Campus News

UK, Lighthouse Beacon collaboration highlights connection between medicine and engineering

Thomas Pater, chief perfusionist at Kentucky Children’s Hospital, shows students from Laurel and Harlan County high schools how an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine works. Photo by Rick Childress.
Hubie Ballard, M.D., poses for a portrait
Stanley and Karen Pigman

LEXINGTON, Ky. (June 10, 2024) — Megan Parsley has wanted to be an engineer since she was 8. 

She’s been interested in biomedical engineering since discovering the inspiring story of a Florida dolphin named Winter who lost her tail in a crab trap but was able to thrive after receiving a prosthetic tail.  

“I went and visited that dolphin before she passed away in 2021 and it completely piqued my interest,” Parsley said.   

The daughter of an aerospace engineer, Parsley will be starting her freshman year at the University of Kentucky this coming fall and pursuing a pre-biomedical engineering degree.  

But months before she’ll move into her dorm, the Lauren County Center for Innovation graduate was able to get a taste of life on campus and a sampling of what a career at the crossroads of engineering and medicine might look like.  

Thanks to a new effort to engage more Eastern Kentucky students with the connections between medicine and engineering, Parsley was among 60 Laurel County Center for Innovation and Harlan County High School students who spent a day on campus in April taking in hands-on lectures from UK experts and touring the UK Stanley and Karen Pigman College of Engineering and College of Medicine. Parsley said the day helped show her how an engineering education might be implemented in improving patient lives.  

I’ve been on tons of engineering tours because that’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was little but this gave me more of the implication side of it,” Parsley said. “Being able to put engineering into the medical space, which a lot of time is separate, solidified that this is what I want to do.” 

The goal for the visit, which was put on in conjunction with UK HealthCare and Karen and Stanley Pigman’s Lighthouse Beacon Foundation, is to give rural Kentucky high school students, who are interested in STEM, a chance to come and see how those skills can be applied.  

“We are deeply passionate about equitable STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programmatic support and outreach in Eastern Kentucky schools,” the Lighthouse Beacon Foundation said.  

The visit from the South Laurel and Harlan County students dovetails with a trip that several representatives from UK HealthCare and the Lighthouse Beacon Foundation made earlier in April to multiple high school STEM programs across Eastern Kentucky. 

“Connecting schools and teachers to opportunities like the Medicine and Engineering event at the University of Kentucky allows students to receive unique experiences that build the competencies and skills necessary to develop an interest and a passion for engineering,” according to the foundation. “Through the removal of barriers hindering student participation in such events, our foundation acknowledges the direct correlation between programmatic support and heightened engagement, serving as a powerful catalyst for igniting students’ enthusiasm for STEM careers. Events like these assist in creating clarity for students on the trajectory needed to move from high school into engineering and medicine.” 

The Lighthouse Beacon Foundation has worked collaboratively with UK’s Hubie Ballard, M.D., to engage Eastern Kentucky students with an opportunity to learn more about the connections and correlations between engineering and medicine. This event highlighted opportunities in both colleges to inspire students to learn more about connections between the two areas. 

Ballard, the former director of ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) at Kentucky Children’s Hospital, made the trip out to the high schools and helped make the students at home when they visited the College of Medicine. He’s hoping this trip was the first of many.  

“I once heard someone say that STEM should have two Ms and the second M should be medicine,” Ballard said. “There’s an engineering path into medicine. Many of these students are capable, and if that’s where their passion lies, they can become excellent physicians.” 

Ballard would know. He grew up on a farm in Nelson County, came to UK as a first-generation student and now holds degrees from both the College of Engineering and the College of Medicine.  

Engineering does a great job of helping you prepare for the medical school curriculum, especially in terms of pragmatic thinking and problem solving, which is a great pathway to becoming an excellent physician,” Ballard said. 

The hands-on experience was key to aid student understanding, said Kevin Harris, who teaches math and physics at Harlan County High School.  

“It's one thing to know about it or hear about it, but to see it with your own eyes, it makes a difference,” Harris said. “During Dr. Ballard’s presentation he was talking about a success story with a little kid and that just really touched me.” 

Students were shown an in-depth presentation on congenital heart defects and got to examine the devices used to fix those heart issues. Additionally, students also saw how an ECMO machine works. The machine can take over heart and lung function when a patient’s organs aren’t working on their own or need a chance to rest and heal.  

“Coming from a small town and small high school, it makes it personal to the students and gives them a feeling that ‘Hey, I can do this,’” Harris said.  

Shania Middleton, a then-sophomore from Harlan County, said she took the field trip already interested in biomedical engineering and being on campus only deepened that passion.  

“It definitely changed my mindset on engineering and medicine,” Middleton said. “I got to experience some hands-on things and I loved it. It just made me want to go into medicine and engineering even more.” 

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.