Building a Better Pump
Courtney Rowe ’23 remembers sitting in a Zoom class in March 2020 wondering if she was in the right university. Like students everywhere, she’d gone home that spring to take classes online—joined by hundreds of others enrolled in the same classes with Rowe at the University of California, Irvine. Her older brother had loved his time there. But when the quarter ended, she knew she wasn’t going back.
“I just felt really lost there in such a big school,” the mechanical engineering major recalls. “As a more introverted person, that was a bit hard for me.” Rowe began searching for a smaller community, a place where she could “really connect with my peers and professors.” When she looked into Santa Clara, its values of competence, conscience, and compassion spoke to her. A visit to campus also convinced her she’d found her true academic home. “I was so excited because I could really imagine myself there,” she says.
Three years later, as Rowe prepares to graduate, she’s become part of a tight-knit class of about 40 seniors in mechanical engineering who have bonded with each other and their professors. She’s also become a standout in the school. Last year, the Cupertino native was one of four engineering students—and the only woman—awarded a prestigious De Novo Fellowship, which encourages underrepresented STEM students to participate in a faculty-advised research project.
The skills and confidence she’s gained at Santa Clara have served her well: This fall, Rowe begins a master’s program in mechanical engineering at Stanford University, which she hopes will lead to a career in the medical device industry. We recently talked to Rowe about her passion for engineering, a novel breast pump prototype she and a team presented at the recent Senior Design Conference, and what she’ll remember most from her time at Santa Clara.
How did you decide to major in mechanical engineering?
Everyone in my family has “math and science brains.” My dad is a civil engineer, and my mom was a molecular biologist. My older brother is a civil engineer, and my older sister is a nurse. But I didn’t inherit the biology and chemistry side, really. In high school, I liked math and physics, so I knew I wanted to do some sort of engineering.
Mechanical engineering seemed to offer the broadest opportunities in design. Then I visited a female engineer at IDEO. (The renowned Bay Area-based design and consulting firm created Apple’s first mouse, among other notable products.) I was so inspired by her because she worked on such a wide range of product designs, from a guitar amp to a toothbrush. She convinced me to pursue mechanical engineering.
What sparked your interest in medical devices?
When I was 10 or 12, I was at Santana Row and I saw a booth with a Da Vinci robotic surgery machine, and a nurse was demonstrating it. I didn’t really think anything of it. But a few years ago, when my mom was going through another cancer surgery, I researched different options and learned about robotic assisted surgery. And I was like, “Oh, I’ve seen this before!” We were hoping she could be a candidate for that, but she couldn’t because she had a lot of scar tissue in that area from previous radiation. Her recovery would have been a lot smoother if the surgery could have been done with Da Vinci, because the instruments are very small and make smaller incisions. The regular surgery took months to heal, and she still is enduring chronic pain from her ribs being spread.
So that’s how I became interested in medical devices. I saw firsthand how much of a difference robotic surgery could make in patients’ lives. And that's when I decided I could use my skills and knowledge to help make surgical robotics, or even other medical devices, more accessible to a wider range of patients.
You transferred to Santa Clara in search of a smaller community. How has your educational experience been different as a result?
I had this great mentorship with Robert Marks who reached out to me with the opportunity to do undergraduate research. I was excited because I had always heard about research, but I didn't know much about it. He suggested I take two of his SCU graduate courses to learn a little bit more about the materials science side. One of the things we learned about was crystallography, which is the crystal structure of different materials and, on a very small scale, how materials behave and how the atoms are arranged. The research consisted of running trials on different materials, and then heating our simulation to calculate how that heat changes the simulation. In certain applications, like electronics, you're really worried about heat because it can be damaging; you want to keep things cool.
I also learned that research, by its nature, does not always go according to plan. When this happens, you have to think creatively and critically in order to explore new directions. The De Novo Fellowship gave me the opportunity to keep working on my research I had started and the plan I made with Dr. Marks. And it helped me learn other skills—like finding and understand existing literature and research—that can be applied to the medical device field.
For the Senior Design Conference, your team helped to create a working prototype of a novel breast pump. What were some of the project’s goals?
We discovered that current breast pumps have a relatively simple design but also a lot of problems. For example, breast pumps are just not as efficient as natural breastfeeding. They’re hard to clean, and they’re hard to transport, though there are a few new wearable battery-powered pumps you just tuck into your bra and then re-charge. They can also be painful, because sometimes the suction is too high. We thought this was a product we could improve on to help nursing mothers in terms of efficiency, wearability, and reducing pain.
At SCU, engineering students learn about problem solving during product development. How did user needs factor into your design?
We reminded ourselves that the most important thing was to extract the greatest amount of milk, because that’s the ultimate purpose of the pump. We found some studies that led us to try to mimic a baby’s mouth in hopes that this would be more effective.
We addressed this issue a few different ways: First, we installed a small mechanical actuator, which mimics the action of a baby’s tongue by creating a wave-like motion on the bottom of the nipple. We also added a traditional vacuum pump to improve suction. Then we added a heating element behind the flange (the soft, conical part of our pump that comes into contact with the breast) to warm the outside of the breast—the way a baby’s mouth would normally do. Most breast pumps are plastic and can get cold and uncomfortable. By making the flange out of a soft rubber silicon material called Ecoflex, we were able to mimic the feel and texture of human skin. In addition to getting more milk, we also hope the heating element would help alleviate some of the pain that comes with breast pumping, often arising from clogged mammary ducts or simple inflammation.
One major obstacle in the breast pump was making it wearable. When our original small motor didn't have enough torque, we had to switch to a considerably larger motor. Instead of giving up on having a wearable device, we made changes around the motor to make things smaller. We flattened the casing, built a stand for the motor, and made other parts thinner where we could. We had to adapt and embrace flexibility in the design process.
What did you learn about yourself at Santa Clara? What will you remember?
I appreciate how Santa Clara allowed me to pursue my personal values in a structured and guided way. For example, one of the things I really care about is encouraging younger girls to pursue engineering, since women are still underrepresented in the field. As a member of SCU’s Society of Women Engineers, I volunteer in a program where we teach middle school girls how to code. Women engineers really helped me along the way and acted as mentors, so I want to return the favor and do the same for younger people.
Another thing I want to mention is a class called “Conscientious Capitalism.” It’s amazing, because it requires you to do so much self-reflection, learning about your values and virtues, and how to use your values to lead and make better decisions. That has definitely been a really impactful class at Santa Clara. It just embodies the mission of Santa Clara and focuses us on leading with compassion. I've learned what my purpose is in life, and the core values I will use to achieve it.
I had never really thought of incorporating core values into school before—going to public school, it never really came up. But seeing how to use values in our work, to make things that can help a diverse population and having empathy for others, feels comfortable to me. I think I can bring all those perspectives, especially as a woman, to anything I set my mind to in the future.
The De Novo Fellowship is awarded to outstanding SCU students from underrepresented groups in the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering to work on well-crafted research projects with faculty mentors who are committed to increasing diversity in STEM.