathing-inspired airflows, bending back and forth with each "inhale" and "exhale". Piezoelectric materials generate electricity as they are bent in one direction or the other. This beam then creates a positive voltage bending in one direction and a negative voltage bending in the other, creating an imitation of the "breath" that is moving it. This voltage wave can then be used to store energy, laying out a path to eventual self-powered sensing with such a device.

One possible (and hopeful) end product of this research is an asthma detection device. Other conditions that devices like this could assist with that we have considered include Cystic Fibrosis, with detection of flow occlusions and inflammation, and post-surgical complications for lung cancer patients. As a Ph.D. student, not an entrepreneur, my angle on this has to be based more in the fundamental science and furthering current literature -- in creating a platform and underlying scheme that others can utilize for more specific uses. The broader and more-applicable, the better.

The way that I see it benefiting people is with regard to accessibility and cost, to be able to have a thing that increases accessibility of medical care in some way, shape or form, in this case multiple ways: cost and simplicity. The reduction in cost comes from a few different things: no batteries, no surgery to replace batteries, and fewer checkups and doctor's visits. Medical care in this country is not cheap, so I think complexity in medical care can drive a lot of people away from getting the most up-to-date, efficient, and effective treatment for whatever ails them. I don't think anyone should need to choose between better treatment and putting food on the table, as they often choose the latter, especially with more chronic conditions like those we propose to help with.

The reason that I'm focused on accessibility of medical care is partly due to my own personal experiences with the medical system. When you're going through something that's, you know, minor or major that's threatening your health, the last thing you want to be worried about is how you’ll pay for care, how you're going to get to the doctor's office, or whether your surgery is happening in three years or five.

People should be concerned about the greater good because they can. I think if you're in a place where you've been a combination of lucky and skilled enough to find yourself in a position where you could potentially do something that helps out society, it's hard for me to think about a situation in which I wouldn't do that.

Professionally, I'm goal-oriented. Which is to say I kind of know the general direction I want to be headed for pretty much the rest of my professional career. It's easier for me to make decisions about the kinds of opportunities I pursue, or the projects I work on, or the papers that I write, things like that. I've decided to set a general guideline for myself, and I think that allows me to tailor everything else I do professionally to make sure it follows that there won't be any distractions from the money-making side of things, or anything else, because I've preemptively decided that that's not going to be my number one focus. And the nonprofessional side I think, and this may sound cheesy, is about just being good to people.

There's a lot of medical devices that I see in my own medical experience and also my research experience that are just outdated. So, I think the better we can make the infrastructure on which our medical system is built, the more accessible it will be to more people. What if we use something that is really cheap and accessible to improve upon the current system?

There's enough that we can do if we kind of take our heads out of the water of academia and just look at specific real-world problems that need to get solved instead of theoretical ones, and then figure out how solving the theoretical problems that we're interested in can still go forward to help people.