D-Lab associate Heather Beem and the Practical Education Network

Heather Beem, founder and CEO of the Practical Education Network (right) at the TTI Fab Lab in 2011.

A 'maize-raise' excercise in Ghana.

Heather (center)at the TTI Fab Lab in 2011. 

Hands-on sciences using local materials!

Heather Beem completed a PhD in Mechanical Engineering at MIT in 2015. She has been involved in D-Lab in such a variety of ways that we consider her an alumna, though "associate" might be a more appropriate term! She was twice co-instructor for D-Lab: Education, has mentored teams in D-Lab: Energy and D-Lab: Design, and led a student trip. This fall, she is co-instructing D-Lab: Discovery. Heather is co-founder and chief executive officer of the Practical Education Network, run by a team which, in addition to Heather, includes several D-Lab alumni and a former instructor.


Came for the PhD, left with working with science educators in Ghana

In what is perhaps true D-Lab style, my journey has avoided most traditional paths. I came to MIT for the Ph.D. program in Mechanical Engineering. I left with a doctorate in hand and desire in heart to work with science educators in Ghana. 

A passion for learning-by-doing

Soon after arriving on campus, I began hearing bits and pieces about D-Lab, so I wandered over and took a tour. The rooms were tucked out of sight, but bustling with activity and an unusual sense of possibility, which struck me. 

As I dove deep into my graduate research, I began building a strong desire to share what I was learning with others. I found some other students thinking along similar lines, and we joined forces and created Practical Education Network (PEN). We built a vision of sharing the MIT-style learning-by-doing as widely as possible. What if youth everywhere became local innovators, designing and building solutions to their own challenges?

We tested different ways of engaging youth in hands-on science and engineering: running science fairs, teaching students to build solar powered lamps, writing curricula, and sharing it with educators from Ghana to Peru and Boston. In 2011, I made my first trip to Ghana, where I worked with students at the Takoradi Technical Institute (TTI) Fab Lab, a community partner connection from a D-Lab class that my teammates participated in. 

Through these efforts, our eyes were opened to the potential for work in this space of development and education, so we looked for ways to engage the larger MIT community in tackling these challenges. 

We approached D-Lab, found like-minded colleagues with similar goals, and we collaboratively developed the D-Lab: Education course. Co-instructing that class began my official involvement with D-Lab, and marked the start of a slew of experiences there, including trip-leading, mentoring, and co-teaching various classes and teams. 

Leading the Practical Education Network

Since graduating, I’ve been leading PEN’s efforts to scale hands-on science. I am just returning from Ghana, where we ran trainings with more than 300 science teachers around Greater Accra, sharing ideas for using local materials to teach experientially. The responses were positive, the potential for scale is big, and I eagerly envision the possibilities ahead. 

From all of these experiences, I have tasted the joy of using engineering and design to build simple solutions to real problems. Collaborating with and learning from real people has developed into a necessary dimension of my work. And perhaps most important, that sense of possibility that first struck me is something I have now been able to share with many others.

SurgiBox wins AAAS Science and Human Rights poster competition

Debbie Lin Teodorescu.


Surgibox under development.


Maddie Hickman, MIT 2011.


MIT D-Lab Special Projects Coordinator Dennis Nagle.

D-Lab associate Debbie Lin Teodorescu, D-Lab special projects coordinator Dennis Nagle, D-Lab alumna Madeline Hickman, and David King of Massachusetts General Hospital have come together over the last several years to produce SurgiBox, which recently won an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) human rights poster competition, held in Washington, DC.

SurgiBox: safe, aseptic surgery where none was previously possible

Over 25 percent of the global disease burden requires surgical therapy, which could prevent over 18 million deaths per year. Yet two billion people have no access to surgical care, and two to three billion have access only to unsterile surgeries. Costly infectious complications strain countries' medical budgets. 

The goal of the SurgiBox is to improve access to safe, aseptic surgery even in settings lacking standard surgical facilities, while making operating safer, more ergonomic, and less cumbersome for healthcare providers.

SurgiBox shrinks the problem of surgical sterility from operating-room-sized to less than one-fifth of a cubed meter. A user seals the system of sterile clear containers over the patient and operates via ports. Modules can augment the sterile field. An integrated ventilation system controls field conditions.

The device can collapse to backpack size for rapid deployment in emergency and remote settings. SurgiBox exemplifies how collaboration among engineering, medicine, and social sciences can help overcome resource and infrastructural barriers to implementing global surgery as a human right.

