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Recent graduate pursues master’s degree in Ireland evolving from senior design project

UIC Richard and Loan Hill Department of Biomedical Engineering alumna Julie Gawenda

It all started with a question of what do you want to do after graduation.

This typical question for many students led to unexpected results for UIC Richard and Loan Hill Department of Biomedical Engineering alumna Julie Gawenda.

During her senior design course, Gawenda was part of one of the two groups sponsored by Hollister Incorporated, a medical device company that specializes in ostomy care, continence care, and critical care based in Libertyville, Illinois, who worked to create a product to prevent ileostomy complications for those with ostomy bags.

“Through senior design, I was able to closely collaborate with Hollister, and had an opportunity to pursue something that I didn’t even know existed a year and a half ago,” Gawenda said. “I’m now researching something I am really interested in which has opened my eyes to the endless possibilities of tissue engineering.”

Through a partnership with Hollister and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Gawenda is now completing her master’s degree sponsored by the Irish Research Council (IRC) Enterprise Partnership Post-Grad Scholarship in Dublin. The IRC Enterprise Partnership Scheme is an initiative that provides scientists with the opportunity to pursue research with enterprise partners including multinational organizations, non-governmental organizations, and public sector agencies, while based at a higher education institution.

“This opportunity is exactly what I was looking for in my master’s because I didn’t want to be stuck in a divided mindset of this is medicine and this is engineering,” Gawenda said. “I think especially in today’s innovative atmosphere, there’s so much room for cross-collaboration.”

Gawenda initially wanted to pursue a master’s during a gap year to garner more life experience and not jump into four years of medical school immediately. She feels that being a doctor is a calling rather than a career path that can be forced.

Under the supervision of her advisor, Dr. Shane Browne, Gawenda is studying the contributions of intestinal bacteria to the pathophysiology of peristomal skin complications in models of ileostomy.

Overall, Gawenda added, the composition of dejecta and the contents of ostomy bags aren’t well characterized; therefore, peristomal skin complications are poorly understood.

“We know that when you spill the contents of the bag, that when dejecta gets on the skin, it causes skin irritation, but the molecular mechanisms of that are not understood,” she said. “So, I’m trying to understand how dejecta causes peristomal skin complications because there are over a million ostomy bag users in the U.S. alone, and about 100,000 ostomy surgeries are performed annually.”

She noted that the number of ostomy bag users keeps growing especially with an increasingly older population, so Gawenda feels it’s a fascinating, but under-researched area.

After her experience, Gawenda recommends that current seniors make the most of their year-long senior design experience. It can be the best project, but overall, it’s a result of the effort they put in, and for her, it was a transformative experience.