-By Abigail Simon- This summer, Michelle Walsh exchanged her bathing suits and sunscreen for a lab coat and a notebook. She worked to design an innovative treatment for Tympanic Membrane Perforation, commonly known as holes in the eardrum. Her hard work certainly paid off. This fall, senior Michelle Walsh was honored as a semifinalist in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology AND as a semifinalist in the Intel Science Talent Search. For both competitions, she was one of only 300 student semifinalists selected from over 1,800 entrants nationwide. Panel recently sat down to speak to Michelle about her project and her incredible accomplishments.
Could you tell us a little bit more about your project and what you did over the summer?
My project worked to design, fabricate, and test a 3D-printed eardrum “patch” that could be used to heal holes in the eardrum from trauma such as bomb blasts or middle ear infection. Holes in the eardrum are known as Tympanic Membrane Perforation (the tympanic membrane, or “TM,” is the medical term for eardrum). TM Perforation was actually one of the most common injuries of the Boston Bombing in 2013. In my project, I designed a patch that could cover up the perforation while also encouraging repair by the patient’s own cells. I coded a computer program to print my design on the 3D-printer, picked which materials to use, and tested whether my design could serve as a “scaffold” to support the migration of native cells into the center of the patch to eventually heal over the hole.
What inspired you to look at Tympanic Membrane Perforation and focus on this issue?
I was inspired by the fact that Tympanic Membrane Perforation had affected so many people in the Boston Bombings, since that was a very personal experience for many of us in Boston. I still remember when Winsor cancelled school for us after the event occurred. I was also particularly interested in working with the eardrum (tympanic membrane) because I love playing the piano and singing at Winsor in small chorus.
What were some of your biggest challenges and surprises while working on the project?
The biggest challenge I ran into was how to design a cell study that would mimic the conditions of the human eardrum with a perforation in it. It was difficult to design a set up that would maintain a hole of cells / contain the cells in a certain perforation-like shape but still allow them to migrate onto my patch.
One of the things that surprised me — and maybe this should have been obvious — was how much the science principles from our biology, chemistry, and physics courses actually came into play as I worked in the lab. Over the summer I found myself calling back on equations or formulas that I originally thought I’d only need to remember for our scary final chemistry exam. 🙂
What were some of your biggest take-aways from this experience?
Dealing with the challenges in my research (as mentioned above) has taught me really great problem-solving skills — skills that I think have a lot of important applications beyond just the scientific fields, because they’ve taught me how to tackle unexpected scenarios and come up with creative, unexpected solutions.
It was also just really cool to see how the field of 3D printing is developing — it’s definitely an exciting new front!
Looking ahead, given this experience, would you be interested in doing work like this in the future?
Absolutely; I’m not exactly sure how my future pursuits are going to shape up right now, but this experience has made me particularly interested in engineering (I’ve really liked physics, and have always liked art and design, so I think engineering could be a neat combination). I know I’ll definitely explore science research more in the future, in whatever I do.
For those students interested in science (or entering competitions like this one), do you have any advice?
I would say first and foremost: even if you’re not entirely sure that you want to pursue science, don’t be afraid to explore it through lab internships, competitions, or any other activities that you think could be cool. Like I said, I ended up learning a lot about more than just science. If you think its interesting, go for it! I had no idea how much I was going to enjoy an engineering internship when I started.
And for anyone interested in science that ends up pursuing it: I think a lot of us underestimate how much we have to contribute to a conversation or intellectual dialogue (whether we believe it’s because of our age, gender, or experience). Working in that kind of environment with my mentors this summer helped me realize that I do have opinions and ideas to be heard, and people will always respect you for it— so don’t hesitate to speak up!