U-M BME alum credits family, education as inspiration for decision to attend Medical School

Devak Nanua (BSE, MSE) entered the world at Michigan Medicine and credits the life-saving leukemia treatment his mother received there while pregnant with him as part of the foundation for his desire to pursue Medical School. 

Nanua, whose parents emigrated from India, described the excitement with which his father and mother arrived in Ann Arbor and their joy in planning to start a family. However, they would encounter serious challenges to fulfilling their dreams along the way. 

“My mom was, unfortunately, diagnosed with leukemia in her late 20s,” Nanua said. “For a 27-year-old to be given that moment of facing her own mortality, it had to be so hard for her, especially having just come to this country.”

During his time as a student at U-M, Nanua was able to learn about his mother’s medical journey through the research notes and firsthand accounts of physicians and medical personnel who had provided her care two decades ago. 

“She was given two options,” Nanua noted. “If she did start the traditional drug treatment at that time, it would have meant aborting me. It was a challenging decision. My parents had said that the best news they received that week was that they were expecting a child. My mom knew that her fertility would be limited down the road once starting treatment. Having newly immigrated, it was especially daunting to be facing this and having to make such decisions. At Michigan Medicine, she had a great team of physicians and oncologists. I read the story of my parents and how I came into the world. Everyone here worked with her and supported her. The only curative modality was for my mother to have a bone marrow transplant from my younger aunt, who was only a teen at the time living in India.”

Nanua’s mother successfully had the bone marrow transplant, and eventually recovered. “She was able to have me without complications,” Nanua said. “My mom got a second lease on life.”

Nanua added that as a child, he did not initially know or understand the magnitude of the health issues his mother had faced. “Throughout my years of growing up, there was a feeling of gratitude and a feeling of thankfulness toward the medical system that I picked up on from my mom,” he said. “I knew the relationship my mom had with her caregivers and the trust she placed in them. Even as a young kid, I was inclined to think about medicine in general terms as a possible career.”

When Nanua entered college, he ended up studying BME for his undergraduate and master’s degrees. “One thing that stuck out to me during my time in BME was my experience in our undergrad senior design project,” he said. “It was this great opportunity to work with a diverse team of clinicians and engineers to solve a problem at the hospital. I realized I ultimately wanted to work in a space where patients can have the opportunity to experience an easier journey to health, despite their terrible ordeal.” 

Nanua enjoyed the challenges that BME offered. “I had fun being an innovator on the engineering side, but it was only through meetings with clinicians, where they were able to point out important design considerations, that I saw issues from their perspective,” he said. “I felt like I needed a clinical experience background to become a more efficient engineer in order to innovate in the space that I wanted.”

Nanua said U-M’s BME program offers students a rich curriculum. “I really appreciated the variety of courses that I got to take as a BME student,” he said. “By the time students are in their senior year here, they have studied aspects of the human body through the perspectives of mechanical engineering, materials engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering and computer engineering. By learning about the human body through the lens of different disciplines, it gives you enough tools to be creative and participate in many research projects or biomedical device design projects.”

As part of Nanua’s desire to make an impact through his work, he recently returned from a medical service trip to Rwanda. “As a medical student, I am a part of the Global Health and Disparities path of excellence,” he said. “Through this elective, I am able to learn about and discuss topics of health inequities and disparities in a global and domestic setting along with my peers and faculty who work in these spaces. At the end of our first year of medical school, we have a six-week break where students can take some time to do whatever they want. I was always curious about the challenges of practicing medicine in an international and low resource setting. While being a part of this path of excellence, I had the pleasure to meet Dr. David Bradley, who is a Pediatric Cardiologist at Michigan who had been recently working in Rwanda. While meeting him, I was incredibly inspired by the work that he was doing, and this encouraged me to travel to Rwanda during my break.”

Through Dr. Bradley’s guidance and grant funding from Michigan Medicine, Nanua worked at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Kigali (CHU-K) for several weeks. CHUK is the primary teaching hospital in Rwanda. During his time there, he participated in short clinical rotations where he primarily shadowed doctors in pediatrics, pediatric surgery and general surgery.

