Alumnus doing life-saving work as manufacturing engineer

Date

02/18/21

Millions of Americans have heart failure, and for many, cardiac transplants are not an option because donors are too few or they have other medical conditions that make a successful transplant unlikely.

Electromechanical devices that assist cardiac circulation offer an alternative, and as technology has improved, these devices are becoming options for long-term survival in some patients.

As a senior manufacturing engineer at Abbott, Illinois chemistry alumnus Nicholas Ndiege (PhD, ’08, Shannon, Masel) is responsible for manufacturing engineering activities related to production of the company’s HeartMate 3 LVAD (left ventricular assist device).

In 2017, the HeartMate 3 received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for short-term use in patients awaiting heart transplants, and in 2018, the FDA approved the device for long-term use in patients who are not candidates for heart transplants.

“Solving problems is the most exciting part of what I do,” said Ndiege, who completed his doctorate in materials chemistry under the advisement of Richard Masel, professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and the late Mark Shannon, a UIUC Mechanical Science and Engineering professor.

Ndiege was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, and completed his Bachelor of Science degree at Berea College in 2001.

His interest in general science began in late primary school when he was about 10 years old.

“This interest shaped into a deeper passion for chemical sciences with more learning and hands on chemistry and biology experimental coursework in high school,” Ndiege said.

As he looked ahead to a university education, Kenya was experiencing political unrest that was causing random university closures for extended periods, from months to years. Ndiege began to consider pursuing higher education in the United States.

“This unpredictability and the possibility of pursuing science and engineering at a very high technical level helped to mollify the anxiety of traveling halfway across the world away from my family,” said Ndiege, who was accepted to Berea College in Berea, KY. “I left Nairobi with a mix of a sense of adventure and anxiety because I was leaving everything and everyone I had ever known at that point in my life for a strange land with plenty of unknowns but lots of promise.”

At Berea, he double majored in chemistry and mathematics and chose Illinois to pursue his graduate degree.

At Illinois, Ndiege said his graduate advisor, Mark Shannon, was an inspiration to him then and still is today. Shannon passed away in 2012 after a battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Shannon contributed significantly to the fields of water purification and desalination, micro-fabrication, medicine, and energy production.

“I was inspired by Prof. Shannon's profound intelligence and his passion for applying science and engineering as a way to achieve a sustainable way of living. I also found his methods of teaching and mentoring to be very effective in driving the message home and motivating us (his students) to read wider and deeper beyond what he shared. His methods of teaching and guidance were very empowering,” said Ndiege, whose graduate research focused on synthesizing silica supported Ta2O5 nanoparticles for enhanced photocatalytic treatment of water. He developed a microwave assisted deposition technique to deposit Ta2O5 films (50 nm to 110 μm thick).

Leaning toward a career in academia, Ndiege's search for a faculty position prior to postdoctorate work did not work out, so he took the advice of his Illinois professors and went on to postdoctorate work at the University of Iowa. There he was exposed to a very new field of science and engineering: materials for drug delivery and diagnostics.

“I took up the postdoc, and I did not rue that decision,” he said. “My experience has taught me that if you let your passion for what you are doing be your guide and find people to work with whose goals are aligned with yours, all else will fall in place. Obstacles will always be there, but you will be equipped to handle them. Support from friends and family is quite empowering and gives clarity when faced with difficult choices.

His job search following his postdoctorate experience proved very fruitful.

“My first industrial job application landed me an interview with Novellus Systems (acquired by Lam Research). They flew me out to San Jose where I interviewed and was offered a position within a couple of days, and I have stayed in industrial science and engineering since I accepted that offer,” he said. 

He left Lam to be a process applications engineer with Aveni, then a manufacturing engineer with Alta Devices before his current role with Abbott.

As a manufacturing engineer working on the HeartMate 3 LVAD, he oversees the continuous improvement of manufacturing processes.

That involves boosting efficiency and throughput, improving quality, reducing costs, validating processes. He also works cross functionally with development engineers and scientists to ensure manufacturability and design and to procure, build and/or install tools and equipment. He also supports Abbott’s purchasing and planning team in its engagement with suppliers and vendors, and he performs training around new processes and equipment and supports internal and external manufacturing audits.

Ndiege said being open to different approaches to solving a problem is vital.

“And acknowledging that I can always learn something new from any given source, experience or interaction,” he said.

The HeartMate 3 LVAD represents Abbott’s latest heart pump technology, and it performed well in clinical trials with patient survival rates of more than 82 percent at two years and low rates of complications, according to clinical data from the study.

“My excitement about the future lies in knowing that better medical products will be discovered and will allow people to overcome medical challenges or continue to enjoy a good quality of life in spite of diagnosis of a medical condition or illness,” Ndiege said.

The highlight of his work, he said, is building a product that literally saves lives and prolongs lives.

“And being a part of a talented, successful team that is collaborative, empowering and enjoys the work,” he said.

Ndiege said he would encourage current chemistry students to tutor a young person curious about science and engineering, stay abreast of peer reviewed technical publications and talk with engineers “and try to tie your ideas to a real-world application.”

Outside of his work, he said he enjoys spending time with his wife and son, exercising and, before the pandemic, playing soccer. One of his most memorable moments as a graduate student at UIUC was joining faculty and other students at the Illini Student Union to watch Germany and Argentina face off in the 2006 FIFA World Cup quarter finals match.

Drawing on his own experiences, Ndiege shared some ideas for promoting more diversity in STEM fields.

“More faculty from underrepresented groups is a good start,” he said. “Companies reaching out to HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) or colleges and universities with a significant representation of racial and gender minority groups for internship candidates; competitive graduate programs collaborating with colleges and universities with a significant representation of racial and gender minority groups to develop programs that give the undergrads exposure to rigor and coursework expectations at highly competitive graduate programs.”

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