One of the nurses at a Nicaraguan health center “picked up our table, hoisted it on his back, and pretended to ride a broom as he demonstrated how they had to travel by horseback up to five hours to reach their furthest communities… we realized just how portable our table needed to be.” Rackham graduate student, Erik Thomas reflects on the perspective-challenging experiences he’s had working internationally with M-HEAL and the Global Health Design Initiative.

After completing his undergraduate education with a degree in Biomedical Engineering, Erik Thomas went on to pursue a masters degree in Biomedical Engineering with a concentration in medical product development.

Thomas first became involved with socially engaged design when he joined the Project MESA team within M-HEAL in 2015. During his time on the team, he worked to design and manufacture prototypes of a portable pelvic exam table for mobile clinics in Nicaragua. The challenge was in making them light enough to be transported to some of the remote villages that the mobile clinics serviced. Thomas traveled with the team to Nicaragua to test and gather feedback on the prototypes the team had created. He recalls when one of the nurses at a Nicaraguan health center “picked up our table, hoisted it on his back, and pretended to ride a broom” demonstrating how some of the communities they serviced were only reachable by horseback. Thomas says this was eye-opening for the team, and they then “realized just how portable [their] table needed to be.” Thomas cites experiences like these as “perspective- changing” in that he’s been able to interact with the end users of devices, as well as the small scale craftsmen who are involved in the manufacturing process. Thomas says that seeing the whole picture has challenged him to “try to create a more holistic design.”

Testing portable exam table prototypes in Nicaragua with M-HEAL Project MESA

Thomas continued to seek out opportunities with socially engaged design on campus, serving as president of M-HEAL and working with the Global Health Design Initiative (GHDI) as well. He says that socially engaged design has “defined [his] experience at UM.” With GHDI, Thomas traveled to Accra, Ghana in the summer of 2016 and conducted a needs assessment within the Obstetrics and Gynecology Department of the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital. Collaboration is a key value of GHDI, and Thomas worked alongside engineers from UM and University of Ghana to conduct interviews, make observations, and work through the needs filtering process.

Erik with staff of Korle Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra, Ghana

Thomas is headed off at the end of the semester to work at Baxter Healthcare in their Technical Development Program. While he is still waiting to learn what his specific role will be, he plans to “leverage socially engaged design principles” in his approach to the work he’s involved in at Baxter.