University of Vermont

Office of Technology Commercialization

Thinking Outside the Box: Design-Savvy Med Students Share Story at AAMC Education Meeting

(From left to right) UVM medical students Lillian Chang ’17, Mustafa Chopan '17, and Ross Sayadi '17 in the Given Courtyard at the College of Medicine. (Photo: COM Design & Photography)

Artist-turned-medical-student Ross Sayadi ’17 approaches most things with one important question in mind: “Why?”

“Everything you do, you have to ask why,” says Sayadi, who has asked this question as an undergraduate student at the University of California-San Diego, in the midst of clerkship rotations as a medical student, and when his father, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in his late 30s, began to have trouble accomplishing simple tasks like buttoning a shirt and tying a shoe. 

One particular question – how could he help his father live a better life – has led to a promising potential solution for one issue: A shoe, designed in collaboration with two classmates, which serves people with mobility issues. The group brings a wealth of experience to the task. In addition to Sayadi’s artistic talents, Lillian Chang ’17 has a degree in fashion design from Parsons School of Design and worked at Vera Wang before entering medical school. Mustafa Chopan ’17, also a California native and Sayadi’s roommate, was inspired to lend his help to the cause after meeting his friend’s father and seeing first-hand some of the challenges he faces.

Their invention is a work in progress, Sayadi notes. They’ve gone through several prototypes – a process that has sometimes involved hot glue guns and razor blades – and now they’re talking with physical therapists and other healthcare professionals to understand exactly how mobility issues manifest in different populations. They also continue to consult with cobblers and professionals in the fashion industry to make sure that what they design is not only functional, but also durable and fashionable.    

The group meets every other Saturday to work on projects and brainstorm new ideas. And there’s no shortage of thoughts, including a health data app proposed by two students with backgrounds in information technology and social media. They’re in the process of having their group formally recognized at the College of Medicine as the Creative Research Student Interest Group, in the hopes of bringing even more students into the fold when it comes to talking about how to foster creativity and invention while in medical school.  

“How do you inspire people in med school to think outside the box?” Sayadi asks. “How do you innovate?”

Their entrepreneurial message recently reached a broader audience. Sayadi, Chopan and Chang were invited to present a talk on April 8, 2016 at the Association of American Medical Colleges’ (AAMC) Northeast Group on Educational Affairs annual retreat at Brown University in Providence, R.I. In their session, titled “Inspiring Innovation in Medical Education,” they discussed projects in the works and what led them to collaborate, the new student group at the UVM College of Medicine, and the importance of supporting creativity and entrepreneurship in medical students. The goal, says Chang, was to come back with some ideas about how to incorporate design thinking, and maybe even business and bioengineering, into the medical school experience.

“We talked about how this process we went through – designing and prototyping – translates to the educational sphere,” she says. “How can we integrate it into the curriculum in the future?”

Sayadi points to SPARK-VT – a UVM-wide program that fosters a culture of innovation in faculty, and helps provide funding to facilitate the movement of research from bench to bedside – as a good model to follow. He’s been to several SPARK-VT presentations and hopes to collaborate with them as plans move forward.

“The sweet spot is in between doctors and engineers when it comes to improving patients’ lives,” he says. “The inventor is the person who is going to change the world.”