Meiling Gao stood in the operating room of an Ohio hospital three times last summer to witness open-heart surgery.
“It’s one thing to read about open-heart surgery in a book or to watch it in a video, but being there in person is entirely amazing,” she says. “The actual surgery looks a little like the diagram in a biology book, except the heart is still moving.”
Gao, a 20-year-old chemical engineering major, participated in what she calls this “awesome, memorable experience” as part of MIT’s Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP), an initiative for engineering sophomores. The program prepares young people for jobs in industry and government and gives them opportunities to gain engineering and business skills while actually working in the field. The year-long program run by the School of Engineering involves a 40-hour corporate training workshop, a series of job seminars taught by alumni, a 10-week summer internship, and conversations with students, faculty, and alumni about what the students learned.
Last year, Gao was selected as an intern to work at the Aultman Hospital in Canton, Ohio, where she trained alongside a renowned cardiovascular surgeon, Dr. Roberto Novoa. For 10 weeks, she and a team of six students worked with Novoa to research, test, and develop a new suture — the string-like device with which a surgeon sews tissue during surgery.
Current suture design requires a surgeon to tie a small knot to secure each stitch after surgery. But in a 14-hour operation, say, where 20 small sutures must be tied to replace a heart valve, surgery can be slow. Novoa’s design for a new suture requires the surgeon to simply cut the string and it would secure itself, benefiting the patient and the doctor.
“I was only 19 and was doing real-world research — work that combined engineering and medicine,” says Gao, who loved the project, and who wound up not only conducting patent research but also writing a scientific paper on a technique Novoa developed to replace the heart valve. “As an undergrad, you just don’t ever get the chance to do this.”
“UPOP was designed to help engineering students gain a better appreciation of engineering practice in the workplace and to help them acquire the skills they would need to be effective leaders,” says Prof. Dick K.P. Yue, the associate dean of engineering and UPOP faculty director. “In creating UPOP, the School of Engineering is making a strong statement about undergraduate engineering education.”
Students say they love the program not only because it gives you the chance to participate in world-changing research but you also get to be part of a team. You gain confidence. And you not only get credit for the experience but you also get paid.
Students also say that you get real-world work experience, and working with experts in the field, you have multiple opportunities to get great recommendations. UPOP gives you the opportunity to learn about a new area of interest, and a big benefit is you get the practical skills and knowledge for a career or graduate school.
UPOP was launched in 2001 by a grant from Jaishree and Desh Deshpande.
“Before the internship, I just wanted to one day get a 9-to-5 engineering job and go home. But afterward, I realized I could do much more with my life and raised my sights. I never dreamed that I could actually help people.”
Now, she says, after MIT, she’d love to go to medical school and even one day become a surgeon. She’d also love to do engineering design, designing medical technologies. Then she plans to work for a non-profit organization, perhaps join the Peace Corps, and travel to Africa and Southeast Asia to advance issues of public health.
“The internship helped me mature and widened my options,” says Gao, who was so inspired by the work experience that this summer she’ll be working in Santa Rosa, Calif., at Medtronic, a medical research and technology company, bringing her a step closer to her dreams.
“I always knew that the sky’s the limit,” she says, “and now I’ve glimpsed the sky.”