Alumni Corner: Hannah Higgins is Designing with Access in Mind

You’re a student at Mercer University studying Biomedical Engineering. How did you get to this point?

My education journey is fairly nontraditional. I was homeschooled for my grade school years and joined Sora as a junior with accelerated credits. This is going to sound odd, but I was so wrapped up in my projects that it sort of snuck up on me that I had earned enough credits to graduate high school in 2020. I wound up staying with Sora for what would have been my senior year because I love mentoring and helping students. Also, the people are awesome. Brandy, the counselor, had a huge impact on my life. And Carolyn was awesome, I loved having a STEM teacher who was a woman from the South like me.

Let’s talk about your studies. How did you wind up studying biomedical engineering?


I grew up being enthralled with medicine and mathematics. At Sora, I learned that I am a kinesthetic learner – I love to learn with my hands. It’s funny, I’m known as “rocket girl” at Sora because of the rocket project I did there. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it and enjoyed learning with my hands. I’m also a big proponent of learning through making mistakes. The rocket project was fun, but it also helped redirect me to the intersection of engineering and medicine. That’s why I’m majoring in it now at Mercer. That might change, but I know I want to stay in my research.

What research are you doing?

It’s three different things at the moment. I’m working with a professor to develop a model of the physiology of the lower respiratory tract for aerosol testing. We are trying to 3D print a model of the trachea that has a certain absorbency and porosity. These are characteristics that you need to design an aerosol that will be effective. The idea is to work with inhalers and nebulizers to deliver medicine. We are also studying how COVID-19 spreads through the air. How does mass affect the way particles get into your lungs?

Summer of my senior year at Sora, I got involved with a lab at Georgia Tech working on cardiac rhythms. The lab focuses on nonlinear dynamics, which requires using differential equations and partial differential equations. The idea is that, through multivariable modeling, we can create models that mimic arrhythmias so that we can use defibrillators more effectively. Though this is math I haven’t formally learned yet, I enjoy the exposure I’ve gotten from my labmates and am excited to dive into the topics in my higher-level math courses.

The third bit of research is related to product development, perhaps brace development, and is still in the works. I have a friend with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, which is a collagen disorder, and there are not a lot of accessible braces for them to use. Hopefully, at some point, we can develop a 3D printable brace that people with EDS can use. I like accessibility and it’s really important. 3D printing is a good avenue for increasing access.

I love that you love prioritizing accessibility. One thing that I love about Sora is that as an online school, it’s accessible in ways that a brick-and-mortar school is not. At what point did you start thinking in terms of accessibility?

Accessibility has always been in the back of my mind, and as I’ve interacted with more people I’ve thought about it in different ways. I myself have joint issues. I pay attention to wheelchair accessibility when I’m on campus, and around town in general. The internet is a great tool for accessibility. There are tools that make it more so, like text-to-speech functions.

Learning about accessibility is really a life-long journey. You also have to think about chronic illnesses and invisible illnesses. As I go through life and notice accessibility features, I notice how it can often be a “decoration” and not a functional part of the product. For example, I’ve noticed ramps that lead to nowhere.

Those are good observations. One thing I’ve noticed is that accessibility is a design framework. But often, as you said, organizations can talk about it as if it’s the end result.

This reminds me of my conversation with fellow Sora alum Alexa about her essay winning second place at Coastal Carolina University. She spoke at length about the importance of having a class analysis and of course class is one aspect of accessibility. In this way, both of you are using humanities frameworks in your STEM pursuits.

How else do you engage with the humanities? How else do the humanities show up in your science work?

I had severe writing anxiety as a kid, and even now I struggle to write. Nevertheless, I love humanities. Being in Michael’s expeditions were some of the highlights of my Sora experience. We read The History of Disease, and we really explored how science and society shape each other. Science has the potential to really harm marginalized people, and that’s also important to understand and keep in mind. I had the opportunity to teach some workshops at Sora. I presented how Edgar Allan Poe’s The Mask of The Red Death was an allegory for how the upper class treated the lower class during a pandemic. And then it just so happened, COVID-19 hit the United States. It goes to show that expressions of the past can help us in the present.

Do you have a sense of where your studies will take you?


I think I definitely would love to stay in academia. I’m not sure if it’s going to be a Ph.D. or a medical degree. I think I’d love to be a professor. I may end up working in the industry, but I think I will be in school for a long time, and I will enjoy that.

What advice do you have for current Sora students?

I think I was prepared well for college from a time management aspect. I learned that at Sora. I also recommend looking at education as an opportunity. I have this opportunity to learn, I have the opportunity to go to class. I am grateful. 

I have been homeschooled my entire life, and sitting in a college classroom for the first time took some adjustment. Some Sora students might also find themselves relating to this. If something does feel daunting to you, or you do feel anxious about something, try breaking it down into small steps. 

And finally: the skills you learn at Sora related to co-learning and critical thinking will absolutely help you if you decide to go to college after high school. Remember that you have a community that supports you in learning — don’t think you have to do it alone and continue to reach out and ask for help as we learned at Sora.

 

If you’d like to learn more about our innovative high school program, click here to request information about Sora.

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