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HomeCosta RicaDenise Dajles-Kellermann: Blazing the Trail for Costa Rica’s Biomedical Engineering Revolution

Denise Dajles-Kellermann: Blazing the Trail for Costa Rica’s Biomedical Engineering Revolution

Denise Dajles Kellermann has excelled in the field of technological innovation. She began her studies at the Dr. Jaim Weizman Institute where she completed elementary and high school. Denise earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Biomedical Engineering at Washington University in  St. Louis.

Denise has served as production engineering and process engineering supervisor at Allegan Medical as well as general manager of Acabados Prosein de Centroamérica. Denise served as director of power projects and senior director of research, development and innovation at Establishment Labs.

In the latter position she directed a team working in the field of plastic and reconstructive surgery in the areas of advanced polymer for implant devices, 3D technologies, microchips for biosensors and devices for regenerative medicine. Denise currently works in research and development for Sientra in California.

What did you sacrifice to achieve professional goals?

It’s a matter of balance. Finding the time for each activity and understanding that you can’t do everything at once, and that it’s okay to spend time on different things. We women often find it difficult to allow ourselves not to be everywhere, we want to be at work, but not miss any children’s activities, and sometimes that is impossible.

I’ve been learning that it’s okay to decide how to divide time and accept that it’s okay not to be able to do everything at once. Growing professionally has been as important in my life as having a family. That is why it has been key to learn to perform several tasks simultaneously, to have the support of all family members and to learn to balance and prioritize tasks.

Who are your role models in science and technology?

First, Mary Kenneth Keller, who broke the “men only” rule in the field of computing in the 1960s. Secondly, Albert Einstein, who is inspiring for his genius and his concepts that were so advanced that they revolutionized modern science. Third, Marie Curie, not only for being the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, but for being a pioneer in her field and being a source of inspiration for thousands of people.

What values should be promoted to young people today?

Creativity, critical thinking and self-learning. Today’s world changes at a very fast pace, and only people who can keep constantly evolving, gathering information, learning, but above all, finding how and where to look for what they need, will be those who will go the furthest. I also consider it important to instill effort and perseverance. Do not fall into the world of laziness, but always seek to go further.

What was your inspiration for choosing a career in biomedical engineering?

Since I was a little girl I have loved engineering, science, especially mathematics and physics. I was always very curious, hard-working and studious. I liked medicine but I did not see myself as a doctor, but rather my interest was focused on devices, prosthetics, among others. When it was time to choose a career, in Costa Rica there was no such thing as Biomedical Engineering, so I started looking within the options of engineering and medicine.

After doing a lot of research, I discovered the field of Biomedicine and it was “love at first sight”. I mixed my love for engineering with medicine in a way that I was passionate about. When I started university I began working with one of my professors in his Bioelectricity laboratory, focusing on motor control of arms. The experience of applying knowledge in research aroused in me a growing interest in research and development, as well as a passion for creating new solutions to health problems.

During my last year of high school, when I was still thinking of studying medicine, a surgeon relative of mine gave me the opportunity to spend several days in the hospital with him, to watch surgeries,consultations and learn what life was like in the hospital. It was a wonderful experience.

I discovered that I liked medical concepts and that I enjoyed being in surgeries, but I also noticed that I was even more passionate about seeing the devices and the infinite possibilities of developing technologies and tools to improve the quality of life for all, as well as offering solutions to doctors that are more technologically advanced. This confirmed to me that my interest was definitely in Biomedical Engineering.

What have been the high and low points of your career?

The best moments have been opening a field for women where there was none before, such as being the first woman to lead a research laboratory in Electrical Engineering in Costa Rica. Also to be one of the few female teachers while being so young in that same school. In the professional field, I started to lead large work groups very early, and although in many moments it was challenging, it has always been an enriching experience.

I have also had moments in which I have deviated from my professional preferences to seek new horizons or better conditions that have allowed me to develop in other fields. This has opened up possibilities for my interdisciplinary work.

 I think that in my career, with its ups and downs, everything has been a sum of experiences that have helped me grow and improve myself every day. I treasure my memories very much in the first courses I taught at the Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR). From each one I learned a lot from my students. I am very fond of the first course of “Introduction to Biomedical Engineering” that was opened at the UCR. After struggling a lot to open this innovative course, which we thought would be for 30 students, but at the time of opening the enrollment, more than 120 students tried to enroll.

