Kayla Huemer Kayla Huemer

Fab Lab alumna tackles machine learning at Stanford

Huemer builds on her engineering, design skills

A few years ago, Kayla Huemer would’ve told you that she was headed straight for a career building medical devices.

The year following her graduation from UW–Madison, she developed a wearable technology to manage diabetic foot ulcers while on a Fulbright in Vellore, India.

It was during that trip Huemer felt herself pivoting in a new direction. Something was missing, she realized.

“It’s a bit complicated, but a shift deeply inspired by my time in India,” Huemer says.

As an undergraduate, Huemer spent three years working in the BerbeeWalsh Prototype Pathway in the Fab Lab at the Morgridge Institute for Research.

There she learned how to translate clinical problems into innovative tools and designs working with engineers including Kevin Eliceiri, Rob Swader, George Petry and Ben Cox. She developed a microfluidic device for imaging zebrafish under the microscope to better understand wound healing. For her second project, she made a headpiece embedded with electrical components to unravel the mysterious sounds of tinnitus.

She took that passion to India during college where she created the first prototype of her “SmartShoe,” a wearable technology for diabetic patients.

Photo Credit: Kayla Huemer

The device was intended to aid in the therapy of pressure ulcers that would form on the feet of patients with diabetes. These foot ulcers are responsible for 85 percent of non-traumatic amputations worldwide, and in India, Huemer saw a disproportionate number of patients suffering from these unhealed ulcers.

Huemer knew her technology could make a substantial impact in therapy for diabetics. Less than two years later, and with the help of a U.S. Fulbright grant, she returned to Vellore.

But within the first month back in India, she realized there was a problem with SmartShoe.

“We assumed that we would be able to see these patients in the early stages of their ulcers, and that just wasn’t the case,” Huemer says. “The patients couldn’t afford to come in for monthly check-ins and they often waited until they had a glaring problem on their foot. In one day, I had 12 patients come through for whom there was nothing we could do except amputate their limb. I was like, ‘I need to figure out how to intervene sooner.’”

Huemer went back to the drawing board and came across a technique used by an Indian doctor to identify foot ulcers in leprosy patients during the 1940s. The secret was to pay attention to the first sign of inflammation on the foot and a precursor of ulceration.

Huemer immediately switched gears, bought a thermal camera, and started imaging the feet of every diabetic patient who came through the clinic. 

The results were eye-opening.

She found unusual hot spots on the feet of many patients with diabetes. It was clear that thermal patterns on the feet could be a risk assessment tool, but Huemer needed machine learning to help interpret the images.

She needed help. 

Huemer returned to the states and spent a semester in the Fab Lab as a visiting fellow. There, she worked on machine learning with BME Design teams and collaborated with Rebecca Alcock a graduate student in the Fab Lab to create a global engineering student organization at UW–Madison.

“I want to better harness the data coming off these devices to understand when an idea or trial is succeeding, and when we need to switch gears.”

Kayla Huemer

Largely guided by her passion for the SmartShoe project, Huemer started a master’s program in 2020 in bioengineering at Stanford University to study the intersection of healthcare data and machine learning. She’s taking courses in global health and clinical trial design, but she’s not leaving behind her love for wearable technology. 

At Stanford, Huemer landed an engineering research assistantship with Dr. Carla Pugh whose team builds wearables and other simulation technology to assess and quantitatively define hands-on clinical skills.

Pugh, a former UW Hospital general surgeon, Principal Investigator of the Simulation and Engineering for Surgical Education (SEnSE) Lab, and Clinical Director for the UW Health Clinical Simulation Program, is now the director of the Technology Enabled Clinical Improvement (T.E.C.I.) Center and Professor of Surgery at Stanford University School of Medicine.

“It was a match, a perfect match,” Huemer says. “I believe taking time to study data analytics will make me a better engineer, a better product designer, and make me more valuable in the clinical setting. I want to better harness the data coming off these devices to understand when an idea or trial is succeeding, and when we need to switch gears.”

Shifting to data analytics is uncharted territory for Huemer, but working with doctors and building wearable tech has her feeling at home in Stanford. And for that, she points to her experience in the BerbeeWalsh Prototype Pathway at the Morgridge Institute.

“The Fab Lab was just a dream, to work there was amazing,” Huemer says. “The resources to work as an engineer with doctors through the pathway was such an intersectional moment that inspired my career path forward.”