Alumni Profile: Biomedical Engineer, Jo Forst ’13

Johanna (Forst) Varga ‘13 is currently a Channel Marketing Manager for Cardiovascular Diagnostics & Services in Western Europe at Medtronic, a major medical technology and services corporation. Jo graduated from Hope College with a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering with a concentration in biomedical engineering. After graduation, she attended the University of Rochester where she obtained a Master of Science degree in biomedical engineering with an emphasis in neuroscience. Her first position at Medtronic was in the neuro modulation division, which focuses on the development of implantable stimulators for restorative medical therapies. Restorative medical therapies can include, for example, deep brain stimulation to treat patients with Parkinson’s disease. This interview was conducted after she had transitioned to an Associate Market Development Manager role within the Cardiovascular Division while she was working in the metropolitan area of Minneapolis, MN.  In that role, she was called upon for marketing analytics where she used her research and technical background.

As a market development manager, Jo worked to increase awareness and expand the market opportunity for the use of Medtronic’s cardiovascular devices. Her main project expanded the use of an implantable cardiac monitor (ICM) for patients who had a cryptogenic stroke. A common cause of cryptogenic stroke is atrial fibrillation which originates in the left atrium of the heart. The Medtronic device is 1/3 the size of a AAA battery, and through a minimally invasive technique, sits just under the skin to continuously monitor the heart and detect arrhythmias. Jo’s work focused on helping overcome barriers in ensuring patients had access to these kinds of diagnostic options. This task involved working with both stroke neurologists, who see cryptogenic stroke patients, and with electrophysiologists who implant the devices and track patients once they receive a long-term cardiac monitor. The following are excerpts from the interview with Jo.

What do you find most exciting about the work that you do?

 The work I do directly impacts Medtronic patients and customers. Therefore, the most rewarding part of my job is when I get to work with physicians using our devices that improve quality of life for their patients. We are consistently developing new technology which allows us to stay more connected and expands access to more people in need.

What are some activities you were involved with at Hope that helped shape you as a person?

One of my favorite activities was working with Hope’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders. The trip to Cameroon and the work with the local NGO and community members had a lasting impact on me. It helped shape how I view education and sustainability management. In order for work to be sustainable there needs to be a sense of ownership and passion behind the cause. Connecting with people of all different backgrounds helped me value the importance of inclusion, diversity, and teamwork.

What aspect of your engineering education was most helpful?

My time in the Rehabilitation Engineering Lab [performing research with Professor Katie Polasek] was paramount to my engineering education. I utilize the clinical research experience and critical thinking skills every day in my job. My research experience helps set me apart from my peers and allows me to provide a well-rounded perspective for business needs.

Can you comment on the liberal arts aspect of Hope?

I interact with individuals from across many different functional areas and business units regularly. A liberal arts education provided a well-rounded perspective in which I was able to learn and interact with students across other disciplines. As an engineering student, I took advantage of neuroscience courses with other life science students, played a college sport, and performed multidisciplinary research. These experiences, I think, were unique to a liberal arts education.

What advice would you give to current students?

Get involved and take advantage of opportunities to gain project management and leadership skills outside the classroom. These opportunities are plentiful at Hope and will set you apart after graduation.

Off-Campus Study Highlight: Tom Ritzman ’18

Tom Ritzman skiing the Mont Blanc glacier in Chamonix, France.

Spending 7 months in France taking classes, working as an engineering intern for an international corporation, and enjoying new people and a new culture sounds like a rewarding and life-changing endeavor. This experience describes the past spring semester and summer for Tom Ritzman, who is in his fourth year as an engineering major pursuing the mechanical engineering concentration. Tom spent the 2017 spring semester in Nantes, France living with a host family and taking classes. After the semester ended he transitioned into an engineering internship role with Johnson Controls Inc. (JCI). He worked in their Building Efficiency group, which is primarily responsible for all things having to do with controlled climate (heaters, chillers, thermostats, air ducts, etc.) for both residential and commercial buildings. The plant where Tom worked in Nantes produces industrial chillers for JCI’s European clientele. These industrial chillers can range in size from filling the back of a pickup truck to being three stories high and 50 yards long! The following are excerpts from a recent conversation with Tom about his experience studying and working in France:

Describe your study abroad experience.

