Annie Imbrie-Moore ’12 is a Ph.D. student in the Mechanical Engineering Department at Stanford University, where she works in the Advanced Therapeutics for Heart Failure Research Laboratory. She discovered her engineering acumen while living on Pell Dorm during her freshman year at St. Andrew’s, when Annie and her roommate developed a mechanism to turn on and off the lights while still in their beds. Her current research focuses on improving surgical heart valve repair techniques through experimental and analytical investigation of mitral and aortic valve biomechanics. She is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, Stanford Graduate Fellow, and an Accel Innovation Scholar. Prior to Stanford, she received her Bachelor of Science in biomedical engineering from Harvard University. Occasionally, she can be found hesitantly following fellow 2019 Women’s Network keynote speaker Margaux Lopez ’11 on her mountain treks. We sat down with Annie recently to discuss her research and her time at St. Andrew’s, the connections between the two.
First, let’s talk about what kind of research you’re doing at Stanford.
I’m in the Mechanical Engineering Department, and my work in Dr. Joe Woo’s lab is centered around using mechanical engineering and biomechanics to optimize cardiac surgery operations. Every heart surgeon has to decide exactly how they're going to fix a particular failing heart—how they will repair a leaking valve, for example, where to put their sutures, whether to resect tissue, and a million other decisions. We’re using engineering to [help surgeons] make those choices by figuring out what is the most biomechanically optimal method in every case.
In the lab, most of my experiments use pig valves mounted in a heart simulator chamber that we've designed, which allows us to analyze all the various repairs. A blood analog solution or saline flows through the valve with tuned pressure waveforms so the valve beats as if it were in a heart. We then can simulate a disease state and repair it with any one of a thousand different means to see which option restores the valve to optimal functionality. Part of the work is also dedicated to improving the simulator, and trying to find new ways to more accurately simulate disease. We also take the research one step further to perform and analyze these operations in live sheep and pigs.
That’s a little bit of a simplification, but the big idea is: our research is optimizing cardiac surgery operation using engineering. And I’ll add that the most rewarding aspect of my work is the fact that I can have a direct impact in the clinic—our results can influence surgeons to immediately adjust their techniques. Most research takes years to have that kind of impact, so this significance really drives my work.
What’s a typical day like for you?
That’s a hard question. I set my own schedule, and what I do in a day really just depends on how experiments are going on that day. I've had days where I get in at 7:00 or 8:00 a.m. and don't leave until well past 3:00 a.m. because the experiment is not working. You stay for as long as you can until you have to just call it. But that's kind of the reality of a lot of Ph.D. work, whether in engineering or biology or something else. Research is really, really messy and it takes a long time to get to clean, trustworthy data. But I enjoy it, and those long days are by no means the norm! We always say in lab: it all depends on whether the Pump Gods are shining on us that day (the pump being our short-hand for the heart simulator).
What’s your favorite aspect of what you do?
I do love the messiness that I described. It can be very exciting even when things are going wrong. Every day I'm making big decisions, I'm trying to problem-solve through a million unexpected issues and interesting data, while simultaneously trying to come up with new long-term projects and new designs for all of our current work. So it's never boring. But when you have a thousand projects going on and you're trying to make progress on every single one of them, it can be exhausting. You know that feeling you’d get in college, where, near the end of the term, you feel like you always have something you're supposed to be doing in every moment? You should be working on a paper, you should be studying for a test, and so on, and it doesn't go away until finals are over and you have a little break. That’s what Ph.D. work is like, but we never have finals—it's never over. It’s just like that for five or six years. These projects aren’t going to be done even when I'm finished with my Ph.D. They're years and years and years of research, and other students will take them over. Anyway, that multitasking can be kind of exhausting after a while, but it’s still my favorite part.
How did you become interested in engineering?
I loved all my science classes at St. Andrew's. I sort of always knew I wanted to go into science, but we didn't have any engineering classes like the school does now. So I don't think I really thought about engineering too much until, well, I guess it was the first week at Harvard—they gave us this big book of all the concentrations (most schools call them “majors”). I think there were 48 concentrations, and I went through every single one, read the description, thought about whether or not I’d be interested in it, crossed off all the ones that were hard nos, and I was left with all the engineerings, computer science, and astrophysics. At that point I knew I didn't want to do pure science—pure biology or physics, for example. I have an aversion to closing myself off from any one of the disciplines—I kind of wanted to know them all. I also didn't want to settle down on any one thing too early, and I think ultimately I decided on biomedical engineering because it had everything—it’s mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, bioengineering, and as you get further on in your education, you can tailor your work, your research, and ultimately your job to what [aspect of the field] you enjoy the most.
What was your St. Andrew’s experience like? Do you think that your St Andrew's education informed the work that you do today?
I took as many math and science courses as [then-Dean of Studies] Mr. Costa would allow. I think there was one year where I took five and two, and four of the five main classes were math or science, and I loved them a lot—Mark Hammond's Physics classes in particular. He is a great teacher—he helped really boost my confidence in independent work. You felt like you were really working through interesting problems and independently discovering important fundamentals of physics.
But having a great math teacher or science teacher is sort of icing on the cake for me because I already love those subjects so much. So in terms of what had a really big impact on me at St. Andrew’s, I'd probably say my English classes and Mock Trial. I was built to love math and science, but I was not really built to love English and not built to love the stressful public speaking involved in Mock Trial. But I learned to love these things at St Andrew's, and they inform what I do now. In both cases, you have to learn how to spend hours and hours digging through texts with the implicit understanding that so much of what you’re doing will involve going down the wrong paths. In Mock Trial, we would be overhauling opening statements even on the van ride to the courthouse, and so much of my English career at St. Andrew’s was spent accepting the fact that the first draft of a paper needed to be completely re-written and my thesis re-worked.
That kind of experience is reflected in my work right now, except it's not wasting a day—it’s wasting months. You go down some path and you realize, oh my God, this isn't working, this isn’t where the research needs to go. But you have to be excited when you figure that out, not frustrated, and see that failure as a step in the right direction.
What are you most looking forward to about being back on campus for Women’s Network Weekend?
I always love to come back to the campus. It’s so beautiful. I really just want to see Noxontown Pond! And see all my teachers—Mr. Hammond, Mr. Finch, Mr. O’Connell—they're still some of my favorite teachers. St. Andrew’s always feels like a second home that you come back to, or like you're seeing your old family members. It's a very calming place…. It’s a nice environment to sort of recenter yourself and think about the future.
I can remember, senior year, Mr. O’Connell took our AS Bio class out on canoes at night. We’re out on the pond, it’s after sundown. We strapped our canoes together, and we all lay down and looked up at the stars as he read us nature poetry. It was amazing. I remember thinking about where I was going to go, what I was going to do in college, and the many, many doors that were open for me. This was the very end of senior year, and I was just starting to figure out what path I wanted to take. So yeah, I’m just excited to go back to St. Andrew’s and have that kind of re-centering.
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