Although the interdisciplinary nature of the UAlberta Industrial Design program is what brought Laila Steen (’13, BDes) from her native Oslo, Norway to Edmonton, she never imagined that she could apply her design skills to medicine. But thanks to an innovative practicum, Steen went from designing furniture to designing prosthetic molds for potential clinical use.
Steen hadn’t thought about the value of design in medicine until she heard about a new master’s program and practicum offered specifically to industrial design students through UAlberta’s Institute for Reconstructive Sciences in Medicine (IRSM). The program, which is also supported by the Department of Art & Design, focuses on surgical design and simulation and trains design students to become researchers in the areas of surgical prosthetic care and rehabilitation science.
“For me, it was just an exciting opportunity to do something really significant in design.”
“That was a brand new thing to me, and I thought, ‘What does a designer do in that kind of environment?’” Steen remembers. Although Steen has won awards for her furniture designs — she most recently won the Best Student Design award at the 2012 Interior Design Show in Toronto (a trip that was made possible by the Faculty of Arts Student Life and Enrichment Fund) — she jumped at the opportunity to try a different area of design.
“For me, it was just an exciting opportunity to do something really significant in design. Although my goal as a designer has always been to help people, it feels quite removed from people when you’re designing models of chairs and tables,” says Steen.
However, she quickly learned that the process of sketching, brainstorming and conceiving a solution is largely the same, whether she’s designing furniture or designing a prosthetic mold.
During her practicum, Steen helped develop a digital process in 3-D software that could be used to build and eventually print a 3-D prosthetic ear mold. Currently, prosthetic ears are created using denture plastic molds, but this method can be inefficient and time-consuming. A digital process not only enables specialists to re-print prosthetic molds more efficiently, it could potentially reduce the number of appointments needed with patients and allow surgeons to treat more people in a shorter amount of time.
Steen notes that prosthetic care for the face and neck requires extreme precision because they are such visual parts of the body. That’s why industrial designers and their work with 3-D modeling can make such a difference.
“[The practicum] has given me a clear path to what I want to do with design and the potential of design,” adds Steen, who has applied for the master’s program. “The ultimate goal for me is to be able to really push the field forward. It’s a fairly new field and not every country has a lab like IRSM, where they are developing and utilizing high quality, really advanced tools in medicine. So a goal of mine is to bring this forward and potentially introduce it to other places.”