Interview: Ellie O'Brien

Ellie O’BrienEllie O’Brien serves as the Innovations Lab Manager and Design Engineer for Northwestern Simulation, a part of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. In this role, she combines design thinking with engineering to focus on modeling, prototyping, and production. She creates and produces medical training devices using state-of-the-art materials and techniques, including modern polymers, 3D printing, and Computer-Aided Design (CAD); and she collaborates closely with faculty members across the medical school to respond to pressing needs in medical education. Ellie will be one of the speakers at our Chicago event. 

Jenny: What inspired you to use 3D printing for your work?

Ellie: I first started exploring 3D printing in high school. I was on an engineering course called Advanced Competitive Science and we used SolidWorks to design parts for a robot and 3D print them. I found it so cool to be able to build something from scratch in 3D and then watch it come to life in the printer!

When I first started in my role at the Innovations Lab, there was some use of 3D printing for the design of simulation models — we would design and print parts or 3D print molds for silicone casting. But what has been most inspiring is being able to use real patient data to create simulation models that are very lifelike and incredibly realistic.

Jenny: What is the biggest motivation for your work?

Ellie: I am motivated daily by my work because I get to see physicians using the models that I designed and 3D printed to practice procedures and techniques in a safe space. I am able to actually see and know that the models I am designing are making people better physicians, and hopefully, improving patient outcomes.

Jenny: What is the biggest challenge in your work?

Ellie: The biggest challenge in my work is making models that are as lifelike as possible while achieving our educational outcomes. My clients always want their simulations models to look and feel exactly like the real thing; but many times, having a model with freckles and hair does not help them reach their educational outcomes. We have to work together to determine what their educational outcomes and goals are and then design the simulation models with the components necessary to reach those outcomes.

Jenny: What is your vision on the potential impact of your current work to the future of medicine?

Ellie: I believe that the work that we do at Northwestern Simulation and the Innovations Lab is already having an impact on the future of medicine. We are no longer in the era of “See one. Do one. Teach one.” Instead, we taking the learning curve out of the patient room and into our lab where physicians can practice and perfect their skills before encountering a patient.

Jenny: What are you passionate about?

Ellie: My biggest passion — both present in my work and life outside of work — is helping people. I love being able to create something to make someone else’s life better.

Jenny: What do you enjoy in your spare time?

Ellie: I love to cook! And to eat. Chicago has an incredible food scene and my husband and I take full advantage of that. Plus eating meals cooked by others helps me be more creative in the kitchen.