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Back to the future: The legacy of Obama’s 2009 commencement address

In 2009, President Barack Obama spoke at Arizona State University’s commencement, urging graduates to make their mark on the world, and to “continuously adapt to a continuously changing economy: to have more than one job or career over the course of your life; to keep gaining new skills, possibly even new degrees, and to keep taking risks as new opportunities arise.” His words resonated with engineering graduates, who in the five years that have passed, have gone on to work, research, learn and lead, in fields from health care to gaming, in graduate school, industry and as entrepreneurs. For them, Obama’s words still inspire and drive them forward. Below are a few of their stories.

Daniel Bishop, Scott Fisk and Craig Teegarden

Engineering graduates from left, Scott Fisk, Craig Teegarden, and Daniel Bishop, have launched a startup, Qualaris Healthcare Solutions, which offers a mobile software program for hospitals to educate, track and analyze best practices for patient safety.

Engineering graduates from left, Scott Fisk, Craig Teegarden, and Daniel Bishop, have launched a startup, Qualaris Healthcare Solutions, which offers a mobile software program for hospitals to educate, track and analyze best practices for patient safety.

Daniel Bishop, Scott Fisk and Craig Teegarden watched Obama’s address together. Bishop was finishing his biomedical engineering degree, Fisk and Teegarden their computer science engineering degrees.

All three were Barrett, The Honors College, grads, and all three were headed to Pittsburgh for prestigious Ph.D. programs at Carnegie Mellon, Bishop for an M.D./Ph.D. with Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh.

“There are moments when you’re going through transitions in life where you get goose bumps,” Bishop said. “You realize you are at a point where you have an opportunity to shift what you’re doing. I remember, at graduation, that feeling being deeply engrained from Obama’s message to do good and change the world.”

The ASU trio stayed tight in grad school in Pittsburgh, working on a dream of improving health care. About three years ago, seizing the moment presented by Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act, which requires hospitals to improve quality and curb readmission rates, they launched a startup, Qualaris Healthcare Solutions. Then, one by one, starting with Fisk, then Teegarden, and finally Bishop, they withdrew from their graduate programs.

“We had to weigh the guarantee of a meaningful level of success and credentials from the phenomenal education we were receiving against the unknown,” Bishop said. “We were trading the certain for the uncertain. One of the things that led us to do it was a deep belief in each other.”

Qualaris offers a mobile software program for hospitals to educate, track and analyze best practices for patient safety. For example, a nurse administrator can take her iPad around the unit, checking whether fall prevention procedures, like non-slip socks, decluttered rooms and patient education are being followed.

Digital tracking and measuring, and the resulting coaching, are leading to improvements in falls, infection prevention, and more, Bishop said. The program is being used in regions across the country.

Christine Leon Swisher

Christine Leon Swisher is finishing a Ph.D. and working on better cancer detection techniques.

Christine Leon Swisher is finishing a Ph.D. and working on better cancer detection techniques.

Christine Leon Swisher’s grandmother died of cancer when Swisher was a young girl. It was diagnosed late, which made the treatment less effective. That bitter loss inspired her to research and engineering to develop better detection and treatment options.

“I personally saw that, if you don’t diagnose cancer early, not only does it affect the quality of the person’s life, it impacts how long you have that family member with you,” Swisher said.

Swisher thought about medical school, but switched to biomedical engineering after volunteering at a hospice facility and county hospital and seeing first hand the need for better technology.

“I decided that innovation was how I could give back,” she said.

At commencement, she was thrilled to hear Obama mention an ASU biomedical engineering project in which many of her fellow students built medical devices for people with disabilities in Malawi.

A year later, through the Fulton Schools of Engineering’s 4+1 program, she finished her master’s degree, for which she had done research on better ways to deliver drugs to cancer tumors.

In May, she will finish her Ph.D. in bioengineering through a joint program between the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, San Francisco.

She is also a National Science Foundation fellow, a graduate student instructor at Berkeley, and is also very involved in science and education outreach.

Her doctoral research focuses the early diagnosis of cancer using with the development of safe, non-invasive Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) techniques.

This summer, she will move to Boston, to be a post-doctoral research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medicine School. She will be working on smaller, less-expensive, hand-held devices that can screen for cancer at a patient’s bedside.

She agrees with Obama’s push for cost-effective health care, and cites statistics that show America spends the most per-capita on health care of any country, but doesn’t see the best results in outcomes.

“Instead of other expensive technologies such as MRI, which can cost several million dollars, this hand-held device will be affordable for patients of every economic background,” she said. “A lot of patients do not have access to these exquisite imaging technologies because they’re so expensive, but if we get something affordable into the hands of clinicians and patients, it can be used at the point-of-care and a make a tremendous impact on outcomes.”