“I was surprised that even after just completing my first year of medical school, I knew a lot more than I thought and was able to keep up with the pace of being on the wards,” he said. “I was able to learn a lot about clinical concepts through the rich discussions that I’d have with doctors, residents, nurses and other medical students who I worked with. It was also incredible to experience what life looks like in another culture – specifically what healthcare looks like in a primarily low-resource setting. Having lived in Ann Arbor for the majority of my life, I’ve been incredibly fortunate and privileged to obtain care from and now train at a hospital where there are no shortage of resources, opportunities and highly trained physicians who I am lucky to call my mentors. While a lot of the care at CHU-K is still limited by its resources and a lot of the clinical presentations I saw were influenced by living in poverty, it was incredibly inspiring to go to work with a team of doctors who continued to try to do the best they could by their patients despite being aware of the limitations. It’s this attitude and energy for service that I hope to carry with me as I continue my medical education.”

BME alum blends her personal, professional passions to advocate for equity and accessibility in healthcare and medical devices

Nicole Bettè (BME BSE, 2016) is a Senior Human Factors Engineer whose personal experiences have informed and inspired her professional goals. In addition to her position with Kaleidoscope Innovation and Product Design, where she works as part of a team based at Eli Lilly in Indianapolis, Indiana, Bettè is Ms. Wheelchair New Hampshire USA 2023 and former Gilman Alumni Ambassador 2022-2023. 

“I decided to join the Ms. Wheelchair USA program and apply for the Ms. Wheelchair New Hampshire USA title in order to have greater visibility for my platform, which is accessibility of healthcare and medical devices,” Bettè said. “As a Senior Human Factors Engineer, I’m in a great position to advocate for the accessibility of medical devices, both within the organizations where I work and also as a speaker at technical Human Factors Engineering conferences. I also reach out to disability advocacy organizations and ask for relevant stories directly from the voices of disabled people so that I can better advocate. Although my focus is on disability, I consider other aspects of accessibility as well, such as access barriers or inequity due to race/ethnicity, gender/sex, anthropometrics, etc.”

Bettè knew she wanted to dedicate her life to healthcare and medical devices. “I loved how much BMEs get to learn about different disciplines since it’s such a multidisciplinary field,” Bettè said. “Due to my educational background, I’ve been able to have in-depth technical conversations with mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, chemical engineers, material science engineers, industrial engineers, a variety of scientists, and a variety of medical professionals. Not many people can say that! I’ve always been naturally curious about a wide variety of subjects even while my heart was rooted in healthcare, so BME felt like a very natural degree to pursue as it kept my brain engaged in all sorts of ways.” Bettè also loves engineering, and discovered that BME was the perfect way to fuse her interests. “When deciding between a biology-focused science and biomedical engineering, biomedical engineering felt more natural to me as it’s more application-based,” she added. “I’ve always been a very creative thinker and fixer. I needed the engineering skills in order to channel all of that creativity and drive and turn it into practical solutions and real-world applications.” 

Bettè’s journey to her degree and career encountered serious challenges along the way–challenges that would focus her career path to help others. “I struggled with illness and disability throughout college and spent what sometimes felt like half the time at medical appointments and emergency rooms,” she said. “I only had time and energy for academics, one or two extracurricular activities, and that’s it. I had practically no social life because any time outside of academics was spent looking for answers, or I was too ill to do anything. I didn’t know what was wrong. I was getting worse and was so afraid that I was dying that I signed up for a life insurance policy just before I began the arduous journey of seeking a diagnosis so that if I died young, my low-income parents wouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of the six-figure debt I had gotten myself into. Furthermore, toward the end of my academic career, I was working two jobs at almost minimum wage and had to rely on food stamps and food pantries to survive.”

Through grit and determination, Bettè graduated with honors. “That picture of me in my graduation gown that a U-M photographer took captured the pure joy and pride I felt at that moment,” she said. “When I entered that stadium for my graduation ceremony, I had earned it. I had defied all the odds that told me that I wouldn’t graduate because I was poor, Latina, neurodivergent, disabled, chronically ill, a child of a divorced mother who had dropped out of college, and raised by a Cuban grandmother who only had a middle school education and who unfortunately knows what it’s like to have to share bubble gum with her four siblings and to have to survive on the broth from the same bone multiple meals in a row. All in all, it took me three years longer than my peers to graduate, partially due to health reasons and partially due to internships, a few extra classes, and a semester studying abroad.”

