As an undergraduate at Smith College, Cara Stepp knew she wanted to pursue the field of engineering. But it wasn’t until she worked one-on-one with a professor specializing in hearing that she became fascinated by the marriage of engineering and healthcare.
“Being at a small, private college, I was able to work directly with a professor in her lab,” Stepp explains today. “Typically that work is done by graduate students, but because the TYLENOL® Future Care Scholarship made it possible for me to attend a small school, I got exposed to research very early in my first year.”
Excited by the idea of solving health problems with devices such as the cochlear implant, Stepp went on to earn a PhD in biomedical engineering through a joint program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Medical School. Today she is an assistant professor in the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences at Boston University, where she is working to build engineering solutions for people with speech problems.
“As an engineer,” Stepp says, “I’m very interested in the type of research that leads to actual changes in clinical care in, say, a five-year period, as opposed to working on something that might help someone in thirty years. That’s also very important, of course, but not as exciting to me.”
One of Stepp’s favorite current projects is the development of a device that will allow patients with spinal cord injuries to control a computer mouse with their facial muscles. She and her team are now testing the device on healthy individuals; she’s looking forward to the day when she can begin working with actual patients. “I’m excited to see how this can change their lives,” she says.
Looking back, Stepp credits her early lab work at Smith College as the inspiration for her career. She advises students, whether at small private schools or large universities, to volunteer to work with professors in their labs. “It never occurs to them that they’re allowed to just volunteer,” she says. “So I tell them, just email a professor who’s doing research that interests you. See if they’ll let you come work with them.”