“It doesn’t really matter where you come from as long as you build something that you’re proud of.”
A product of her hard-working mother and her entrepreneurial father, Dr. Yazmin Feliz is tackling her dream of transforming her mechanical engineering PhD invention—a portable and affordable ultrasound—into an industrial reality. Yazmin’s overarching goal is to create and mass-produce solutions to the world’s growing need for access to medical devices. As a postdoctoral researcher, Yazmin is currently testing her new ultrasound device at the Columbia University Medical Center.
While pursuing her Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD in STEM, Yazmin also rehabilitated abandoned pet turtles and injured pigeons in her spare time. Her efforts were featured in a popular animal lover’s online platform called The Dodo for nursing Tutu, an originally tattered NYC pigeon with a broken collarbone who, under Yazmin’s care, transformed into a healthy and intelligent house companion. That’s what Yazmin does. Whether it’s an animal in need or a scientific proposal, Yazmin cultivates her projects until she can see the palpable impact of her creations and rehabilitations: she says, “I really enjoy seeing the full-scope of projects. This includes planning them out and understanding how we take an idea from its initial phase–a seed–nurture and push it through mass production to effectively distribute it to end users” The road to success, however, isn’t easy.
“She was working twelve hours a day. I had one job [when I was young], and that was to go to school and do well. I had no excuse, so I took my one job very seriously!”
Until the age of 10, Yazmin moved back and forth between the Dominican Republic (D.R.) and the U.S. Yazmin’s father worked in the D.R. resort business, which was risky because of hurricane season: “it’s just rebuilding and modifying so whenever times got rough, we’d come to the U.S. and then go back,” Yazmin says. Unable to support all of her children in the U.S. at the same time, her mother moved to the Bronx with only Yazmin while Yazmin’s brothers stayed in the D.R. Watching her mother work tirelessly to earn enough for them both affected Yazmin’s own work ethic. “She was working twelve hours a day,” Yazmin said. “I had one job [when I was young], and that was to go to school and do well. I had no excuse, so I took my one job very seriously!”
Yazmin fell in love with science by watching her older brother, a civil engineer, take apart motorcycles, cars, and AC units and put them back together for fun. Though her high school was geared towards theatre arts and did not offer classes like calculus or physics, Yazmin worked with what she had and eventually accepted a full scholarship to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) to study chemical engineering. As a RPI student, she was a part of the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) that offered intensive boot camps and tutoring for gifted students who lacked extensive high school science and math classes. According to Yazmin, this program did little to retain students from disadvantaged backgrounds who wanted to pursue STEM due to its extreme pace. “That first year of college was terribly difficult,” she says. “Most of my friends [in this program] flunked out.” Yazmin worked hard to keep up with her peers, and after her freshman year, she returned to the Bronx for the summer and immediately looked for paid work opportunities to gain practical experience in STEM.
“That first year of college was terribly difficult. Most of my friends [in this program] flunked out.”
In what she thought was a shot in the dark, Yazmin emailed several professors at Columbia asking to work in their laboratories without any prior research experience. Only Professor Edward Leonard gave her a chance. Yazmin recounts he essentially said, “let me clarify that you’re extremely underqualified for this position, but I’m willing to humor this.” Yazmin rose to the challenge. In Dr. Leonard’s laboratory, Yazmin helped create a portable dialysis apparatus for patients with kidney diseases. Surpassing Dr. Leonard’s expectations, she presented this research at a symposium and won both $2000 and a paid internship opportunity for the next summer. Yazmin appreciated that Dr. Leonard gave her a first exposure to scientific research, but she wasn’t content with packaging the artificial kidney away in a publication. As with other research she took part in, these initiatives were never to be used in real life. “In research I learned so much about how to build something,” she said, “but I was very frustrated that we would leave it at that stage. I wasn’t fulfilled… I wanted to do more.”
After graduating with a Bachelor’s in Applied Math, Yazmin took on a product management role at Johnson & Johnson (J&J) for several years to learn about supply chain and business. She set her sights on a promotion at J&J despite feeling like an outsider in a cutthroat and competitive atmosphere. Not seeing much Hispanic representation in the industry made for a lonely experience. Nevertheless, Yazmin decided that her next step was to obtain a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering to advance her position in industry.
After receiving acceptance to Columbia University’s Master’s program in mechanical engineering, Yazmin took advantage of J&J’s participation in the National GEM Consortium for underrepresented minorities. The program provided her with mentorship and allowed Yazmin to complete her degree while J&J paid for her education. She joined Dr. Hod Lipson’s lab to develop a portable ultrasound. Yazmin originally planned to receive her Master’s and return to a higher position in industry; eventually, she thought, she would pitch her portable ultrasound idea to investors and start her own company. However, Yazmin’s mentor at GEM, Dr. Marcus Huggans, convinced her to think about the big picture. He posited, “how much more influential would you be if you go into that room to pitch to the sharks and there’s a ‘Dr.’ in front of your name?” At that point, Yazmin went full-speed ahead to continue her Master’s ultrasound research to her PhD in mechanical engineering at Columbia.
“My idea was always to take something out of the lab, beyond publication. I want to make a product, hence why I learned all about manufacturing.”
While pursuing her doctorate work, Yazmin petitioned Columbia, with much resistance, to allow her to take extra classes in the Business School so she could receive a business education to successfully market and manufacture her invention in the future. “My idea was always to take something out of the lab, beyond publication. I want to make a product, hence why I learned all about manufacturing,” she said, and eventually Columbia granted their approval. Beyond the petitioning process, Yazmin experienced obstacles in the laboratory as well. Some of her male research assistants were skeptical about her directions and actively excluded her from discussions about her own ultrasound project. This wasn’t surprising to Yazmin since in the past, one male researcher wouldn’t even let himself be in the same room as Yazmin.
Despite the sexism she experienced in STEM, with the unwavering support of her mentors, Yazmin concluded her PhD work with optimism. She describes that she is “so much better at determining who can work with [me] and who cannot, who’s a team player and who is not” when recruiting collaborators. All of her experiences, good and bad, have helped her develop the thick skin that she’ll need to eventually pitch her ideas to investors. At the moment, Yazmin is a postdoc with Dr. Elisa Konofagou at the Columbia University Medical Center, where she is testing her ultrasound for a range of applications in the medical setting. For example, she would like to develop a custom solution to scan the aortic vein in patients with preeclampsia or high blood pressure, in which death is completely preventable with proper screening.
Yazmin is on her way to optimize her low-cost ultrasound invention and eventually be the leader of her own industry. It is no wonder Yazmin runs a successful rehabilitation center for animals under her own roof; she never gives up on a life, just like she never gives up on a project. Yazmin takes pride in her positivity, hard work, and care, and she extends her life philosophies to others who are pursuing their own goals: “Go for it! Your path will not be a straight road, there will be many challenges, you will not avoid all the pitfalls, but at the end it is so worth it.”
by Shivani Bigler