"Perseverance. Commitment. Dedication. 3 imperatives to success."
Yi Yi Du
- Degree: Bachelor of Applied Science
- Grad year: 2023
- Campus: Vancouver
Waking up from a two-month-long coma, I found myself on a rarely trekked path toward graduating from the University of British Columbia (UBC)’s Mechanical Engineering with a Biomechanics and Medical Devices Specialization. Hit by a car on September 13, 2021, outside of UBC, I sustained a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) and finally understood the dire situation that someone with a TBI could be in.
Ironically, my undergraduate research and what I want to focus on in a PhD is specifically centred around the mechanisms of TBI. My SB3C2020 conference presentation on my research of in-vitro modelling of mild TBI now has a more profound personal significance. Despite my functional physical abilities and memory significantly deteriorating from the accident, one thing remained clear to me: my perseverance in the academia of traumatic brain injury research will prevent others from experiencing ICU and enduring months of hospitalization as I aspire to develop effective traumatic brain injury prevention and rehabilitative devices.
Why did you choose to go into your field of study at UBC?
Initially, I intended to specialize in the Thermofluid Option in the second year of my mechanical engineering degree as I was fascinated with rocket engine design. However, I had the opportunity to sit down with Professor Lyndia Wu to discuss getting involved in research at her lab, the Sensing in Biomechanical Processes Lab (SimPL). After a semester of working with graduate students at SimPL, I saw the direct impact an engineer could have on health care. I decided to apply to the Biomechanics and Medical Devices Option in Mechanical Engineering and dedicate myself to bettering health care.
What has made your time at UBC memorable?
In the summer before my final year and the car accident, I reached out to Arc’teryx to be the client of my capstone project. My team and I partnered with them to create a rig that twisted pre-production shoes to characterize their durability. I led the prototyping of a pressurized silicone airbag system that realistically stressed the forefoot region of shoes while attending intensive rehabilitation after awakening from a coma due to a car accident. With the support from my team, professors and my Arc’teryx advisor, designing and validating a biofidelic airbag within a single semester gave me confidence in pursuing my original academic and research goals.
Is there anything you wish you had known before you began studying your degree program?
Whether navigating through challenging problem sets or strategizing coursework for the upcoming semester to be not overly stressful, you need support and a second opinion to save you from unnecessary trouble.
Rather than prioritizing having a solid foundational scientific knowledge and understanding before starting your mechanical engineering portion of your degree, I firmly believe that building a robust support network between you, your peers, your professors and your family is the paramount goal in your first year. You will naturally reinforce the weakest links in your knowledge base as you progress through your degree toward graduation. However, to do so, you must have someone supportive to rely on when in a tricky position.
Were there any challenges you faced and overcame during your degree that you would like to share?
The biggest challenge I’ve faced during my undergraduate degree is overcoming the imposter syndrome after my car accident in my last second semester. It is common for those who have experienced traumatic brain injury to be cognitively compromised. I feared that because of my injury mechanism and severity, I would not have the intellectual capacity to do well or even finish my undergraduate degree. To recover my self-confidence, I focused on the small victories in my coursework and projects as I inched closer to the finals of my last second semester. Advocated by my mum, a civil engineer, I adopted the idea of evidence-based practice (EBP) as I should infer my performance of my future finals based primarily on my existing academic performance after the car accident rather than baseless assumptions.
Where do you find your inspiration for using your degree to make an impact on our world?
When I attended GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre’s Acquired Brain Injury Inpatient and Outpatient Programs, I was among the few who could not independently operate a manual wheelchair or walk steadily. Gradually, I re-acquired enough balance to walk a short distance by myself; yet, to this day, I still cannot effectively operate a manual wheelchair due to my left hemiparesis. The recovery journeys that many others and I are on inspire me to use my degree in mechanical engineering to advance our understanding of traumatic brain injuries so that we can develop more efficacious devices to prevent or rehabilitate traumatic brain injuries.
What are your future plans to make a difference in our world?
In the final year of my undergraduate degree, I took MECH 466 Automatic Control. Even though this course only covered classical control engineering theories, given the time limit of a semester, I enjoyed the material so much that I intend to learn modern and post-modern control engineering theories in my PhD and utilize control engineering theories to design traumatic brain injury prevention devices, like helmets with liquid shock absorbers, or rehabilitative and assistive devices, like autonomous power wheelchairs. Ultimately, I recognize the importance of control engineering as it touches many machines and processes we utilize daily.
How did your studies in the Faculty of Applied Science prepare you for the future of work?
Work concerning all subjects is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary. My study of mechanical engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science exposed me to a very interdisciplinary and tightly-knit work environment at Kardium Inc. during two of my co-op terms. From engineering a system that induced pulsatile saline flow patterns simulating cardiac hemodynamics in silicone heart models to supporting IDE clinical trials to bring Kardium’s ablative catheter to the U.S. market, I faced mechanical, electrical, system and surgical design challenges. To arrive at well-rounded and optimized solutions, knowledge and skillsets from many disciplines were required.
I think a quote from Harry Potter very much applies to everyone here: “Help will always be given at [UBC] to those who ask for it.”
Having sustained a Severe Traumatic Brain Injury (classified by the Glasgow Coma Scale), I identify as a person with disabilities. Because of my quick energy depletion rate, mobility disability and short-term memory problems, the Centre for Accessibility, my professors, my family and my peers remained supportive wherever possible. Without their help, I would have had a much rockier journey in finishing my undergraduate degree and recovering to where I am today.
Do not be afraid to seek out support.