Aftin & Astin Ross: Changing the world together Aftin and Astin Ross, PhDs in biomedical engineering, are making a name for themselves at the FDA.

What’s better than one Michigan Engineer making critical innovations at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)? How about two?

In the fall of 2007, after earning their bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, identical twins Aftin and Astin Ross joined U-M’s biomedical engineering master’s program. They were eager to apply their longstanding interest in science to improve the quality of people’s lives.

Flash forward 10 years later: They both went on to earn PhDs in biomedical engineering from U-M and are using their degrees to advance public health in the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH). Between the two of them, they’ve exerted influence on the FDA’s research itself and the way the organization manages its projects and communications. Although Aftin and Astin didn’t initially plan to come to the same center, and actually followed diverging paths for a few years after obtaining their Michigan doctorates, they have been brought back together again.

After graduating from U-M in 2012, Aftin performed research at The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany. She joined the FDA in 2013 as a Commissioner’s Fellow in emergency operations involving medical device availability and delivery. Now as a Senior Project Manager, she continues to provide engineering expertise for a preparedness program that makes sure patients have access to medical devices during emergencies like disease outbreaks or radiological events. She also aids in incident response for medical device public health concerns and is working to develop policy for medical device cybersecurity.

“We want to make our decisions based on science — that’s a key part of what we do at the FDA. I can put a huge technical background into the work I do, and I’m then able to use that to make broader, more immediate impacts. It is a wonderful feeling to know that the projects that I work on have helped enhance or even saved people’s lives.”

Her work in Germany also gave her a cross-cultural understanding of scientific approaches to global issues that she works with now. “These issues that are happening in the United States are not just happening here. They also have global impact,” she points out.

After graduating from U-M in 2014, Astin worked as an editor for Cactus Communications and as a researcher for the National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders at the National Institutes of Health, before getting a call from the FDA asking her to join as a Staff Fellow in 2016.

Now, a Senior Science Health Advisor, she manages two main projects at the FDA. She is coordinating the implementation and continuous improvement of an internal regulatory science review process that fosters more collaborative relationships between researchers and regulatory reviewers in CDRH. This is done by providing the opportunity for people with similar scientific and clinical interests to interact in-person and use human centered design approaches to brainstorm ways to enhance regulatory science research. She has also been instrumental in launching a program that serves as an all-inclusive resource for various groups working on issues with broad impact across CDRH, enabling FDA employees to understand which experts are already working in a given area and where there may be gaps that they might address by starting new project groups.

“What really attracted me to come here was that, although I enjoyed research, it took a long time to see the application of my work. Coming into a position like this, I can see the application and visibility of my impact. To coordinate and improve the way people work effectively at the FDA, which in itself improves public health, is really powerful.”

During graduate school, Aftin and Astin had been involved in many of the same extracurriculars, including the Society of Minority Engineers and Scientists – Graduate Component (SMES-G) and the Movement of Underrepresented Sisters in Engineering and the Sciences (MUSES).

Their graduate studies, coupled with their activities outside of class, have given them a boost in collaborating, organizing, leading and networking in their current roles. “Working with people with different personalities, and various nationalities and cultural perspectives at Michigan was extremely valuable,” Astin says.

It doesn’t hurt that Aftin and Astin have been surrounded by Michigan alums at their organizations post-graduation — the shared experience has been a jumping off point for countless new conversations and collaborations.


Engineering Alum Bets on Millennials with $2M Gift


By Gabe Cherry
Michigan Engineering

“Your teaching style will crash and burn with the millennials.” That’s what friends told University of Michigan alum Bill Hall in 2004 when he took on a teaching role at U-M for the first time in more than two decades. He had volunteered to teach an entrepreneurship course for MBAs at the Ross School of Business, his first foray into teaching since 1980, when he left his professorship at Ross to launch a successful career in business.

Some told him that his teaching style, which relies heavily on students to collaborate, debate and learn from each other, wouldn’t work with a generation of students that grew up interacting through text messages and social media.

“They were wrong,” he said. “When I got into the classroom, I realized that everything I’d read about the millennials was totally incorrect. I found that the kids had the same curiosity, the same respect for knowledge, authority and accountability that I remember from my first days as a professor.”

Hall, 71, did find that plenty had changed during nearly a quarter century away from the classroom. But his experience with today’s students was worlds apart from that of those who suggest that millennials aren’t up to the big challenges they’ll face in the years ahead.

“Today’s kids have a set of experiences that I could never even have imagined when I was growing up as a poor kid in Adrian, Michigan in the 1950s,” he said. “They’ve grown up in a more diverse world, they’ve travelled more, and I think computers and smartphones have given them a greater interest in knowledge and learning.”

