Rebecca Wilkins Combines Electrical Engineering and Medicine to Create Life-Changing Technology

Although technology has helped advance the understanding of how the brain and nervous system work, Wilkins sees the potential to create life-changing impact for people living with chronic pain and a solution to the ongoing opioid crisis.

CHANGING LIVES     |    Aug. 21, 2019

When most people think about electrical engineering, they think about devices and gadgets. Rebecca Wilkins, the director of chronic pain therapy for R&D at Abbott, knows how electrical engineering can be applied to the human body's nervous system to alleviate chronic pain. Rebecca was drawn to the field as an undergraduate at Texas A&M University, where she studied biomedical engineering. She chose the major because she was interested in medicine and engineering, and it was one of the few degrees that would allow her to explore both.

"While studying biomedical engineering, I really enjoyed the electrical engineering aspects because it was interesting math, but you could also create something," she said. She chose it as her minor to supplement her studies and started her first job out of school as an electrical engineer designing wirelessly connected infusion pumps.

As she worked in the industry, Wilkins realized she wanted to expand her knowledge and continue her education. That meant working as an engineer during the day while attending school at night to earn her Master's in Electrical Engineering. She went on to design neuromodulation systems — implantable devices that use electrical stimulation to modulate the nervous system — before managing engineering teams as the director of electrical engineering in neuromodulation.

Today, Wilkins manages the chief architects, systems engineers, and program leaders in Abbott's chronic pain therapy business, designing and delivering to market a portfolio of products used to treat chronic pain. A typical workday involves a lot of execution and strategy discussions, including what products should look like in the future and how the team’s contributions fit into the overall business goals.

Wilkins leads by example to get the best out of her team. She also believes that it's equally important to show her team members that their talents and contributions are recognized and appreciated.

"If I expect hard work, commitment, and excellent outputs from my team, I should have those standards for myself," she says.

Guiding Engineers Today and Tomorrow

When Wilkins talks to college students or young professionals interested in joining the field of engineering, she tells them to highlight their experiences that demonstrate learning agility, applications of their fundamental technical skills and especially their successful navigation of collaborative assignments.

“Engineering students and young professionals should strongly consider engineering opportunities in healthcare.  It’s an amazing opportunity for your work life to enable your life’s work.”

As one of the first females hired on Abbott's neuromodulation electrical engineering team more than 13 years ago, Wilkins hopes that more women will explore engineering and STEM career paths.

"It's critically important not just in high school, but in early elementary school, that we help all children understand the importance of STEM, how fun it can be, and how it's really creating something new and solving a new problem every day," she says.   Solving these new problems in the best possible way, requires diverse teams that best represent their diverse customer base.

Whether it's a patient experience, use case or design implementation, Wilkins believes the way women solve problems can help the team diversify their thought process on a project.

"I specifically remember one time, I was asked to look at a concept for a medical device accessory" she says. "And when I saw it, it was immediately clear to me that it would not work well with female bodies. And it was something that the entire team hadn't thought of." Wilkins' observation led to a unisex product redesign that was better suited for all customers.

Wilkins is also the executive sponsor for Abbott's Women in STEM group, which is led by a group of female engineers, and ensures that the R&D department understands the great work the group is doing.

Realizing the Impact

One of the most rewarding aspects of Wilkins' job is developing products and seeing her work positively influence patients' lives. This really hit home for Wilkins when her mother was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and received an Abbott deep brain stimulation implant; Wilkins was part of the team that brought the device to market.

"There are many people that benefit from it," Wilkins says. "But to help educate my mom on her options and support her journey from diagnosis to her decision to proceed with this procedure felt incredibly satisfying. I was part of the team that helped make this product a reality and I understood the benefits it could bring to her life. I’m proud to be part of the team that created this product that helps so many people, like my mom, live their best lives."

Looking to the Future

Wilkins says the engineering industry is moving toward using low-power technology, working on advanced processing capabilities and placing more importance on the collection and usage of data.

"I think that we're moving into a world where data collection is essential. The importance and the health of the data, how safe and secure and robust it is, and then how we can utilize that data to advance technology is super critical," Wilkins says.

In terms of neurostimulation, Wilkins says the field is rapidly growing, and there are vast opportunities for advanced technology to interact with the human body to solve critical medical issues. She believes innovation, such as neurostimulation, is the next frontier of exciting medical achievements.

"The field is still exploring the different mechanisms of action, and how the body and the nervous system works," she says.  “At Abbott Neuromodulation, creating technology that advances this understanding, and creates comprehensive solutions is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity."