Fischell Institute Black History Month Spotlight: Michael Straker

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Michael Straker is a fourth-year bioengineering Ph.D. candidate in Fischell Institute Fellow and Herbert Rabin Distinguished Chair in Engineering Reza Ghodssi's MEMS Sensors and Actuators Lab (MSAL). Straker graduated with his bachelor’s degree in bioengineering from Temple University in 2016. He earned his master’s degree in integrated science with a physics concentration from Morgan State University in 2020.

Straker attended the University of Maryland because of its commitment to medical device research through initiatives like the Fischell Institute for Biomedical Devices, and for its relationship with research institutions like the National Institutes of Health.

"I've been interested in STEM since I was a child. Anything math- or chemistry-related was my favorite to study," he said. "I was inspired to pursue bioengineering because I wanted to be on the cutting edge of medical technology and work to develop new strategies for health monitoring and intervention."

In 2021, Straker joined MSAL because he was interested in the lab’s gut health-related projects. MSAL is developing systems to investigate the gastrointestinal tract and perform therapeutic intervention that requires lab members to think outside of the box and garner knowledge in electronics, electrochemistry, mechanics, and microbiology.

"My experience has been rewarding thus far,” Straker said. “Dr. Ghodssi has a talent for recruiting bright individuals from different disciplines to the lab. Interacting with him, my labmates, and our collaborators has helped me grow as a researcher and engineer."

Straker is developing an ingestible capsule device that can autonomously sample the lumen of the GI tract. Once collected, these samples can be evaluated to diagnose many GI disorders. Taking samples in some portions of the intestines typically requires an expensive and invasive surgical procedure that's not always readily accessible because not many surgeons are trained to do it.

Straker’s capsule offers a low-cost, low-energy alternative. Using a sensor operated by an onboard microcontroller, the device can seek out sites of interest in the GI tract, trigger collection, and preserve the sample for further analysis.

"There's something supremely gratifying about watching an abstract concept from your mind become a tangible device," he said. "This device could provide the framework for future medical care, giving more people access to screenings for GI diseases. Conditions such as cancer and inflammatory bowel diseases are becoming increasingly more common."

As a Black engineer, witnessing the health disparities in the Black community inspired Straker’s career path. He believes it's important to celebrate Black History Month because it creates an opportunity to educate people on the contributions of the Black community and hopefully foster understanding and empathy for the Black experience.

"I'm passionate about what I do, which drives me to persevere along my academic journey. Many decisions in healthcare and medical technology development don't consider the unique needs of minorities," he said. "I'm able to fill that gap and address those needs. Also, the support I receive from others in the field has been pivotal. There's always someone willing to provide guidance or a vote of confidence. I hope to pay that forward."

Straker plans to continue innovating in the medical technology space. He would like to work in medical device research and development, and explore entrepreneurship.

"Every checkpoint, from passing the qualifying exam to advancing to candidacy, has been incredibly challenging and gratifying. As an undergraduate, I never thought I'd be here," he said.

Outside of the lab, Straker enjoys exercising, gaming, and making music.

Published February 23, 2024