Engineering in Healthcare: A Career in Rapid Diagnostics

An engineering career path to doing work that matters.

Engineering in Healthcare: A Career in Rapid Diagnostics
Reaching Your Potential | Jan. 26, 2021

Ask Mahitha Thammareddy what drove her toward a career in engineering for healthcare, and her answer is simple: "I wanted to make a meaningful impact on human life."

Now, having had a direct hand in developing rapid diagnostic tests, she's done that. Thammareddy has helped to engineer a roster of rapid diagnostic instruments for infectious diseases — including the multi-assay DIGIVAL™ and ID NOW platforms for flu, strep and more. In 2020, she and her colleagues did the remarkable: They fast-tracked a year-long process into 30 days when building a 15-minute test for COVID-19.

Mahitha Thammareddy
Mahitha Thammareddy, Head of Cloud and Systems Engineering in Abbott Rapid Diagnostics

But in all the innovations she's helped make happen, it wasn't the promise of awards or accolades that kept her going. It's been that guiding mantra, straight from the start: Make an impact. For her, an engineering career in healthcare has helped mobilize that mantra into a path she's proud of — and now, she's sharing what she's learned.

Doing Work That Matters

As a young girl, Thammareddy thought she might be a doctor someday — but after one glance at the anatomy section in a medical science fair, her plans shifted. The blood and gore of medicine wasn't quite her calling, but then she realized, doctors need tools, and she had the technical prowess to develop them. MD or not, she could still help improve lives.

After completing her Master of Science in Electrical Engineering at West Virginia University, Thammareddy began working in medical device engineering roles — eventually taking a job at Abbott Rapid Diagnostics in 2018 as associate director of systems and test engineering. In that position, which she held for her first two years at Abbott, Thammareddy helped define, integrate and test rapid diagnostic instruments. "I was mainly trying to figure out how we could get better and more efficient, making sure that all the different pieces integrated together for a safe and high-quality product," she said.

Initially, the role involved Abbott's rapid diagnostic test platforms ID NOW and DIGIVAL — but as the COVID-19 pandemic evolved, it became clear early on that she'd be needed for a COVID-19 test.

"In February 2020, we learned that we were going to start working on a COVID-19 test to add to our ID NOW software," Thammareddy said. "Typically, our development cycles to add a new assay take about 12 to 18 months because of the lead times of developing the assays and then the clinical trials. We were given a time frame of one month — it was unprecedented."

Since then, millions of people have benefited from Abbott's ID NOW COVID-19 rapid diagnostic test — which has helped healthcare workers manage, and epidemiologists track, the pandemic's transmission.

"That was a very humbling experience, especially because one day I was talking to my daughter, who was 5 at the time," she said. "I told her I was sorry that I hadn't been able to spend a lot of time with her over the past few weeks. And she just said, 'It's OK. I know you worked on a COVID test that helped people.' That was the biggest reward I could have."

The Importance of Skill-Building

In October 2020, Thammareddy embarked on a new role to head the cloud and systems engineering teams, where she helps develop cloud-based solutions that integrate with rapid diagnostic platforms.

Moving systems to the cloud, she says, has three major benefits to people: Cloud-based technologies can help lower the cost of medical devices, make them more interoperable with other systems and unlock high-powered analytics that support research.

Amid that job change, Thammareddy has had to flex new skill sets — something she notes is necessary for anyone considering a career as technical as engineering. But the most essential skill, she emphasizes, can ironically be the most challenging: Keep things simple.

"It's very tempting, as an engineer, to develop the most complex product," she said. "But I think the future of engineering requires simplicity. We want our products to be safe and easy to use for anyone — and so we have to keep our focus on areas that make a positive impact on people."

Another engineering skill that tends to get overlooked? People skills.

"Once, just knowing how to code was good enough," she said. "But now, engineers need interpersonal skills and other talents too. Knowing how to work collaboratively on a team is critical. You also need to understand the big picture and be nimble."

Advice for Others Who Hope to Follow

If you're hoping to follow a similar path to Thammareddy's, she has some advice: Learn all you can — from internships, extension coursework and mentors. Ask questions, explore interests and be ready to act on job opportunities.

"Pursuing a career in engineering can be limitless because it's such a vast field," she said. "Find what you're passionate about — whether that's building medical devices, human space flight or robotic surgeries, engineering has a discipline for it. Tap into every resource you have available. It's never too early."

Important Safety Information

IDNOW

The ID NOW COVID-19 EUA has not been FDA cleared or approved. It has been authorized by the FDA under an emergency use authorization for use by authorized laboratories and patient care settings. The test has been authorized only for the detection of nucleic acid from SARS-CoV-2, not for any other viruses or pathogens, and is only authorized for the duration of the declaration that circumstances exist justifying the authorization of emergency use of in vitro diagnostic tests for detection and/or diagnosis of COVID-19 under Section 564(b)(1) of the Act, 21 U.S.C. § 360bbb-3(b)(1), unless the authorization is terminated or revoked sooner.