The SurgiBox story: exemplifying the way D-Lab brings people together

In 2011, while Debbie was at medical school, the original SurgiBox concept was born. The idea was to create a way to keep the area right around a wound sterile by covering it with a container and operating through ports. But she had no idea how to make it a reality. None of her medical colleagues had ideas either.

But Debbie had visited D-Lab a couple of years earlier and found it "an incredibly welcoming place." So, as she begain to toss the idea for SurgiBox around, Debbie contacted José Gomez-Marquez and Anna Young who made up the D-Lab Health team at the time, and they invited Debbie to work on the idea at the old D-Lab space on Carleton Street.

Debbie remembers, "They modestly said it could be a safe place for exploring, like one's own home garage - but I would definitely say that D-Lab is much better than any garage, because of the energetic community, the great hands-on teaching, and the makerspace setup."

D-Lab special projects coordinator Dennis Nagle got involved from very early on and has been an in-the-trenches supporter for SurgiBox throughout its development. In addition to teaching Debbie all about shop machines and materials including LEDs, and fans, and more, Dennis's expertise with plastics has been essential to the project's advancement. Together, Debbie and Dennis built prototypes and planned and ran tests side-by-side. Debbie says, "The SurgiBox Alpha Prototype (a tiny straw version) sits permanently on Dennis's desk because he helped drive the evolution of the original clunky box concept to a light drape/tent-like one."

In 2014, Maddie Hickman, then an MIT D-Lab student, joined the project and the team continue to move the project through successive prototypes. The current design embodies their ambitious goal: to offer a sterile surgical space that, when deployed, is as good as or better than that in any operating room in Boston, but can be collapsed for easy transport. It is, in essence, an operating room in a backpack. 

Debbie says, "We are in the midst of testing and tweaking the design now. It was extremely gratifying to receive a lot of useful feedback at the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition conference, and be recognized for a what the judges described as 'very timely, creative project...on a critically important issue.'"

 Pursuing a D-Lab-inspired joint degree in medicine and mechanical engineering When not working on SurgiBox, Debbie is finishing up an MD degree at Harvard Medical School with the support an AAUW fellowship recognizing her efforts in medicine and biomedical technology. She says that D-Lab inspired her to create the first joint MD/MEng degree at Harvard, completing the MEng component in biomedical engineering at Boston University in 2015. Prior to D-Lab, Debbie worked on low-cost diagnostic platforms and also on cost-effective ways to screen for individuals at exceptional risk of heart failure as well as sudden cardiac death. She is passionate about harnessing technology to solve patient care problems, and make the world a healthier place. 

The SurgiBox team is grateful for funding from the Harvard Medical School Scholars in Medicine Office. The team also thanks Jose Gomez-Marquez and Anna Young for design and implementation advice; MIT D-Lab Workshop manager Jack Whipple for machine shop assistance; and Drs. Christiana Iyasere, Stephen Odom, and Dana Stearns for support. They also thank MIT’s Environmental Health Services, MIT Office of Technology Development, and Partners Research Ventures & Licensing for their support.



MIT Connection connects D-Lab to MIT alumni in New York.

D-Lab co-director Victor Grau Serrat addresses the attendees.

Enjoying the event!

Learning by doing: trying out D-Lab cornshellers.

Question and answer period.

On Monday, May 11th, D-Lab co-director Victor Grau Serrat and development officer Peggy Eysenbach traveled to New York City to present at an MIT Connection event for New York City-area MIT alumni.

This was the second event in The MIT Connection series developed for MIT alumni 11 to 24 years past graduation as a way to stay connected to MIT by attending MIT volunteer led events, sharing ideas for future activities, and giving back to support MIT’s mission.

The D-Lab presentation centered on Creative Capacity Building and D-Lab's participatory approach to building innovation capabilities in local communities. The presentation was followed by a panel of D-Lab alumnae including Tiffany Guo, Caroline Hane-Weijman, and Tina Leimbach (formerly Tina Ro), moderated by Victor. Panelists reflected on their D-Lab trips and experiences followed by a lively question and answer session! See Three D-Lab Alumnae, Four Questions to read their reflections on their D-Lab experience.

Following the panel discussion, guesst had the opportunity to interact with some of the tools that have been created at D-Lab to tackle the global poverty challenge and to support current Institute initiatives that are redefining technological solutions for people living at the base of the economic pyramid.


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