Amber Smith: Making a Difference Through Engineering

When Amber Smith of Ipswich, Mass. signed up for her senior capstone design project, she knew she would be helping her resume, but she didn’t know she would be helping others, as well.

A person is 60 percent less likely to contract HIV if they have been circumcised, according to a current clinical study being conducted. The World Health Organization along with other organizations is working to come up with a plan to circumcise men in Africa.

With this statistic in mind, Smith, a mechanical engineering student at the University of Maine, and two other students — Grant Aylward and Sam Davidson — are working to create a disposable circumcision device that destructs after one use. The current tool is made of chrome-plated brass, and the new device would be plastic and less expensive to produce.

“You’re working with patients that have HIV or potentially could have it, and you don’t want to spread it to either the surgeons or to other patients that you’re working with,” said Smith.

Over the past two summers, Smith worked through internships at Stryker Orthopaedics, a company specializing in joint replacements. Working to help people gain their life back became a goal after Smith witnessed and experienced all the injuries of her teammates on the UMaine Women’s basketball team.

Smith played on the team for four years before she was deemed medically unable to play. During her redshirt freshman season she was a finalist for the America East Fan’s Choice Player of the Year while contributing an average of 10.0 points per game. She was ranked 14th in the conference in scoring and named Rookie of the Week twice.

How did you get involved with this project?
This project is part of our senior design project (capstone) we have to do during our final year of the mechanical engineering curriculum. Peter Millard, the epidemiologist we are working with on this project, came to the Mechanical Engineering Department with the project idea to design a circumcision clamp to better fit the needs of the sub-Saharan African population. The HIV prevention project, as well as a handful of other projects, were offered and each student applied for the project of their choice. I knew I wanted to work in the health care industry, and this project seemed like a great opportunity.

What kind of design challenge does this device represent?
It definitely needs to be single-use, and it needs to be self-destructing. A lot of times because they [people in Africa] don’t have the resources we do, they will try to sterilize it, and they will try to clean it and use it again. We have to design this tool so once it has gone through its cycle to completion, it has to break and it has to be unusable at that point.

Having this device be disposable, what does that do to the risk of spreading HIV?
By having this be something you can throw away — a single-use device — you’re not using it over and over again; you’re not cleaning it, you’re not going to have to sterilize it. It makes it so you’re at much less risk of spreading it to the other patients you’re working with because you’re doing 30–40 million in total.

How challenging has this project been?
It definitely is a challenge. This isn’t really a new issue. People have tried to do this before. There’s a tool the South Africans have made, there’s a tool China has come up with. Some surgeons and groups like it and some don’t. The surgeon that we’re working with is out of Mozambique — he’s an epidemiologist out of Bangor. He’s the one we’re working with and he has come to us and asked us to design a new circumcision tool. We’re also trying to make it under a dollar a piece, because we’re mass-producing all of these.

What is this experience doing for you in terms of becoming an engineer and deciding if this is a career you want to pursue?
This is absolutely something I want to pursue. I’ve always liked the health care field. I come from a family of engineers and I’ve spent the last two years working for Stryker Orthopaedics, designing prosthetic implants. It’s the exact same design process I’ve been using, so I do have a little bit of experience in this field. It’s definitely not the same thing, but it presents a new twist as far as cutting down on price and material and mass-producing these tools. It’s a great opportunity; it’s exciting to be able to have this kind of impact. Sixty percent is a huge statistic. To be able to cut down on the spread of HIV; it’s an epidemic and to have the opportunity to reduce its effect is a huge deal.

Do you think this project is giving you a skill that is marketable to go into this field?
Absolutely, it’s real life anytime you can go through the design process; anytime that you can go from idea conception to prototype generation to coming up with a physical model. We have an opportunity to send this to Africa. The epidemiologist we’re working with is going to choose one of four designs [from the four groups working on the project] at the end. We may be looking at clinical trial opportunities, which is pretty cool. To be able to put that on your resume would be a head start on most other recent college grads in the country.

The hope is you’re going to come up with something that’s really going to make a difference?
Exactly. You can make a difference doing this; it’s not just something you can put on your resume. I mean, that’s nice, but you can make a difference in people’s lives. I think that’s what initially drew me to the health care field. Because I played basketball here, that’s part of my life, too. You see injuries, you see people blow out their knees, you see people ruin ankles and hips. A lot of the time, without some sort of surgery, these injuries are life altering. The health care field is coming up with new solutions all the time and to be able to give someone’s life back is pretty cool.

In terms of basketball, your career ended quicker than you would have liked, have you been able to channel your energies into this project?
My career did end more suddenly than I would have liked it to. Medically, I wasn’t able to play anymore. It took me a while to come to terms with that, but it’s OK, and I am able to focus on developing my career now and it’s something I really enjoy doing. Not playing basketball and not being up here training all summer has allowed me to have internships these past two summers and to focus more on my career.

Are there parallels between the work ethic to be a good basketball player and the diligence needed to be an engineer?
The discipline it takes to play basketball — your work ethic, consistency, persistence, all of these things — are things you can apply to schoolwork and the work environment, as well. You’ve got to get the job done. That’s something that is important as an engineer; the ability to get the job done. It’s not really about the time you put in, or what you were originally taught, but more about your ability to find a way to get the job done.

This is probably the hardest thing you’ve had to do as an engineer, does this bring all the skills you’ve learned to a point?
Definitely. One of the cool things about this project is it’s a culmination of what I’ve learned and all the classes that I’ve taken. That being said, a lot of the project consists of discovering things on your own. You find people to help you and you learn things. It’s cool you get to teach yourself. I think that’s a big part of the education here. They may not teach you everything, but they teach you how to find what you need to know.