Note: Each year, we partner with Dr. Amy Sheck’s students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math to profile some unsung heroes of the Duke research community. This is the third of eight posts.
Eric Richardson is a professor of the practice in Biomedical Engineering and founding director of Duke Design Health. His research and teaching centers around medical device design and innovation, with a focus on underserved communities.
Richardson has always had a strong desire to enhance people’s wellbeing. Growing up, he wanted to be a doctor, but during high school, he was drawn towards the creative and problem-solving aspects of engineering. After earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, he pivoted to biomedical engineering for graduate work. While pursuing his PhD degree, he developed a profound interest in cardiac devices.
Through technology, Richardson has been able to impact the lives of many. He first worked in industry as a Principal R&D Engineer at Medtronic, where he helped develop transcatheter heart valves that have now helped over a million patients. However, it was his love for teaching that brought him to academia. Over the past decade as a professor, his interests have shifted towards global health and helping underserved communities.
Richardson aims to design technology to fit the needs of people, and bridge the gap of “translation” between research and product development. During his time in industry, Richardson realized that the vast majority of medical device research doesn’t go anywhere in terms of helping patients.
“That point of translation… is really where most technology and research dies, so I really wanted to be at that end of it, trying to figure out that pipeline of getting research, getting technology, all the way into the clinic,” Richardson says. “I would argue that is probably the hardest step of the whole process is actually getting a product together, developing it, doing the clinical trials, and doing the manufacturing and regulatory steps.”
Through his teaching, Richardson emphasizes product design, interdisciplinary approaches, and industry-academia partnerships to best meet the needs of underserved communities. One of his favorite courses to teach is the Design Health Series, a four-course sequence that he was brought to Duke to develop. In this class, interdisciplinary teams of graduate students, ranging from medicine to business, work together to design medical devices. They learn how to identify problems in medicine, develop a solution, and translate that into an actual product.
Richardson also encourages engineers to look at the broader picture and tackle the right problems. According to Richardson, challenges in global and emerging markets often aren’t due to a particular device, but rather, a multilayered system of care, ranging from a patient’s experience within a clinic to a country’s whole healthcare system. From this vantage point, he believes it’s important for engineers to determine where to intervene in the system, where the need is greatest, and to consider any unintended consequences.
“I think that there is so much great talent in the world, so many exciting problems to go after. I wish and hope that people will think a little more carefully and deliberately about what problems they go after, and the consequences of the problems that they solve,” he says.
Richardson is currently working on an abdominal brace for Postural Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) patients – people who feel lightheaded after standing up – that is currently in clinical trials. While he is always eager to tackle different projects, as an educator, he believes the most important part of academia is training the next generation of engineers.
“I can only do a couple projects a year, but I can teach a hundred students every year that can then themselves go and do great things.”
Guest Post by Arianna Lee, North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, Class of 2025.