It was very exciting for me, as it showed the interest of the students in this field for which I have insisted so much in promoting in Costa Rica. It has also been gratifying to see how we managed to create a career in Biomedical Engineering at a university in Costa Rica, ULACIT. I was an integral part of the whole process creating the study program, the programs for each course, finding teachers, designing the laboratories, and even motivating students to enroll in this career. It has been more than seven years in total, a slow process, but seeing it consolidated is very gratifying.

Lastly, in my current job I have managed to mix my taste for entrepreneurship and my passion for research with the opportunity to see that the devices we develop are used in patients around the world and improve the quality of life of patients. It gives me great pride to be part of a group of professionals who have reached the highest levels, who compete with large companies like Johnson & Johnson, with nothing to envy, and who demonstrate what we are capable of doing.

It is indescribable the satisfaction of seeing how the products that started as an idea and which we shaped in our laboratories come to be marketed and used by patients.

What have been the main achievements of your career so far?

Of my main achievements I can list the following:

  • Having my own company before my 30th birthday, and leading large groups of people, in fields where women in leadership positions are scarce.
  • Positioning Biomedical Engineering in Costa Rican university education.
  • Leading the entire research and development team globally in a medical device company, participating in the development (from conceptualization to commercialization) of innovative technologies to improve women’s health.

My dreams and aspirations focus on leaving a positive mark on the world, especially on girls and women. I seek to find solutions to daily problems that impact the health of so many people and I am interested in helping them. I love being a mentor to people, because I learn a lot from each one of them.

If I can positively influence one of them I have already fulfilled part of my aspirations. For me there are no limits and I dream that my children will live in a better world every day, without barriers that limit their growth.

Any special anecdotes you would like to share?

It came as a surprise to me when I was appointed interim director of the UCR’s PRISLab Laboratory. The Semanario Universidad (a weekly university newspaper) came to interview me for being the first woman to run a research laboratory at the School of Electrical Engineering. As I was expecting an interview on the topics we were researching, I was prepared to present them to the public, but no question was related to those topics. Instead, everything was focused on being a woman.

I have never felt that my abilities are measured differently for being a woman. I think that is the most important attitude: not feeling less or more for being a woman. People must be measured by our abilities and capacities, and not by our gender. I have always worked in areas dominated by men, but since I was a child, thanks to my parents, I have known how to believe in my knowledge and abilities, and that what I propose is possible to achieve with a lot of work and dedication.

Are the contributions of women to science and technology different from that of men?

I believe that contributions should be measured by value, regardless of gender. Men and women have the same abilities, but different perspectives. And there is no one better than another. I consider that it is in the joint work where each person contributes their abilities where great things are achieved. Multidisciplinary teams and people with diverse perspectives are the best way to change the world.

How do you face the challenges and limitations you encounter in your work?

I face them constantly. The challenges are big when leading innovation and new technology projects. There are always resource constraints, like budget, time, or personnel. I try to take on the challenges in stages, step by step. Another of my mottos is to always take advantage of the opportunities that come, even if we are not 100 % prepared. But, after saying yes, go straight to study, and study a lot! Always preparing for what is coming, researching, finding solutions, and surrounding yourself with knowledgeable people helps you overcome limitations.

What are the main challenges facing humanity today?

The process in which jobs become obsolete and the fast pace with which the world changes thanks to technology. Being able to constantly adapt to something different, learn new skills all the time to stay current in the professional field, and unequal access to that constant learning, which generates a higher crime rate and unemployment.

What initiatives, public or private, would you recommend to encourage female participation in science and technology?

Facilitate the empowerment of girls from early stages, to eliminate stereotypes. Put a lot of emphasis on robotics and programming development programs. An initiative that I have promoted, and in which I believe a lot, is in the “big sister”, or mentoring at various levels (when entering university, to get a job, among others), to provide support to women and generate support networks with good examples that help give the necessary tools to be successful.

Empowerment programs, to teach girls science and technology from a perspective in which they do not feel they are in a field that is not for them, but rather by giving them examples to follow. Also, a lot of support for entrepreneurship, to create new technologies and companies.

What recommendations would you give young people interested in pursuing a career like yours?

  • Find your passion. Follow your dreams. It will not be easy and it takes time, so you better enjoy it.
  • Never underestimate yourself. You set your own limits. Do not settle for little, set a very high bar.
  • Find a mentor or several! Find someone who inspires you, but more importantly, who believes in you and pushes you to improve.
  • Stay open to opportunities.
  • Try hard, study hard (never stop studying!).

Learn more about Denise in the book The Intrepids in Science & Technology published by Editorial Tecnologica:

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