This story is featured in the spring 2021 issue of St. Thomas Engineer.
It’s a good thing Dr. Heather Orser likes engineering. She is surrounded by engineers since her father, husband, brothers and daughter all are engineers. Her inspiration to pursue electrical engineering came from her father, a professor of electrical engineering at Mankato State University (now Minnesota State University, Mankato).
Orser joins St. Thomas as the newest member of the electrical engineering faculty. Prior to joining the faculty, she worked in industry. This experience was very rewarding for Orser, as she had the opportunity to develop products through testing, learning, adjusting and sending product to market. Some of her work to date has included design of integrated circuits for ﬁber optic transceivers operating at 10Gb at IBM; development of MRI conditionally safe neuromodulation systems used to treat pain, Parkinson’s disease, and other nerve conditions at Medtronic; and the development of a research tool to understand how to improve memory in those suffering from impairment due to traumatic brain injury.
One area that Orser is passionate about is improving the number of students, especially women, in engineering. Orser volunteers with a high school robotics team to help people see their talent for engineering. She believes that engineering can seem like magic with the amazing things that are done. Learning about things like robotics allows the student to master this and understand how and why things do and don’t work.
Orser’s research includes neuromodulation, which involves modifying the behavior of neurons in the body. Currently, some of her research is working with the next-generation devices for the treatment of sleep apnea. This device provides stimulation to the hypoglossal nerve, which pushes the tongue forward to open up the airway when people sleep. The device is similar in size to a pacemaker and is implanted in the upper torso. The focus of her research is assessing the capability of the integrated circuit in the device to produce the desired stimulation and monitor the efﬁcacy of therapy.
Her ﬁrst year of teaching began in the pandemic, which has presented its own challenges. The need for distance has made it a challenge to ensure students are engaged and meeting the learning goals of the class. To do this, Orser has used different techniques to make concepts tangible. One way she has done this is by using music to highlight what ﬁlters do to the sound of music. She knows our world is full of engineered devices with embedded systems, but most people don’t take notice until something stops working. So, Orser also talks to her students about the complexity of designing pacemakers, and all the qualiﬁcations a device inside a body needs: a battery that can last 10 years, working mechanical parts, security, the environment, how the surgeon should put in the implant, and twiddler’s syndrome (where some people want to rotate the implant once in place). These insights are also valuable in her work with the Senior Design Clinic as it helps provide context for students developing a prototype for industry.