Feature Stories

A Meeting of Minds

Hluchyj Fellows combine nursing and engineering to improve clinical health care
  • Akshaya Shanmugam and Jalil Johnson

Health care professionals provide an insider perspective, while engineers offer a fresh outlook and technical expertise.

True, lasting change requires a meeting of the minds--a moment of mutual inspiration that occurs when people who think differently from one another start thinking together. Theresa and Michael Hluchyj know this well. The campus alums annually gift a UMass Amherst fellowship that provided $25,000 annually to two graduate students, one in nursing and one in engineering, as they conduct research in clinical healthcare.

Michael '79 (engineering) and his wife Theresa '77 (nursing) are passionate about their alma mater. Both have enjoyed successful careers and wanted to give back to the campus in a way that enabled collaborative research in their disciplines and tackled "real problems in the clinical setting." The Hluchyjs founded the fellowship in 2008 and have since seen the positive impact their generous gift has had on campus and in the clinical setting.

Akshaya Shanmugam (electrical and computer engineering) and Jalil Johnson (nursing) were awarded the 2012–13 fellowships. Shanmugam is working with faculty advisor Christopher Salthouse (electrical and computer engineering) and mentor Donna Zucker (nursing) to develop a device that will help Zucker more efficiently test in the field for Hepatitis C virus (HCV). Zucker regularly visits the Hampshire County Jail and the Center for Education Prevention and Action (CEPA) in nearby Holyoke to provide free HCV screening. Current testing methods require Zucker to send samples to a state lab and wait as many as four weeks for results.

“When you are dealing with a highly sensitive population or with a population that is difficult to get a hold of, this whole procedure makes things very complicated,” Shanmugam explains.

The microfluidic device that Shanmugam is designing will provide immediate results, determining if a patient is positive or negative for HCV. It will also detect the appropriate subtype if the patient tests positive—an important factor as subtype dictates how the patient must be treated. Shanmugam has received approval from the campus’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) and is moving into the next phase of the project. As she develops a working model, she is joining Zucker on her trips to CEPA to observe the screening process. This is Shanmugam’s first experience with biological engineering and she is excited to observe the relative human factors firsthand.

“This collaboration has helped me make that transition and to look at the other side of the problem,” Shanmugam says.

Johnson, who works as a nurse practitioner for Baystate Health Systems, is focusing on technology that can help Puerto Rican diabetes patients improve their self-care. He is working with devices that will provide instantaneous measurements of glucose levels and blood pressure to a nurse in the outpatient setting. Additionally, this system uses an automated pillbox that records when patients take (or do not take) their medicine. The devices alert the patient’s nurse, and if very high or very low biomarkers are detected, the nurse or medical provider intervenes as appropriate. The automated pillbox also allows for a nurse to monitor a patient’s medication adherence remotely and intervene if needed. As Johnson develops this technology, he is collaborating with UMass Amherst mechanical and industrial engineer Jenna Marquard and Garry Welch, a psychologist at Baystate who specializes in behavioral intervention.

“The fellowship has allowed me to focus on my research and enabled me to seek out interdisciplinary partners,” Johnson says.

Kavita Radhakrishnan, one of the first Hluchyj fellows, is a shining example of the fellowship’s success. Radhakrishnan accepted a faculty appointment at the University of Texas School of Nursing after completing a prestigious post-doctoral position at the University of Pennsylvania. A UMass Amherst doctoral student in nursing, she had a background in telehealth engineering, the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support the delivery of remote clinical healthcare and other health-related services.

During her fellowship, Radhakrishnan was part of a team that evaluated the usability of two consumer health informatics platforms that could impact several medical populations, including diabetics, post-bariatric surgery patients, and cardiac patients. Her work at UMass led her to Penn, where she studied patient-level data to inform prioritization of homecare interventions for heart failure patients using remote-monitoring technologies.

“She’s really good at using telehealth to focus on the usability, the adaptability, the interface with the patient, the interface with the nurse and making it successful. She studies the human factor of telehealth technology,” says Joan Roche, Radhakrishnan’s former nursing professor and advisor at UMass.

The marriage of the two fields is inspired: health care professionals provide an insider perspective, while engineers offer a fresh outlook and technical expertise. And seeing their collaboration have lasting impacts on real patients has made the experience all the more memorable. “Most of the time when you work on something, you don’t even know what it’s doing out in the field, but seeing it right away is an amazing feeling,” says Shanmugam.

Amanda Drane '12