Monday, October 10, 2016

Bioengineering Ethnographies with Aspiring Girl Scientists

In July, our Laboratory for Evolutionary Endocrinology helped at a girls science camp!  While this and similar camps focus tend to focus on the “hard” sciences, we introduced a social science perspective and explored why social science matters for engineering. We discussed human biological and social variation, and encouraged them to look at the ways that variation affects their bioengineering sessions at camp and bioengineering in general. For example, if primarily able-bodied white men are designing biotechnology, how does that limit the outcome? How can adding a variety of perspectives make biotech more useful and accessible?

A camper examines a 3D printed heart

During the camp, the campers visited the JUMP simulation center in Peoria. At JUMP, simulations using manikins (there is a difference between manikins and mannequins) give healthcare providers opportunities to hone their skills and train for unexpected outcomes. JUMP bioengineering teams are also involved in a variety of projects to improve medical care. We gave the students a mission—while learning about the JUMP center and participating in educational activities, they were to put on their social-scientist hats and conduct an ethnography of the JUMP center.

Over the course of the day, campers toured the facilities, and learned about the research conducted there. They began the day with a tour of the ambulance bay and simulation apartment designed to train EMTs. There, they were also given a lesson on the importance of observation—the simulation specialist explained how in different simulations, the apartment is set with up clues to the resident’s medical history. We then toured the facility, learned about 3D printing, virtual reality, and the use of coding to program automated infusion pumps.

Campers treating a sick manikin baby
The highlight though, was participating in a medical simulation involving treating a sick manikin baby. There, the girls were assigned to different treatment teams, and had to apply their problem-solving skills to save the baby (spoiler alert: the baby survived, thanks to the girls’ cooperative effort).

The campers saved the day!

However, I was a bit disappointed by one aspect of our visit. I had been told about the manikin who simulates birth, and was REALLY excited to see her. However, it turns out that they no longer show her on educational tours.The JUMP center is affiliated with a Catholic hospital (Order of the Sisters of Saint Francis), and the nuns in charge did not want groups on educational tours seeing genitalia. Since a birthing manikin mom obviously involves exposed genitals... it was apparently too scandalous for us to see. Furthermore, I was also told that there are “modesty pieces” that are used to cover the other manikins genitalia when not in use for simulations. It's hard to convince young women that their biology is "normal" when even female manikins' bodies need to be covered and hidden!

The following day, the campers discussed their ethnographic observations. One observation they brought up was the lack of diversity among the manikins. All of the manikins we saw were light-skinned, indicating that the “standard patient” is white. I’ve learned from the JUMP website that there is a dark-skinned manikin designed to simulate conditions common to African-Americans. However, there’s still quite a way to go before the manikins and their associated simulations can adequately reflect the diversity typical of American hospitals. Having just one dark-skinned manikin may cause doctors and nurse to envision the ailments of the white manikins as "normal" and the ailments of the dark-skinned manikin as "abnormal." Using it only to represent conditions typical to African-American populations (such as sickle cell anemia) might also cause doctors to overlook symptoms due to expectations of "typical" diseases for that population.

 One thing that the campers did not mention, however, was the representation of engineers and doctors we saw at the JUMP center. All the videos with doctors were interviews with white men. The majority of the engineers that spoke to the campers were white men (though there was one white woman). One of the videos showed a group of interns with far more ethnic and gender diversity, but I worry that the lack of representation the girls observed may be a subtle discouragement. For the girls that continue to pursue education and careers in science, it will probably be one of many subtle discouragements they will encounter.

One goal of the camp is to encourage female participation in STEM careers. The girls were certainly excited and motivated to learn, and I hope their enthusiasm will continue to outweigh any discouragement they experience along the way. At the end of the camp, the girls discussed their career aspirations, and we were excited to see a range of interests from the social sciences to medicine to bioengineering. They discussed being surprised by the range of bioengineering careers and wanted to learn more. We hope that seeing bioengineers in action inspired them, and we hope that the social science perspective we introduced helps ensure that they decide to be inclusive and thoughtful about the technology they will create.

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