Merging science and engineering to strengthen medical devices’ value chains
With a love for science and engineering and two doctors as parents, it is no surprise that Anne Turner decided to pursue a Master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering at Stellenbosch University (SU). She will graduate with a MEngSc in this field at SU’s graduation at the end of March.
Anne completed her undergraduate and honours degree at the Faculty of Science (BSc in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology and a BScHons in Plant Pathology) before pursuing her master’s degree in the Faculty of Engineering. She says that even though she struggled to adapt to some modules, “the lecturers were very helpful and passed everything pretty easily”.
“Engineering takes a different approach to research than science does. I was very used to the scientific method and following instructions. When it came to my master’s, I had to pick my own research methodology and devise a plan to solve my problem. My supervisor during my first year (of my master’s) was very encouraging. She drew me a graph to show what making progress looks like in a master’s degree explaining that even though progress may feel slow due to a steep learning curve initially, things will come together at the end.”
With her thesis, titled Strengthening the value chain of medical devices: a conceptual framework, she aims to strengthen the Western Cape’s medical device sector.
“I created a conceptual framework to help stakeholders identify bottlenecks and implement strategic alleviations. The medical device value chain (MDVC) is a map of every value-adding activity (VA) from identifying a need to disposing of the device. Bottlenecks exacerbate undesirable effects (UEs) and alleviations encourage desirable effects (DEs) in the MDVC,” she explains.
Through literature reviews, Anne mapped 74 VAs that she grouped under seven categories: Idea Generation, Research & Development, Production & Manufacturing, Market, Distribution & Use, Waste Management and Systemic.
Anne continues: “I recruited 17 experts from various parts of the MDVC and asked them to rank each VA in terms of the effort it requires, its difficulty and its importance. Then, I used this data to pinpoint activities that represented bottlenecks.”
Her findings showed that the main bottlenecks in the medical devices value chain were the lack of a mature regulatory authority, poor collaboration, insufficient funding and venture capital. Suggested alleviations were improved networking, funding and regulatory harmonisation.
She said her supervisor, Prof Sara Grobbelaar, “was amazing”. “I organised a meeting with her before I started the degree, and she answered all my questions. Given that I didn’t have an engineering background, I picked a theoretical topic. I also wanted to have an industrial engineering-based project because it opens many job opportunities,” she says. Her work was co-supervised by Prof Martin Nieuwoudt and Dr Faatiema Salie.
Her interest in biomedical engineering comes from her family. “Both my parents are doctors, and both my brothers are engineers. I’ve always loved biology, science and maths as they explain how the world works, so this degree basically ticked all the boxes for me. Also, I love the multidisciplinary nature of the biomedical industry given that it connects scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers and more,” she explains her decision to pursue her master’s in this field.
Her family and friends kept her motivated during her studies as it necessitated consistent effort, critical thinking and creativity. She also spent much time outdoors running and hiking to manage her studies with her part-time jobs (waitressing, tutoring, house-and-pet-sitting, and building an online biology course), all while doing her degree!
Her advice to someone interested in pursuing a master’s degree at the Faculty of Engineering with a BSc degree would be to ask about the courses that one must take “so that you can make sure you’re adequately prepared”.
Travelling is one of Anne’s hobbies and currently she’s working at a ski resort in America. “I want to travel for nine months to gain perspective and new experiences. When I return from America, I plan a trip to Europe. I’m starting the Camino de Santiago in May and from there, I’m heading to France.
“I’m not 100% sure yet where my career will start. I’d like to be involved in making medical consumables more sustainable. I’d also consider doing consulting. I’m interested in remote diagnostics and disease monitoring.”
And with three degrees behind her name soon, Anne is bound to leave her mark in the Biomedical Engineering field.
– Ms Anne Turner, soon to receive her third degree.