Alyse Stofer: Biomedical Engineer

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  • Name: Alyse Stofer

  • Education: MS, Biomaterials, University of Minnesota; BS Biomedical Engineering, University of Iowa; Medical Device Certificate, University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota
  • Target Audience: Middle School

Alyse Stofer, equipped with infinite ingenuity, is showing her generation and the next that engineering isn't always about building bridges or working on engines - it can be cosmetics, mobile phones or her specialty of choice, medical devices. Read more to learn why Alyse inspires us!

What is your job?

I am a program manager in the product development, technology and research group inimage Medtronic's Neuromodulation business unit. (Neuromodulation products include neurostimulation systems and implantable drug delivery systems for chronic pain, common movement disorders and urologic and gastrointestinal disorders.) This means my team develops medical device concepts, creates and performs feasibility testing on iterations of the concept before rigorously testing the final concept. Once testing and documentation are complete, the team seeks regulatory approval and then markets, sells and supports the device release into the global market place. I do not generate the device concepts myself - my team works with physicians, engineers and marketing to understand what the customer's needs are and how the device will be used. My job is to deliver the device and ensure it meets our customer needs and intended uses per schedule, scope and budget.

Why did you choose this career?

I hate to give the typical answer, but truly I was interested and excelled in math and science throughout school. From a big picture perspective, I wanted to shape the world and make a difference in peoples' lives; I believed I could make a difference and achieve my goals through engineering. In high school, I was first exposed to biomedical engineering through my interest in prosthetics. I had an aunt that had an artificial hip and another aunt with an artificial knee. I was fascinated that my aunts had this metal and plastic device inside of them and they could walk and function normally, without pain. I knew I wanted to become a biomedical engineer so that I could help people like my aunts.

Explain what an average day at work is like for you.

imageBiomedical engineers generate a device concept and then take it through an often long and complicated process to develop it. Along the way, there are many people and steps involved to deliver a product to market. In my current role as a program manager communication is a key, as work is accomplished through relationships, trust and influence management; I have no direct reports. While communication is a skill that many people may not associate with engineering, effective communication (both written and verbal) is essential to my job in order to communicate effectively with a variety of technical and non-technical individuals. Not only am I communicating with my team regarding different project activities and priorities, I am also communicating with senior management regarding project status, budget and challenges. For example, I communicate an issue the team is encountering and our mitigation and contingency plans to overcome the issue.

What do you like best about your job?

I really like working with a team. Not only do I get to put on my technical hat working with engineers, I also have the opportunity to work with functions such as marketing, finance, manufacturing and regulatory. Over the course of a day, I work with a wide variety of people and solve various problems and challenges. For me, the fun of being an engineer is that there is always a new problem to solve or challenge to overcome. Each day brings a new and different experience.

When you were a kid, did you like science, engineering and/or math? 

I have always liked math and science, especially math. My favorite high school math classes were a combined functions, statistics and trigonometry class and calculus. I had phenomenal teachers that enjoyed teaching and made math interesting and fun. These teachers, along with my parents were the key to my success, encouraging me and bridging my passions so to speak. My parents, and especially my mom, were extremely supportive in my development, achievements and involvement in accelerated math classes throughout school.

Was there a moment when you knew that you wanted to become an engineer? Tell us about it.

I attended an engineering camp between my junior and senior years of high school at a University in the upper peninsula of Michigan. It was a week-long camp just for girls - I lived on campus, worked in the engineering labs, and really experienced what it was like to be an engineer. Beginning surrounded by female engineering students and attending an all-girl camp for the entire week was a very supportive environment. It changed my perspective on engineering. After the camp I knew I had the skills, abilities and drive to become an engineer.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an engineer?

I have two examples - my undergraduate degree and my first job.

Most of the women and men in my undergraduate program were using biomedical engineering as a stepping stoneimage into medical school, not engineering. It was challenging connecting with my peers because they were focused medical school requirements and we didn't share a common interest in engineering and what we actually wanted to do when we completed our undergraduate degree and "grew up".

Another challenge I faced in my journey was my first job out of school with a small medical device company, as I was the first woman engineer ever hired in the research and development group and the first recent graduate hired in many years. It was challenging because at first I didn't feel accepted by my male colleagues. It took many months of long hours at work and getting to know my coworkers before I felt they believed I was a capable and competent engineer. This is also when I first became aware of the challenges of finding female mentors and role models, as there were no women executives and only two female managers in the company at that time (in human resources and manufacturing).

To overcome the challenges in school and at my first job, I relied on the encouragement of my family and friends. Have a strong support system - my family, friends, peers and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), provided me the love, support and encouragement that helped me through my journeys.

Was there a person who inspired or convinced you to get involved in your field? 

My parents were both inspirational, but I would say my mom in particular has inspired me throughout my lifetime. My mom started her career as a teacher and recently retired as an elementary school principal. She encouraged my younger sister and me throughout our education and inspired us to consider and pursue non-traditional careers for women. As a result of my parents support, I became an engineer and my sister a pilot.


Which courses would you recommend to incoming high school students?

Core math and science classes are fundamental to a strong engineering foundation. I would recommend taking technical writing and public speaking classes to ensure you can communicate (via verbal and written means) your questions, ideas and solutions to your peers, professors and eventually management at a future internship.

Do you have any suggestions for how kids in middle school can gain real world experience in your field? 

Girls Inc. Operation Smart and Girlstart Project IT Girl offer opportunities for hands-on activities and interactions with women and men engineers throughout the country. Another website, engineering girl (sponsored by the National Academy of Engineering) includes interviews with engineers, as well as games, puzzles and competitions. Also, consider participating in Future Cities, a national competition in which middle school students imagine, design and build cities of the future. This is an excellent opportunity to try out your critical thinking, innovation and problem solving skills. Furthermore, if you happen to be Houston this November, or the site of a future SWE annual conference, participate in Invent It. Build It. This event offers hands-on engineering activities for middle school girls with parallel programs for parents and educators. In fact, this year Design Squad Nation activities will be featured, as well as the opportunity to meet host Judy Lee.

Are there exciting things happening in your field that could involve kids who will enter the field in 10-15 years?

In addition to introducing medical devices to more physicians and patients around the world, materialimage development offers exciting opportunities in the medical device industry. New materials are being developed to allow for miniaturization, longer battery life, and increased wear/life as well as methods to improve MRI compatibility, reduce electromagnetic interference and decrease infection in the body. Improved materials may be more environmentally friendly, allow for devices to be implanted longer, and reduce revision surgeries, ultimately reducing healthcare costs.

About Alyse:

  • Alyse and her sister are both thriving in male dominated industries - her sister is Pilot!
  • Alyse has friends that are engineers and get to work on everyday products that make our lives better - cereal, diapers, roads and even mobile phones. Engineers are creative problem solvers that help change our world.
  • Alyse is the President of the Society of Women Engineers

Industry Information:

  • The Department of Labor expects employment in the field of biomedical engineering to grow at 21 percent through 2016. The average salary of a biomedical engineer is $79,610.00, based upon experience.
  • The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) regulates many industries in the U.S. Europe has a similar administration called TUV or Technical Inspection Association.
  • A top focus for Alyse's company is non-communicable disease (NCD). NCD accounts for 60% of the deaths worldwide and this rate is expected to increase 15% by 2020. If you are pursuing a career in the biomedical industry be prepared to look beyond the border.

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Key Terms:

Prosthetics - artificial body parts
Regulatory - an oversight or regulating body
Society of Women Engineers (SWE) - an organization aimed at supporting women engineers develop professionally

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