M-HEAL connects global health, biomedical engineering through innovation


LSA senior Sanjana Murali knew from the moment she arrived at the University of Michigan that she had a strong interest in medicine. By her sophomore year, her sights were set on pursuing a master’s degree in biomedical engineering, but she was unsure of what steps to take to achieve her goal.

Eager to align with an organization that would help her develop a plan, Murali sought out M-HEAL upon the advice of her academic advisor.

M-HEAL, short for Michigan Health Engineered for All Lives, was established in 2006 by students who aimed to create engineering projects that were specific to the field of biomedical engineering. The organization later prioritized global health as an area they could apply engineering design while also serving marginalized populations.

I sought the organization out at Festifall and attended their mass meetings, talking to students that would later become good friends and role models” Murali said. “I was really fascinated with the organization because I could not believe that students were coming together to work on projects that could have such a potentially big impact, and that they were using the skills they learned in class. That kind of co-curricular experience is really what motivate me to join and become more involved.”

Getting to Guatemala

guat-mmap-mdThe organization ended up doing far more than providing a space where Murali could have a hands-on education experience. In 2015, Murali was on the first team of students to take a Service Abroad Needs Assessment trip (SANA) to Guatemala. During the trip, the team sought to use data and observations from interviews and fieldwork to later develop a project aimed at alleviating a health challenge in the area. Community service was also a key component of the trip.

“Once in Guatemala, we had a really incredible experience working with the clinics and interacting with people. We did our best to serve the community in whatever way we could,” Murali said. (Learn about U-M Ginsberg Center’s recommendations for mindful community engagement.)

While the volunteer work was most rewarding, the team had difficulties collecting data, and ultimately returned to the U.S. without enough data to analyze.

“The challenge was figuring out what we needed to learn onsite for us to make those determinations later on,” Murali said. “In hindsight, we could tell where it would’ve been beneficial for us to delve deeper and investigate a little bit more, but once we were back in the states, we knew we couldn’t make those changes.”

Yet, Murali said she and other students treated the experience as a learning opportunity and  returned to Guatemala in May 2016. The team used what they learned from their first trip to develop three areas that would be the focus of their observations and data gathering. The group additionally partnered with a local university in Guatemala to assist in doing their fieldwork and research.

Through the partnership with local university students and their increased familiarity with Guatemala’s health landscape, the team was able to use the data collected in both trips to identify pressure ulcers as a medical issue they could work to alleviate with a device. Often occurring in bedridden patients who are not turned or adjusted periodically, pressure ulcers are injuries to skin and underlying tissue resulting from prolonged pressure on the skin.

The Guatemala Team now aims to create a mattress overlay that disperses pressure away from points in the body that tend to develop pressure ulcers. Murali said traveling to Guatemala and working on the project has unearthed the team’s innovation and creativity. 

“I thought it was particularly creative and innovative that everyone could bring a different mindset and perspective to address issues that we were seeing and everyone had a different idea of what should happen next and what steps we needed to take,” she said. “By using all of those perspectives, I think that we’re able to get a more cohesive understanding of how to move forward.”

Today, Murali serves as M-HEAL’s marketing officer, and co-leads a team of 21 students who are developing plans for the mattress overlay prototype. The team will dedicate the entire year to developing a cohesive plan for the device, with hopes of taking a prototype to Guatemala next year to gain feedback.

Overall, Murali said obtaining exposure to the medical field through M-HEAL has been beneficial, particularly the sense of community and comradery within the organization.

“While I’ve learned so much about design ethnography, teamwork, and ultimately global health through this organization, I would have to say the biggest reward is getting to know its community,” she said. “M-HEAL represents a group of students that is passionate about global health and is empowered to change the world. I’ve learned so much and became so inspired simply because of the company within our executive board and my project team.”

Today, M-HEAL has more than 180 members and hosts 9 different project teams with partners both locally and abroad. Each project aims to engage its members to be socially conscious and aware of global health issues, as well as empower them to use the skills they learn in their coursework to create human-centered design solutions.

Faculty advisor and assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the College of Engineering Aileen Huang-Saad has watched the organization grow since 2007. “I continue to be impressed by the students that M-HEAL draws from across the university. They are remarkable in their desire to create impactful, responsible change,” she said. “They represent Michigan at it’s best.”

Stay with Innovate Blue as we follow the Guatemala Team and two other M-HEAL project teams throughout the remainder of the semester: Projects MESA and PeriOperative.

You can learn more about the projects and M-HEAL at their website: http://mheal.engin.umich.edu/.

Written by Innovate Blue writer Alyssa Brandon.

Photo: M-HEAL members, Kevin, Emma, and Sanjana volunteer at Santa Maria de Jesus school. Photo by Trish Dine.

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