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Meet VirtaMed: “I’m very happy to be in a field that helps people”

December 22, 2015

When Carolyn O’Brien took a job at VirtaMed as the company’s only hardware engineer in May 2011, she was still finishing up her Master’s thesis in Mechanical Engineering at ETH. Now VirtaMed has several teams devoted to hardware, and Carolyn no longer identifies herself as a mechanical engineer. She is, however, our rocket scientist.

Carolyn, daughter of a German mother and an American father, grew up in a small town in central Texas. She loved to build things, and she loved rockets in particular. Carolyn was a member of her high school’s rocketry team, and one year she took part in the national rocket-building competition, Team America Rocketry Challenge, with her all-girls team “The Valkyries”. With a US-wide ranking of 8th, “The Valkyries” was by far the best performing all-female team that year.

When it was time to decide about her future, the path was clear: Carolyn entered MIT to study aerospace engineering. After finishing her Bachelor’s degree at MIT, Carolyn moved to Switzerland for the ETH Master’s program. While aerospace had been a combination of mechanical and electrical engineering, she realized that the pure mechanical side she studied at ETH was not what she wanted to grow old doing: she did not want to design cars, bridges or toilet lids. Furthermore, as the thought of building weapons troubled her, finding an interesting job in aerospace engineering was not going to be easy.

“So I had to figure out what kind of an engineer I was, what kind of a person I was; how I work, how I develop, how I exist as an adult in this kind of environment.” Carolyn started to look for work in health science and technology, preferably in a start-up with flexible work atmosphere.

She sent only one application: to VirtaMed.

“Women can be just as good engineers as men”

Apart from wanting to help people instead of killing them, Carolyn has another professional passion: women in science and technology. She has seen her share of meetings with male engineers talking only to other, less experienced, male engineers, instead of addressing her, the senior engineer and organizer of the encounter; she has also turned down more than her share of engineering students asking her out simply because she’s the only woman taking the same class.

“It’s disappointing to see how few women enter the career. Of course women can be just as good engineers and scientists as men.”

Carolyn thinks recruiters should be a little more proactive and look beyond their own networks for suitable candidates; maybe then female engineers would feel more welcome to the field.

“I like the challenge of figuring out what the doctor actually wants”

Carolyn defines herself as a generalist: she is of the rarer breed of engineers who understand enough about both mechanical and electrical engineering to grasp the bigger picture. Indeed, she has discovered that she has a knack for managing large development projects.

The most interesting challenge in her work is translating doctors’ often intangible wishes into technical reality. The embryo transfer simulator, developed in collaboration with the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), has been Carolyn’s main project for the past year; her life, really. As any project, this one started with interviews. “It needs to feel right”, said the doctors. But what does “feeling right” mean? Is the doctor paying attention to the friction, or maybe to the way the catheter rotates or bends?

The simulator was introduced to the public in October 2015 at ASRM’s annual meeting, where practitioners lined up to try out the novelty training tool. After concluding a particularly tricky procedure, one doctor admitted he had dealt with a case just like that one just the day before. That’s when Carolyn knew she had done something right.



Would you like to know more?
The National Association for Rocketry (NAR)

If you want to build your own rocket, this website is a good place to start. Granted, in Switzerland you won’t actually be allowed to launch it, Carolyn admits. But in case you reside in the US, go for it!
The Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC)

The registration for the 2016 rocketry challenge begins in January. High schoolers and teachers can register teams online; adults with some knowledge in the field of rocketry can volunteer as mentors for teams in their neighborhood.