By Steven Clark
On its website, the Master’s in Translational Medicine (MTM) program at The City College of New York is described as a collaboration between The Grove School of Engineering and The CUNY School of Medicine / Sophie Davis Biomedical Education Program that brings “a new type of graduate degree program to the academic landscape.” The program’s mission is “to educate and train the next generation of leaders in healthcare innovation and medical technology commercialization” by offering a blend of engineering, science, business and entrepreneurial concepts. This year, at its cornerstone, is SBH Health System.
“Our mission has not changed,” says Dr. Sabriya Stukes, associate director, of the five-year program. “What Andy Grove (the late chief executive and chairman of the Intel Corporation, who funded the program) really wanted was an educational program that gave scientists and engineers the process of designing thoughtful and sustainable medical technologies.”
It’s a unique program, one of only a handful in the country that provides students with both didactic and hands on experience in developing year-end medical technology products. The hope is that students will design a product that can be brought to market. Recently, for example, MenoPal, a team of MTM program alumni, won an international pitch event that carried a $25,000 prize and mentoring to support further product development.
Every year, the program selects a sponsor to assist with identifying design projects and mentoring student teams. “We try to work with both clinical and industry sponsors,” says Jeff Garanich, program director. “The connections between CUNY and SBH are strong (SBH and the CUNY School of Medicine are clinical affiliates). Sabriya and I reached out to Erica Friedman, CUNY School of Medicine interim dean, early in the summer and said, ‘We would love to work with St. Barnabas on our projects. Could you make an intro?’”
This soon resulted in Dr. Howard Greller, an ER physician at SBH, signing up for a leading role. This summer he recruited emergency medicine colleagues – Dr. Jakub Bartnik, Dr. Mina Attaalla and Brian Dolan, ED Director – to present various project ideas to the students. From these ideas, the teams of four or five students ultimately selected the projects they wanted to work on.
An idea presented by Dolan, for example, focuses on alarm fatigue. “Alarms drown everything out and you become numb to them after a while,” he says about the countless number of monitoring devices that go off continually and simultaneously in busy ERs. “Numerous regulatory white papers are out there and safety events have occurred due to the struggle of alarm fatigue.”
Like his colleagues, he now meets with his team of five students regularly to help them flush out their project. “It’s been great having their engineering minds come up with different questions and why it’s important to do something this way or not,” he says.
The others are mentoring teams that also focus on interests personal to them: Dr. Greller has two teams working on products that center on different aspects of the opioid crisis; Dr. Bartnik’s team is designing an infection control ultrasound probe; and Dr. Attaalla is mentoring his students on a 3D service that would match 3D printing manufacturers with organizations who have specific needs for this product.
While designing a project that becomes commercialized is the eventual goal of the program, it’s not a measurement of its success. “At the end of the year, when students weigh the pros and cons of moving forward with the technology, a lot of them say ‘This was a great experience but I need to get a job or I am applying to medical school and I can take the skills and tools this program gave me and apply it there,” says Stukes. “The way we measure success right now isn’t necessarily how many technologies are on the market, but where we are placing our students.”
Adds Garanich, “Our primary focus is on educating and training our students to excel in all aspects of translating biomedical innovations. The runway to commercialize a new medical technology can be 5, 10, or 15 years, depending on a number of factors. That said, we work with each of our student capstone teams to decide whether they want to continue developing their technology after completing the program. We explore ways to support them, if this is something they decide to pursue. If not, we work with them to secure a position that fits their strengths and interests. We are thrilled with any outcome that allows our graduates to make a real and lasting impact in health care.”
And, with this in mind, the program has succeeded. Students have gone on to work for medical technology and biotechnology companies, along with clinical institutions, in product development, quality assurance, clinical research and sales roles. This includes companies and clinical institutions like Medtronic, GE Healthcare, Memorial Sloan Kettering, Hospital for Special Surgery and Regeneron. A significant number of students have chosen to go on to medical school, and a few have opted to go the entrepreneurial route. The program, in fact, recently added a fellowship program that provides financial and mentoring support to program alumni, to allow them to continue developing a medical technology.
Another measure of success, says Stukes, is the evolution of the program itself. Starting five years ago with four students, all City College graduates, the program now has a class of 21 students, and attracts applicants from around the country, with different educational backgrounds, at different points in their lives.
The four SBH mentors find themselves very immersed in the program, looking forward to their team meetings and the evolution of their students’ project. Dr. Bartnik, for example, is presently working with his team, who call themselves “the Ultra 5,” on the development of market and stakeholder analyses. “It’s a fascinating program,” he says. “I told Jeff I’ll be one of his students next year.”