Bettè’s health issues have stabilized and are now manageable. “I’m happy to report that I finally have a diagnosis (hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a genetic connective tissue disorder), and no, I’m likely not going to die young,” she said. “I love my life and I love my job, and I have the help that I need. I’m disabled and proud of it, as my disability is a part of me and it has shaped the way I view life, has opened my heart and my mind to different perspectives, and has given me the experience, knowledge, and empathy to do what I do at work and do it well.”

Bettè encourages students who are facing challenges to reach out to the U-M community and to access available resources. “If you’re struggling with disability, don’t be afraid or ashamed to self-advocate, ask for help, and take advantage of every resource and accommodation U-M has to offer, just as I did,” she said. “U-M did an amazing job at retaining me. They have an impressive amount of structure and resources in place to help disabled and chronically ill students succeed. The staff and I were all very resourceful so that I could make it to that stadium and graduate. So, if you can, graduate. Disability in this country impoverishes most of us. It’s only because of my level of preparation and education that I’m not in poverty right now. I recognize that education in the U.S. is in great part a privilege, but if you happen to have made it this far as a student here and you’re vacillating between finishing and dropping out, finish, even if it means taking longer. I recommend working very closely with your professors and university staff, managing your schedule to give yourself time to rest and go to medical appointments, reducing your course load, mixing and matching hard courses with easier ones when possible, surrounding yourself with a strong positive support system of classmates, mentors, friends, and family who can help you, and, if necessary, taking a break (medical leave/sabbatical). There are also grants and scholarships available to help retain students who are in tough financial situations.”

Bettè believes that the need for diverse representation is great, and that bringing people who will advocate for equity and inclusion will improve accessibility for others in the future. “On that note, there are few disabled healthcare professionals and few disabled medical device engineers like me,” she said. “I wish to see more of us, so that our voices are represented and heard in this industry. I sincerely believe the lack of representation contributes to the access barriers we face in our healthcare system today (which includes inaccessible medical devices/equipment).” 

Bettè explained that as a human factors engineer, she considers user safety, effectiveness, and ease of use as well as interface design accessibility, facility accessibility, and the inclusion of a wide variety of participants in usability studies, including disabled participants. In terms of design, she thinks about multiple aspects of accessibility including, but not limited to, these five things: 

  • Enabling the design to provide information in multiple ways (not just visual or just auditory information) and receive information in multiple ways (not just typing or just speaking).
  • Simplifying the design and the instructions as much as possible to reduce the cognitive burden and complexity required to use it. This helps users’ ability to remain independent when using the device, reduces or sometimes eliminates the need for training, and reduces the likelihood that a use error will happen. 
  • Optimizing the ergonomics of both physical and digital interfaces so that users are able to comfortably use the device (with one hand, for example).  
  • Ensuring that the system or design works just as effectively and accurately for everyone who will use it. For example, sometimes optical devices don’t work as well for people with dark skin as they do for light skin, and with optical medical devices such as pulse oximeters and forehead thermometers, this can have adverse clinical impacts on people, hence its importance in health equity. Similarly, some devices don’t work as well on larger people compared to thinner people.
  • Leveraging universal and inclusive design principles across the entire development process. 

Bettè is committed to reaching out to others so that their voices can also be heard. “If you want to share your story pertaining to access barriers in healthcare, please feel free to reach out to me at bettenicole@gmail.com,” she said. “Stories are the single most powerful tool we have for advocacy! Please share yours with me!”

To help advocate for healthcare equity and inclusion, especially medical device accessibility, use the #AccessibleMedTech hashtag that Bettè created on social media.

If anyone is interested in learning more about or applying to the Ms. Wheelchair USA disability pageant, visit https://www.mswheelchairusa.org/. Ms. Wheelchair USA is run by The Dane Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with a mission of improving the quality of life of people with physical and developmental disabilities. To learn more about The Dane Foundation, visit http://www.thedanefoundation.org/

Nicole Bettè, BME alum

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.”