I studied from January until the beginning of May. I took classes that counted toward my general education requirements at Hope in religion, cultural heritage, and the fine arts. My fourth class was a French culture and grammar class. All courses were administered by IES Abroad (Institute for the International Education of Students). I rearranged my schedule for engineering courses so that I wouldn’t miss any prerequisites during my spring semester abroad, and I was able to knock out a majority of my remaining general education credits! During the spring semester, I lived with an awesome host family. They invited me to attend two of their family weddings, to join them whenever they went to their country home, or to go with my host brother to the local radio station where he worked.

How did you obtain an internship in France?

I was a global procurement intern for JCI during the summer of ‘16 at their corporate headquarters in Milwaukee. Through networking at an intern event held at a Brewers game, I expressed my excitement to be studying abroad next spring in France (I was deciding between Nice and Nantes). A VP of the company asked if I would be interested in interning in Nantes, France if he were to connect me with the plant manager. That led to being introduced to JCI’s Europe HR and the plant manager.  Over the course of the fall we worked together to make sure all visa and work permits were in order for me to intern the following summer!

As an intern, what were your roles and responsibilities?

This plant was “smaller” in comparison to other JCI plants because it produced chillers in the hundreds while other JCI plants in the U.S. and Asia are producing in the thousands. This presented a unique opportunity to delve into multiple areas of leadership within the plant in Nantes. My “umbrella” title was a manufacturing engineer intern, but I also gained valuable experience in operations, plant purchasing, safety and quality. Over the course of the summer I was responsible for implementing Lean Manufacturing processes such as 5S, Andon systems, Value Stream Mapping or recording Takt times for different product lines. I also assisted in safety trainings, organizing personnel into product line performance teams, and assisted in aligning the purchasing department at the plant with the operations team.

What did you learn about the French culture during your trip?

The French have a rich culture. I was able to experience the music festival held every 21st of June celebrating the longest day of the year, the 14th of July (their equivalent to July 4th), and of course their food, cheese, and wine. Working alongside them I learned they indeed work hard but also believe in not allowing work to dominate their life. A concrete example of this is the minimum of 5 weeks paid vacation given to all French workers. When I first heard about their minimum vacation time, I thought it absurd and honestly wondered if they got work done at all! Yet, through seven months living in their culture, I saw fathers take 2 weeks off to be with their kids during February break, husbands take off long weekends to treat their wives to a getaway to southern Spain or northern Italy, a wife taking a week because their kids are studying for the baccalauréat and could use some support before the big day, or seeing the family vacations planned for the first 3 weeks of August before the kids return to school. From an outsider’s perspective, I naively thought they worked the system waiting for the next chunk of vacation they had planned.  However, as I grew to understand their work-life balance and increasingly came to understand their culture, the differences between my own culture and their own became more apparent. Is one better than the other? No, I don’t think so. I do believe that as an American there are strengths of our culture I’m proud of, but there are other aspects of the French culture that I would rather incorporate.

Where the French culture challenged me the most was faith. France has worked towards a separation of church and state for longer than the U.S. There is a strong division between a French person’s faith walk and the rest of their life. I went into this culture knowing full well that the spiritual landscape of France would be dry, but what I was not ready for was how difficult that is in reality. I did not have a body of believers with which I could grow, encourage, and receive encouragement from. That was tough. My 7 months in this culture spurred me towards a season holding to the truth of Romans 5:1-5. This passage talks about trials developing endurance, endurance developing character, and character strengthening our hope of salvation. This season in a dry landscape became fruitful in ways I had not expected. My faith was tested, and with no “soft” or “comforting” network of friends or brothers in Christ, it meant my faith went through a refining fire. As the saying goes, you appreciate something once you don’t have it – this rang true for me and the community I have at Hope. I’m thankful I’m able to come back to this community for one more year, and have learned how critical it will be to consider what a community looks like in decisions I make as I step from college into the working world.

Reflect on the benefits of working as an engineering intern in an international context.

My experience overall was rich. From a language perspective, I was able to continue to practice my French for another three months. Not to mention it was another contextual learning curve because terms like welding, welder, screw, brazing, cold-rolled steel, compressor, or forklift are not typical words/verbs learned in French class. From an internship perspective, it was a great experience working in another country. It was a challenge to be working on a daily basis in another language, but it was also a challenge because I was exposed to many different work areas like operations and procurement, not just manufacturing. The best part for me was connecting with people. For example, by the end of the summer I had worked one-on-one with one line operator who knew no English, yet I was able to form an understanding and connection with him in his native language. I’d always wanted to be able to speak another language and I was able to see the fruits of my labor.

