Mary Bessel

Medical Device Engineering Student Mary Bessell Thrives in KGI’s Supportive Environment, Navigating Learning Challenges While Playing to Her Strengths

Mary Bessell, MSMDE ’23, is not a typical master’s student, as she has already earned a bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering and a master’s in Product Development Engineering from USC. However, upon graduating, she noticed that many of the jobs she was applying for required hands-on technical skills—whereas her USC program had been more conceptual—and that many of these companies specialized in medical devices.

Bessell has always been interested in building things to help people, and she realized that through developing medical devices, she could maximize the number of people she helped. This led her to Keck Graduate Institute (KGI)’s Master of Science in Medical Device Engineering (MSMDE) program.

She got her first taste of the program during the Medical Device Development Bootcamp in the summer of 2021. There, she worked with her team to design a microfluidic point-of-care urinary tract infection (UTI) diagnostic device—a project she has continued to build upon her first semester at KGI in Schlappi Lab.

The project’s goal is to improve upon existing UTI tests, which typically take about three days to provide a diagnosis because the sample must be sent to a lab. A point-of-care device would enable doctors to perform a test on the spot so that patients could ideally receive a diagnosis and be prescribed an appropriate treatment on the first visit.

Bessell learned more about in vitro diagnostic (IVD) devices in the class Medical Diagnostics, where she worked on a class-wide project to design an IVD diagnostic device for the prognosis of cytokine release syndrome in CAR-T cell patients.

“The entire class functions as a mock in vitro diagnostic company, and each individual team is a department in that company,” Bessell said. “We work together to build a cohesive device. It’s a lot of work, and it’s not for everyone. But for me, it was the best project I’ve ever worked on for a class.”

“It confirmed that I love diagnostics and want to pursue that as a potential career opportunity.”

Bessell is immunocompromised and has Autism Spectrum Disorder, several learning disabilities, and ADHD, which she has learned to navigate through open communication and transparency. Since coming to KGI, she has flourished due to her support from faculty and staff, particularly Dr. Travis Schlappi.

“He is literally the best instructor that I’ve ever had,” Bessell said. “He has the ability to adapt his teaching style in the moment to students’ specific learning styles, which he’s done with me and others. He challenges me and motivates me to be a better team player, a better friend, and a better person.”

Schlappi has enjoyed working with Bessell in ALS 320 on the hardware team and design master record (DMR) team and in his lab, where she is a research assistant.

“She is extremely passionate and driven to improve medical diagnostics, and all in her orbit benefit from her passion and energy,” Schlappi said. “She is very detail-oriented and creative, important for a multidisciplinary engineer designing, building, and integrating the various components and modules of a medical diagnostic device. I look forward to working with Mary on our point-of-care diagnostic research further in the spring.”

She has also enjoyed working with MSMDE Program Director Dr. Anna Hickerson.

“Dr. Hickerson is a wonderful person and fantastic professor,” Bessell said. “The beauty of having a small program is that it allows her to provide a lot of one-on-one mentoring. I feel that she’s able to help us no matter what, and my first semester would not have been as smooth without her.”

She also appreciates how Dr. Angelika Niemz has gone above and beyond to provide support and mentorship. All of her professors have worked to accommodate her, especially when it comes to oral presentations.

“My autism mainly affects me socially in that I get very drained during certain activities. My instructors have been really helpful when it comes to providing immediate feedback on my oral presentations and spacing them apart, so I have time to recuperate,” Bessell said.

This support helped Bessell navigate these challenges and brought her gifts in areas such as spatial recognition to the surface.

“When I’m put into a safe environment, where people can set me up for success, I’m able to utilize my strengths, minimize my weaknesses, and really focus on the task at hand,” Bessell said. “That was really seen throughout the semester.”

Bessell’s goal is to eventually earn a PhD, though she is still deciding whether to pursue a career in academia or industry. She hopes to either become a professor and start her own company, which she would run on the side, or to become a lead engineer for an integration and medical device diagnostic company.

“I’m very thankful for this opportunity,” Bessell said. “I’ve made a lot of friends along the way, not just with my fellow students but also with faculty and staff. That’s what makes this school so great.”