Healthcare is among the applications of 3D printing technology with the greatest potential human impact. The creation of patient-specific medical models and tools made from 3D models of patients’ unique anatomy allows for truly personalized healthcare solutions that can be as simple as a quickly made finger splint or as advanced as a complicated face transplant procedure. 3D Systems has been rapidly enhancing its standing in this market, as the company keys in on this key vertical. At the helm of many of these operations for the company is Katie Weimer, Vice President of Medical Devices, Healthcare.

With a background herself in engineering, Weimer is leading the charge as the company looks toward digitization, surgical simulations, and other advanced solutions that can bring major benefits to even the most complicated patient cases. In fact, Weimer notes, this is where 3D technologies especially shine, as patients and doctors have access to advanced technologies never before possible in the medical field. Weimer and the team working at 3D Systems’ healthcare facility in Colorado interact directly with surgeons to determine and develop the best possible solutions for each unique case.

We’ve heard a lot lately from 3D Systems’ CEO, Vyomesh Joshi (VJ), regarding the company’s plans for various healthcare applications. As we officially kick off our Spotlight on Women series, we looked directly to the source on the ground for the latest in 3DS’ ongoing journey ever-deeper into this vertical, as well as insights into more complex issues facing the industry at large.

Today, we are pleased and privileged to present Katie Weimer’s thoughts on the 3D printing industry, healthcare applications for this technology — and what it’s like to be a woman in this world.

Can you tell us briefly about your educational/professional background and what led you to the 3D printing industry?

3D Systems CEO VJ and Katie Weimer at IMTS 2016 [Photo: Sarah Goehrke]

“My background is in mechanical engineering. I graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering focused on computational biomechanics where I focused my attention on rigid body modeling of the knee and TMJ. During my thesis research, I did medical image processing to convert MRI and CT images of anatomy into 3D STL files so I could build computational models. After graduate school I moved to Colorado and stumbled on a company called Medical Modeling (MM) in Golden. MM focused on 3D printing anatomical models for mostly craniomaxillofacial procedures. The company was a startup that did not have a career web page, so I sent a ‘cold call’ email, which led to an interview, which led to my first professional job doing image processing and 3D printing of anatomical models. I spent the next several years of my career improving my skills in modeling and 3D printing, and a few short years later was on the forefront of developing 3D Systems’ VSP service, which was the world’s first service center approach to pre-surgical planning and patient specific models, guides and templates. It truly was the beginning of 3D printing’s role in precision healthcare solutions. In 2014, MM was acquired by 3D Systems and I transitioned from building the VSP business to director of product development. I now lead 3D Systems’ Denver healthcare operations and our Denver site. I am incredibly honored and grateful that I have the opportunity to be a visible role model in the company.”

What drew you to working for 3D Systems?

“As a child I was always torn between two passions for problem solving: engineering, and wanting to be a doctor to help others achieve the best quality of life possible. I also had many sports injuries during my youth, which led to several surgeries and way too many hours in the office of my orthopedic surgeon. That led to my decision to strike a happy medium in academics by studying how engineering is applied to the human body through biomechanics.

As a young engineer I wanted to stay on the cutting edge of technology and be the linchpin between technology and healthcare solutions. Medical Modeling (subsequently 3D Systems) was my dream job and still is. Every day I live to use these amazing precision healthcare solutions and 3D printing technologies to transform lives for the better. I am blessed to be a part of this paradigm shift in the industry.”

Working in healthcare applications for 3D printing invites, as you’ve said, a look at the more abnormal cases; how do you feel 3D technologies are uniquely positioned to address complex patient cases?

“I feel the use of digital solutions and 3D printing of patient-specific models, guides and implants for complex / abnormal cases is the most impactful 3D printing in healthcare known to date. 3D printing and its digital workflow help bridge any existing gaps in traditional surgical treatment to help patients. It is a match made in heaven. There is a patient in need, a surgeon facing a complicated case who could use as much help as possible and a technology solution ripe to change the world. This is precisely what we do at 3D Systems with our VSP service. Starting with patient-specific medical imaging data, we perform a pre-surgical plan with the clinical team and provide 3D printing tools and implants to be used in the operating room.

3D printing is particularly impressive for this solution because complexity is free. Meaning it costs no more in time or money to manufacture 50 simple shaped widgets than it does to manufacture 50 unique, complexly shaped widgets. As such we can produce, at a mass scale, patient-specific guides and implants as efficiently as traditionally manufactured devices.”

Weimer (center) holds a 3D printed model during the McDonald twins’ surgery [Photo: CNN]

Can you tell us a bit about your experience being in the operating room during the separation of the conjoined McDonald twins?

“I have been in many operations throughout my tenure at the organization. The surgery with the McDonald twins was life changing for me for a few reasons.

    • We have a very long history working with Dr. Goodrich and Dr. Tepper at Montefiore, going back to some of Dr. Goodrich’s very first conjoined twins separations and Dr. Tepper’s days in medical training. As such, I was very excited to bring to them our best technology solutions possible.
    • This was an unusually complicated case that was reliant on the perfect performance of our technologies to aid in the separation.
    • Just like the rest of the world, I fell in love with these boys at first sight. Their story of survival and their parents’ dedication to their care was inspiring to me and the rest of my team in Denver. As a mother of two boys myself, I felt an overwhelming need to do everything possible to help the surgical team perform the best they could.