I also learned a lot about manufacturing engineering. Although I haven’t studied manufacturing engineering, having a mechanical background still helped me in the broad sense of problem-solving, critical thinking and system analysis, and the rest was a great opportunity to learn! I worked with quality engineers, as well as, mechanical, electrical and chemical engineers. One thing I noticed was code and CAD work was done in English so I had a steady stream of questions regarding the meanings of what they were coding or entering in their bill of materials. I saw firsthand the challenge of relaying information from headquarters back in the U.S. to a plant that operates entirely in another culture and language.

Do you have any advice for other students?

I would totally encourage engineering students to study abroad. It is possible to do it and it is such a fulfilling experience! You learn about a new culture, live with a new family, and have to figure it all out – one of the many challenges with studying abroad – but it’s so worth it! Study abroad opened the doorway to an international internship, which can also be an added benefit for you as well.

For landing an internship in general, I worked on getting an interview with JCI as well as other companies from my own connections. Don’t think your family friend who works for an engineering firm isn’t a connection! Once you get that first internship, network with those above you, those you work alongside, and any fellow interns! I still am in touch with 3 other interns from my first summer interning and I may one day find myself inquiring with them about job opportunities. Think about try an internship outside of your degree – I took on an intern position that wasn’t necessarily in mechanical engineering, but I still brought the problem-solving and critical thinking skills honed from being an engineering major into that internship. So, if you are offered an opportunity that may not be in your comfort zone or skill range, I’d encourage you to take that step and learn from it! The perspective of another country, culture and people is so valuable, but it can be daunting. It isn’t easy, but it is worth it.

Alumni Profile: Applications Engineer Kurt Blohm ’06

Kurt Blohm (‘06) is currently an applications engineer at Applied Biomimetic, a company based in Cincinnati, OH, with a unique focus on the development of membranes for water treatment and filtration systems. Kurt graduated from Hope College with a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering with a concenration in chemical engineering. He started his career at ERG, an environmental consulting firm, while also working to obtain his Master of Science degree in chemical engineering at Ohio State University, which he completed in 2010. Kurt has enjoyed a wide variety of experiences including working as a process engineer at an ethanol plant (Valero Renewables), working for a water treatment startup company (Advanced Hydro), and working as a scientist focused on research and development (Battelle).

Kurt Blohm at work. Photo courtesy Applied Biomimetic, Inc.

Kurt describes himself as a chemical process engineer, but his role also includes a healthy dose of sales and business development. In his current role, he travels regularly to customer sites to develop new applications for Applied Biomimetic’s filtration products. His diverse responsibilities also allow him the opportunity to perform research and development work in a laboratory setting, and to design, build, and operate pilot systems to evaluate the success of Applied Biomimetic’s membranes in separating various flow streams. The following are excerpts from a recent correspondence with Kurt.

What do you find most exciting about the work that you do?

I’ve had a range of experiences, from process engineering to R&D and now business development. On any given day, I could be programming a PLC [programmable logic controller], studying protein separation/purification in the lab, or in another country talking to customers. I’ve also had the opportunity to develop my own novel ideas as I have several patents pending in the area of seawater desalination from my time at Battelle. This versatility is a big part of who I am, not just professionally, but personally.

What are some activities you were involved with at Hope that helped shape you as a person?

Engineers without borders was an amazing experience. It helped me realize the value of my education and grew my interest in water and energy. The summer research program is a great way to gain experience and get to know your professors’ research interests.

What aspect of your engineering education was most helpful?

The professors in the sciences are truly top notch. Dr. Misovich was a great mentor and example to me. I could say equally great things about the rest of the faculty, but I had the most exposure to Dr. M.

Can you comment on the liberal arts aspect of Hope?

I think Hope College engineers have a sense of community that I don’t see at other institutions and the same goes for the sports teams (I was on the swim team at Hope). Liberal arts colleges draw that kind of person, but Hope College students are especially community and service oriented.

What advice would you give to current students?

  1. Don’t be overly concerned with grades. If you have a weak subject or two, learn the main concepts and move on.
  2. Get hands on experience as soon as possible, through internships or for example, working in construction.
  3. For chemical engineers: I firmly believe every career chemical engineer should work as a process engineer at a refinery or production plant for some time (or, for example, as a shift supervisor). You should know the plant inside and out by the time you leave – every valve, pump, vessel and control loop. Get to know all the operators, mechanics, and electricians on a personal level because and you can learn a lot from their perspective.
  4. For students pursuing R&D and academia paths, I defer to Richard Feynman: “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”