While Swisher has remained focused on cancer research, she has embraced Obama’s call for adaptation, moving from drug delivery to improving detection to smaller, more cost-effective devices. Someday, she could see herself running an entrepreneurial startup dealing with medical devices.

“My classmates have become physicians and lawyers, some working in industry, getting MBAs,” she said. “They’re all engineers, but they’ve gone in very diverse directions. The training we received was great, and we all took away something different.

Ryan Christensen

Ryan Christensen, seated, and his son, Collin, have worked together on independent gaming design.

Ryan Christensen, seated, and his son, Collin, have worked together on independent gaming design.

Ryan Christensen, who earned his master’s degree in software engineering in 2009, took Obama’s advice to heart, switching from a safe job as a software engineer to his dream of game development and design.

After working for two game companies for a few years, Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment and 2XL Games, he reflected again on Obama’s message.

“He got me thinking about working for myself,” Christensen said. “Getting a degree empowered me, but I wanted to make games that were mine, not owned by another company.”

So Christensen ventured out on his own to work on independent titles at Drawlabs game studio.

“I’m no longer working for the man,” Christensen said. “That’s the future. It is more of a product hustle economy than an old-school safe economy.”

In 2012, Christensen launched SupaSupaCross, an arcade racing motocross game, and in 2013, Barrow Brainball, an interactive game that teaches children about avoiding concussions, released in conjunction with Barrow Neurological Institute and Fiesta Bowl Charities.

This summer, he plans to launch a new title filled with adventure called Action Bots, and hopes one day to employ other game developers, designers and artists. His son, Collin, who worked on the upcoming release, will enroll in ASU’s Barrett, The Honors College, in the fall, planning on studying computer science.

Urusa Alaan

Urusa Alaan is working on "spintronics," research with complex oxide materials with applications for next-generation devices.

Urusa Alaan is working on “spintronics,” research with complex oxide materials with applications for next-generation devices.

Urusa Alaan, a Flinn scholar, National Merit Scholar and former student at Barrett, The Honors College, finished her bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering in 2009, secured an NSF Graduate Research fellowship, and went to the University of California, Berkeley, to work on a Ph.D. When her advisor moved to Stanford, she went, too.

In the lab, she’s working with complex oxide materials, which are strongly correlated electron systems that give rise to new phenomena at the intersection between magnetism, light and electricity. In particular, she’s looking at different ways to access magnetic properties in oxides, which can have applications for next-generation devices. Instead of electronics, she and her lab are working toward “spintronics.”

“I remember President Obama telling us not to rest on our laurels,” Alaan said. “When I’m having trouble staying motivated, I remember that and try to avoid complacency.”

Outside the lab, she’s been selected for a new AAAS program called Emerging Leaders in Science and Society, a transdisciplinary effort to have graduate students work on complex societal problems.

Alaan and her group, which includes students in molecular and cellular physiology, med school, pharmacy, public health genetics, psychology and nursing, are looking at the sociology of mental health.

“The Affordable Care Act changes the landscape of mental health treatment,” Alaan said. “We’re looking at it with an open mind to see how it impacts a range of stakeholders, and how it differs across states, including California, Washington and Pennsylvania. We’re interested in understanding the needs of individuals and their communities with respect to mental health.”

The program gets her out of the lab and her comfort zone.

“In the lab, you can lose contact with society and communities outside academia,” she said. “This gets me back in touch and I’m talking to a variety of people I might never have met.”

Alaan said she hopes for a faster payoff, too.

“We might see the impact or relevance within the next one or five years,” she said. “With basic research, it can be longer.” And it’s making her reassess the future. “I’m being drawn toward science communication,” she said. “I’m interested in the intersection between public policy and science.”

Jonathan Sutton

Jonathan Sutton is working on a master's degree in artificial intelligence at New York University.

Jonathan Sutton is working on a master’s degree in artificial intelligence at New York University.

Jonathan Sutton, who graduated summa cum laude in 2009, with a degree in computer science, is already on his third iteration, having switched from a music major to computer science, worked for General Dynamics for four years and enrolling in a master’s program studying artificial intelligence at New York University.

“Many of the people I went to school with changed their degree multiple times and are doing things that you wouldn’t have predicted,” Sutton said. “I think that’s the way of my generation. I have lots of interests. I don’t see doing the same thing for 10 years.”

After graduation, Sutton worked at General Dynamics on a new military radio that would play any type of waveform, meaning it could be used with legacy radios as well as any new waveforms under development. He also taught drums at Casa Grande High School. Sutton’s music background informs his current studies in artificial intelligence, he said.

“The field is still in its infancy, without a whole lot of established technique,” Sutton said. “People who come at it from a field of creativity or art are good at looking at the issues from a different plan of attack.”

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