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students in Perry Outreach Program
May 15, 2019

Breaking bones and barriers: Program introduces young women to engineering, orthopedics

Written By: Tom Ziemer

On a Saturday in late April 2019, on the northeastern edge of Madison, Wisconsin, a group of high school girls worked in pairs to perform spinal fusions. Across the room, others sutured pig feet, while another group took turns drilling into femur bones.

After all, what better way to learn about orthopedics and biomedical engineering than by actually trying out some procedures? That idea is at the heart of The Perry Initiative, which aims to inspire young women to pursue careers in orthopedic surgery and related engineering fields.

A pair of University of Wisconsin-Madison engineers—Ana Ebrahimi, a postdoctoral fellow in mechanical engineering, and Christa Wille (BSBME ’12), a PhD student in biomedical engineering—led efforts to bring the initiative’s outreach programs for high school and medical students to Madison for the first time.

 students in Perry Outreach Program
Mechanical engineering postdoctoral fellow Ana Ebrahimi (far left) and biomedical engineering PhD student Christa Wille (fourth from right) led efforts to bring The Perry Initiative’s outreach programs to Madison.

During the weekend of April 26-27, 2019, 11 medical school students and 25 high school students from across southern Wisconsin and beyond attended programs at UW Health at The American Center. They heard from practicing orthopedic surgeons and engineers and got to try their hands at a few techniques on artificial bones.

“Young girls in general are not encouraged to tinker or play or problem-solve as much,” says Ebrahimi, who studies gait analysis and tendon mechanics in children with cerebral palsy. “This is a program that really tries to give them confidence by having them actually learn how to use the power tools: how to use the oscillating saw, breaking things, figuring out ways to put things back together—just basically problem-solving and being hands-on with people who have gone through the whole process themselves.”

As a graduate student at the University of Delaware, Ebrahimi met Jenni Buckley, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and one of the co-founders of The Perry Initiative. Buckley became a mentor to Ebrahimi, who joined the organization as a volunteer and then a program specialist.

When she came to Madison to work in the lab of Bernard A. and Frances M. Weideman Professor of Mechanical Engineering Darryl Thelen in 2018, it was only natural the initiative would soon follow. Wille, who is also a physical therapist in sports medicine at UW Health, got involved after Thelen mentioned the idea during a meeting.

“I thought, ‘Well that sounds cool. I want to be a part of that,’” says Wille, who also works in the UW Neuromuscular Biomechanics Lab, directed by Thelen and Bryan Heiderscheit, a professor of orthopedics and rehabilitation in the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. Wille leveraged her connections to UW Health’s orthopedic surgeons, found sponsors and began organizing the event more than a year in advance.

According to a 2015-16 report from the Association of American Medical Colleges, just 6-8% of practicing orthopedic surgeons were women. The numbers in biomedical engineering are substantially better, with 44% of bachelor’s degrees going to women, per 2017 data from the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). But ASEE also reported the proportion of women among tenured or tenure-track faculty in biomedical engineering was just 22.7%.

Ebrahimi and Wille point to a dearth of role models, limited opportunities to develop technical skills, and perceptions about work-life balance as barriers young women face in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math fields. They’re hoping The Perry Initiative can be part of the solution—85% of its high school program participants have gone on to pursue STEM majors—as an annual event in Madison.

“It takes other people believing in you, and that’s what really The Perry Initiative is about: getting a group of people to say, ‘Hey, you can do this,’” says Ebrahimi. “It makes a huge difference, just one person telling you, ‘You can do this. It might at times seem hard, but other people have done it before and you can do it too.’”