The OR was amazingly intense for all 27 hours. I have the utmost respect for Montefiore and the clinical team who cared for the boys during the case. What I learned is that when it comes to 3D printing in healthcare, there is no room for error. Further transformation is needed to continue to move the digital workflow and solutions closer and closer to the hands of the clinicians. For example, had my colleague and I not physically been present that day, I am confident they would not have used the models and guides as intently as they did, which the surgical team admitted was critically important to the success of the operation. It required physical presence in the complex atmosphere of the OR to get the data on the screens, have models ready and organized, manipulate the models on the screen at the exact moment the surgeons needed, and to make sure the guides and models were utilized correctly in the sterile field.

This separation was the culmination of everything I have been working toward for the past 10 years.”

How would you describe the impact of diversity on employment at 3D Systems? The 3D printing industry overall?

VJ and Weimer discuss complicated medical cases at IMTS 2016 [Photo: Sarah Goehrke]

“Tech overall has a long way to go toward improving diversity, which is why interviews like this are so important. We need to continue to raise awareness and tackle the issues that get in the way of a more diverse workforce. Study after study has shown that greater diversity leads to better business outcomes, more innovative solutions, and less groupthink. Those are real results that impact the bottom line. It is important not only to value, celebrate and appreciate our differences, but to recognize that our differences make us better.”

As an experienced executive in the tech field, do you feel your overall experience has been in any notable ways substantively different from those of men in similar positions?

“First and foremost, I am first to admit that my experience is limited and my tenure as an executive has been short. That being said, I must own my position as a female leader in this industry and use my influence to promote equality in the workplace.

Unquestionably, my experience in the industry has been substantively different than my male peers. I work in two male-dominated fields – tech and healthcare (my customers are primarily surgeons, who are predominantly men). Without a doubt it has changed my perspective and career.

Every experience – from my own personal advancement within my organization, to fighting for the respect of my surgeon customers, to proving my worth as a female engineer in a technology company – have all come with initial doubt and my subsequent fight to prove my worth. That being said, I know these struggles have built who I am today, and I will use my experience of the last 10 years to help rightfully improve diversity and inclusion in tech and healthcare.

I am very proud to say that 3D Systems recently launched a Women’s Network, which I am honored to be a part of. For some of us the problems are so obvious, but it is the reality of our industry that implicit and explicit biases are very much alive, yet not felt and accepted by everyone. Until this happens, it is my obligation to continue to advocate for women and push for change in both the technology and surgery industries.”

What do you see as the biggest challenges to diversity in the 3D printing industry?

“For me, the first challenge starts before any woman enters the industry. For every job my Denver team posts, less than 25% of the resumes we receive are from women. Even if I hire 50% women, this still doesn’t solve the root of the problem:  1 woman for every 4 men is seeking a career in a technology field like 3D printing. And once you hire women, it is difficult to retain them. Women and underrepresented minorities are twice as likely to leave tech careers in the first 10 years. And that is not because they are not performing well. Part of that is feeling like you do not belong and your contributions are not valued.

Second is the lack of executive representation of women in the industry as a whole. If you look at all tech companies, from startups to well established leaders, you will find fewer women in executive leadership roles in addition to fewer women at all levels. This sends a message to young women, conscious or not, that their career will not be equal to that of their male colleagues.”

The biggest benefits to a more diverse workforce?

“As I referenced earlier, study after study has shown that greater diversity leads to better business outcomes, more innovative solutions, and less groupthink. It’s that simple. Diversity of all kinds is important in any organization. And diversity is not just gender and ethnicity. It also includes diversity of talents, leadership styles, experiences and perspectives. When we value differences in people and ideas, we build stronger teams, companies, and communities.”

What advice would you have for a young woman looking to start a career in tech today?

“Don’t be intimidated. You do not have to try to be just like everyone else. Figure out what you are really good at and then try to do that every day as part of your job. People who know their strengths and the value they bring are much more confident in their ability to achieve their goals. Advocate for yourself. When it comes to salary negotiations, ask to be paid fairly at the same rate that your similarly qualified male candidates are paid. Get support. Successful people ask for a lot of help. Offer support. Be generous with your colleagues in praise and collaboration. Try not to volunteer for everything. When possible, volunteer for projects that give you the experience you will need to advance to the next level. Be willing to fail (we all do) and see your mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow. And finally, instead of feeling pressure to find the perfect job, try to think of creating the perfect job, over time, through the value you bring, the relationships you create, and the difference you make.”

3D printed medical models in 3D Systems’ Healthcare Technology Center lobby [Photo: Sarah Goehrke]

Weimer and her team are creating remarkable advances and opportunities by using 3D printing technologies. Much of the strength of their offerings draws back to the diversity in talents and individuals that she references, as the team can work cohesively and build upon others’ ideas.

Through work such as 3D Systems’ new Women’s Network, an increasing number of different voices have the opportunity to be heard — this is an important example of tangible steps being taken in this industry to create platforms built on collaborative innovation, which can truly best function with a breadth of participants. It can be difficult for women to establish footholds in what have historically been male-dominated areas. The presence of strong figures like Katie Weimer working visibly and successfully in leadership roles will hopefully continue to serve as a beacon to other girls and women interested in such fields. Discuss in the Katie Weimer forum at 3DPB.com.

Conversations like these are, we feel, very important in this industry, and we look forward to continuing to put the spotlight on women working across the 3D printing world in this ongoing series. If you are interested in sharing your story, or know a woman we should get in touch with, please reach out any time. Send me an email or connect on Twitter. We’re looking forward to sharing your stories. Find all the features in this series here.

 

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