He was so inspired by what he saw that he has returned to teach the same class every fall since 2004. He has also developed and co-instructed two more courses for the College of Engineering over the past ten years; one on entrepreneurial leadership and one on the emerging ethical issues in personalized medicine.

Late in 2014, he made an even bigger bet on the future with a $2 million chair endowment to the U-M Department of Biomedical Engineering, a joint department that spans both engineering and medicine. The William and Valerie Hall Chair of Biomedical Engineering will fund ongoing research in areas like cancer treatment and tissue engineering. Hall hopes it will also spark conversations that will take students out of their comfort zones and get them working across disciplines to tackle the challenges that will define the future.

Bill Hall, Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies and M'69 Alumnus, chats with Rohit Maramraju, Lab Technician. Photo by: Joseph Xu

Bill Hall, Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies and M'69 Alumnus, chats with Rohit Maramraju, Lab Technician. Photo by: Joseph Xu

Above are three-dimensional printed polymer scaffolds designed to promote bone and periodontal repair in the oral cavity. The design offers the potential to regenerate the different tissues teeth needed to treat teeth that have lost support due to the periodontal disease process. Photo by Jerry Mastey

Bill Hall, Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies and M'69 Alumnus, chats with Rohit Maramraju, Lab Technician. Photo by: Joseph Xu


“In my experience, innovation happens when you put business leaders and scientists in the same room and get them to talk to each other,” Hall said. “That’s why I think joint departments like Biomedical Engineering are so important. We need people who can work across the boundaries of science, engineering, medicine and business more easily than in the past.”

It started with Sputnik

Crossing boundaries has been a prominent feature of Hall’s own career, the roots of which he can trace all the way back to a fateful evening in 1957, when he saw Sputnik streak through the dark sky over his mother’s back yard. Though he was only 12 years old, Hall says he saw his future in the Soviet satellite.

“I can still remember the odd mix of amazement and fear that Sputnik stirred in me,” he said. “It was incredible that people could put something into orbit. But back in 1957, it was also very unnerving that the Soviets had put this thing over our heads. I saw that and realized that I’d better go into aerospace engineering.”

Four years later, he turned up on the U-M engineering campus with a $150 scholarship (enough to cover his freshman tuition) and a job as a busboy in the West Quad dining hall. By the time he was a junior, he was already working in the aerospace industry, doing trajectory work for NASA’s Apollo program. His first brush with business came soon after when he signed up for a statistics class at the Ross School of Business. It was a course that changed the trajectory of his life.

“I fell in love with statistics, with commerce, with the power of business to bring technology from the laboratory to the marketplace,” he said. “I wanted to instill that passion into others, to teach students that jobs are important not just to make money but to add value to society. That’s why I started teaching and that’s why I came back to it.”

Hall taught from 1970 until 1980, when he left his professorship for a stint in the automotive components industry followed by a string of successful startups in capital goods and aerospace systems. Over the years, he has maintained an active relationship with the university, holding seats on a variety of U-M boards including the Zell Lurie Entrepreneurship Center, the College of Engineering Center for Entrepreneurship, the University of Michigan Health System’s Depression Center, the Life Science Institute and a co-chair position with the Victors for Michigan capital campaign in Chicago.

“The luckiest Wolverine alive”

Bill Hall has been many things since that first day of class in 1961: a student, professor, engineer, CEO, founder, venture capitalist, husband, father, and philanthropist. But he’ll tell you that there are only two labels that span the entire 55 years between then and now. First: a Wolverine. And second: Lucky. Very lucky.

“I consider myself to be the luckiest Wolverine alive,” he said. “I don’t know how else to describe it. I got to be a college professor, I worked in the aerospace industry when it was booming, I started and grew a bunch of companies, creating jobs and satisfied shareholders. And today, I get to work with students at the University of Michigan who are getting ready to lead us into the future. And if I hadn’t been fortunate enough to get a scholarship to U-M, none of this would have happened.”

Through his teaching and his gift to the Department of Biomedical Engineering, Hall says he hopes to create similar opportunities for the millennial generation and beyond. His involvement with U-M has convinced him that, while the world they inherit is even more challenging than the world he grew up in, it’s just as full of possibility and promise.

“I tell skeptics: go to a classroom and meet the millennials, watch how they think and see for yourself what a bright future we have,” he said. “I have full optimism that the next generation is going to solve whatever problems are put in front of them, and I can’t tell you what an honor it is to play a small role in it.”