Lina Colucci is on her way to an entrepreneurial career at the crossroads of engineering and medicine. After earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Duke University, Colucci embarked on a Ph.D. program in biomedical engineering at the Harvard-Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Health Sciences and Technology (HST) program in Cambridge. Now in her third year, she’s working to develop a portable sensor that would allow patients with congestive heart failure to quickly and noninvasively assess their hydration state and better manage their disease.
But science is only one of several diverse interests: Colucci is a classically trained ballet dancer and an accomplished clarinet and saxophone player. She has been combining arts with engineering since an early age. For example, she started a multiyear project redesigning traditional ballet pointe shoes while she was still in high school; the project yielded her first publication, in the peer-reviewed journal Ergonomics in Design, in 2008. In 2011, she did a summer internship at Nike’s research labs in Beaverton, Oregon, to learn more about shoe design. For her, arts and engineering are so inseparable that when she gave a presentation at the TEDxBrussels event last December, she began her scientific talk with a short ballet performance that she had choreographed.
I have to do these other things on the side in order to be more effective in my engineering work.
In a follow-up interview, we asked her why she felt compelled to continue to pursue all of these time-consuming passions. The interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Tell us about your pointe shoes project.
A: If you think back a hundred years ago, running shoes were just being invented—and just look at where we are now with the technology that’s been put into athletic shoes. Ballet shoes, on the other hand, haven’t changed much at all in the past 200 years. They are still extremely primitive. So I asked myself, “How can we make these primitive shoes better?” I’ve used my understanding of biomechanics to change the materials and structural design in different parts of the ballet shoes to make them more comfortable and to provide what the body needs in terms of support and flexibility.
Q: How did you end up combining engineering and ballet?
A: My dad is an engineer, so I knew about engineering from a young age. I found ballet and music when I was very young as well, and I have always loved these three things. People have told me that I have to pick just one of these passions, that I can’t keep up everything. They are right to an extent. Without a doubt my priority is engineering, but I’ve tried not dancing, I’ve tried not playing music, and it doesn’t work. I have to do these other things on the side in order to be more effective in my engineering work.
Q: Why? What’s the connection?
A: In all these endeavors, a final product is born from feelings and fragmented ideas. The medium is of little importance. Also, I think everyone needs something that feeds their mind, body, and spirit. For me, engineering feeds the mind, ballet feeds the body, and music feeds the spirit. Of course, most activities don't serve just one purpose. Dancing on stage is a spiritual experience as much as it is a physical one. Learning or choreographing new steps can be as intellectually stimulating as doing lab research.
I find artistic skills to be transferable to science and academia. Music and dance have given me strong self-discipline and effective working methods. I have learned, for example, how to teach myself a new piece of music: sitting down for hours, starting to play slowly, and then adding different elements like speed, dynamics, and phrasing to build up to a final performance. This is like facing a hard engineering problem and breaking it down into smaller pieces until you are finally able to tackle the entire problem. A great conductor I worked with said, “Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.” That applies to anything in life, from carrying out experiments to preparing for a TEDx talk.
And ballet has taught me that even if I’m not feeling well one day—even if I am exhausted—I still go to ballet class and put my best effort forward. That kind of discipline for how to train and put your mind in the right place is directly transferable to any academic pursuit.
Q: Including the HST program?
A: Yes. It is hard, but it’s really exciting. HST offers a huge range of opportunities, which is the reason that I decided to go for this Ph.D. program. My classmates and I come from a variety of classical engineering disciplines. We study engineering at MIT, but we also go through some medical training at Harvard Medical School. I go from the engineering machine shop to medical classes. I go from control systems class to an autopsy. I go from the MIT Media Lab to shadowing doctors at the hospital. The aim of the program is to train us to innovate within medicine. I find it invaluable to have that firsthand experience with the medical world.
Q: Where do you see this taking you?
A: I want to pursue entrepreneurship within health care engineering, to make the health care system a better experience for patients. I believe that technology, like the sensors I’m working on, is going to play a really big role in the health care system of the future. At least in the United States, doctors are pressed for time, with a million different things to do. The idea is to free up doctors’ time with technology so that they can get back to focusing on patient interaction.
Q: There aren’t many women in engineering fields. Has this made it more difficult for you?
A: The fact that being a woman in engineering is unusual is something that never really occurred to me until I was applying to universities and started getting all these materials in the mail about special support groups for women in engineering. Since very young, I was always drawn to people that share my interests. If those are women who are interested in engineering, great, and if they are men, that’s great, too.
But I know several women who have had bad experiences in science or engineering because they are female. It’s extremely unfortunate when that happens. My approach has always been to do what I am interested in, and I’ve been very lucky to not have any bad experiences that turned me away.
Q: Is there anything you would do differently?
A: Not really. My bachelor’s degree was a fantastic experience. I was part of a joint full-ride scholarship program between Duke University and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, called the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program, which gave me funding and mentorship to pursue whatever I was interested in. I got to go all over the world: to India to research poverty, to New Orleans to teach science, to Sweden to study design and biomechanics, and to Nike’s research labs in Oregon. And now, with my Ph.D. program, I go back and forth between the engineering and medical worlds. It’s so exciting. I am very thankful for how things have turned out so far.