Shannon Smith

MDI Student Combines Passions to Custom Design a Career

Sometimes the path you’re meant to travel is not always the most obvious or direct, but life has a way of guiding you to it. Just ask Shannon Smith, a successful fashion designer and current M.S. in Medical Device Innovation (MDI) student at the Technological Leadership Institute at the University of Minnesota.

“Whether serendipity, destiny or luck, the University of Minnesota’s Master’s in Medical Design Innovation feels like the answer I didn’t know I was looking for,” said Smith.

Smith, whose mother is an adjunct professor in the Department of Dermatology at the U of M, said she was exposed to mentors in medicine her entire life and was also drawn to make a difference in the lives of others. Still, she said, the pull to design nagged at her.

“I was born a designer: creative, innovative, and artistic. It seemed that these two paths were incompatible and I would have to choose. The designer in me won the battle and I embarked on a career in apparel design”, said Smith, who found great success in the industry.

During her undergraduate studies in apparel design at the U of M, she had the opportunity to attend the London College of Design during a study abroad experience and spent a summer interning for Juicy Couture in New York City.

“I thought I was on track to design high fashion until one definitive experience changed my direction,” said Smith. While still in her program, she was selected to represent the University in a design competition at the Outdoor Retailer Trade Show. Judged by founders of some of the top outdoor apparel companies and modeled after Project Runway, she was given just 48 hours to design a versatile and functional day-to-evening jacket. Her design won the competition.

“This experience opened a new world of technical and outdoor design to which I hadn’t been exposed, and it literally changed my life,” said Smith, who went on to work as a technical designer and later as a men’s sportswear designer at Cabela’s.

But she could never fully quiet the call to medicine. After three years, Smith left Cabela’s and enrolled in undergrad pre-med classes with the intention of applying to medical school. But life threw her another curve, one that led her closer yet to her current path.

Smith, an honors student who had always selected classes that played to her strengths and relied heavily on her listening and memory skills, found herself struggling in ways she never expected. She was earning A’s in classes like physics and organic chemistry and struggling in classes that should have been easier, like intro to biology.  Ultimately her struggles were explained; she was diagnosed with dyslexia. Determined not to let her learning disability stop her, she worked twice as hard and completed the required science classes in two-years. But given the fact she was diagnosed as an adult, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) was unwilling to grant her accommodations on the MCAT.

“If you test me on knowledge, recall, pattern recognition, data interpretation, application of skills, innovation or originality, I excel. But if you test me on my ability to read long paragraphs quickly, I will disappoint. The way I read is normal for me so it’s hard to explain, but the words and letters move while I’m reading them; shift position from side-to-side and up and down.  I can find the words and make sense of the sentence and once I do, my comprehension and recall is excellent, but the process simply takes longer,” she said. “For me, the MCAT wasn’t a test of what I knew, it was a test of how fast I could read and I fell short of my goal.  The MCAT is a tool used to compare medical school applicants but it does not define clinical skills, compassion, dedication or capacity for good.”

Though disappointed that retaking the MCAT would delay her plans, she remained undeterred in her determination to make a difference in the health and lives of others.

“I know there are dyslexic doctors, professors, scientists, and other professionals who have achieved great things in their careers,” she said.

Quite serendipitously while in her last semester, she learned about the MDI program, which she said provided the final piece of professional clarity and direction she needed.

“Medical Device Innovation sounded like the perfect marriage of design and medicine. Good design can help improve everyday function. It can simplify tasks, make people happy and, most importantly, save lives,” she said, adding that “it seemed tailor-made for my goals and skill-set.” She applied to the program, was accepted and said she couldn’t be happier with her decision.

She said she was drawn to the unique curriculum of the MDI program, specifically, how it combines aspects of MBA-like leadership courses with in-depth training in medical devices.

“With so many people getting an MBA to boost their career, I’m extremely happy with my decision,” said Smith. “I believe that combining the Masters in MDI with my pre-existing design background and skills will help me stand out in the medical device world and create great opportunities for me in the industry, in the Twin Cities and beyond.”

Smith said she’s been impressed not only with the level of experience and expertise the faculty brings to the program, but the one-on-one attention and support they offer. She enjoys learning in a cohort, the family-feel, and unique experiences and perspective her classmates bring to the table.

“While retaking the MCAT and applying to medical school isn’t off the table, I’ve found I can make an incredible impact in medical devices, thanks to TLI and the University,” Smith said. “A program I didn’t know existed, and an industry I didn’t realize I fit in, have proven home for me.”

Smith’s hard work, dedication and compassion are paying off. She was offered a Fellowship position at the Medical Devices Center at the University of Minnesota working as an Innovation Fellow. She starts this July, one month before graduating from the program.

“I am committed, compassionate and now even more empathetic to the daily struggles people face in their lives. With what I’m learning in the Medical Device Innovation program I know I will be able to make a difference.”

If you are interested in learning more about the MDI program at TLI, click here or join us for an upcoming information session.