Michaela Dimoff '16 on the value of technical communication

Rice bioengineering alumna is a Senior System Engineer at GE Healthcare.

 '16 on the value of technical communication wearing goggles and pointing at a sign taped to a computer monitor

“GE Healthcare is a global company. Half of my own team is in the United States and the other half is in Paris, France — so I have to be able to communicate advanced technical concepts clearly, globally,” said Michaela Dimoff ’16.

The Rice University bioengineering alumna said, “If I had to pick a single skill set that is used most often in my job, it isn’t calculus or thermodynamics, it is technical communication. I have built on the techniques I learned from Dr. Tracy Volz and in the courses that now make up the Engineering Design (EDES) minor. The principles I learned in those classes were critical to making me someone who can communicate globally about medical technologies like X-ray generation.”

The widespread use of X-rays for medical diagnoses followed Marie Curie’s work on the front lines during WWI. The technology continued to improve and spun off new applications like mammogram and computerized tomography (CT), and it continues to improve today.

Dimoff said, “We make X-ray sources. One of my colleagues in France recently had to explain the technical challenges to GE Healthcare engineers who work on different products. He summed it up well, saying, ‘Our job is to create something that can control billions of electrons in an electron beam, traveling in a vacuum at 1/3 the speed of light, controlled with a time scale of microseconds, accelerated by more than one hundred thousand volts… focus that beam to a size smaller than one square millimeter, onto a surface heated up to 2500 degrees C, and hold its position constant within 50 microns when up to 70Gs of mechanical force is applied, all within one meter of the patient.’”

To add perspective, Dimoff said, “People often use the term ‘rocket science’ to mean that something is technically very difficult. The mechanical and heat loads involved in making X-rays are, in many ways, more extreme than actual rocket science. Except because it is right next to a patient, it also has to be quiet. It can’t make any noises that might make someone nervous or scared.

“Most of my colleagues are mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and computer scientists. But if we are designing something new and want to understand how the radiology technologists or doctors will use it, that’s where my bioengineering experience comes in. I am the clinical liaison – the person visits the hospital and talks to users. I collect and translate their feedback into language that my engineering colleagues can apply to the design, such as stress, energy, or power.”

Dimoff doesn’t discount the importance of the engineering principles she learned at Rice. Those skills gave her confidence in her own technical competency, and the math and science is critical for understanding and developing healthcare technologies. But she said communication skills are necessary for influencing situations or shedding light on a problem.

“After I’ve collected data, I ponder how to tell the story, how to present the data in a way that gets our understanding of a phenomenon closer to the ground truth, so we can make the best decision. And because half of the team is in France, I have to figure out how to do this in a way that works across a conference call, a language barrier, and a 7-hour time difference.”

In addition to telling stories with data and translating design ideas or feedback between medical professionals and the engineering team, Dimoff also writes technical memos. She said she found this style of writing to be helpful.

“I remember sitting down with some new data and summarizing my findings in the style of an ENGI 120 technical memo. I sent it out to my colleagues thinking it would be a great way to get everyone on the same page. It worked, but they were a bit surprised. No one expected something of that caliber from a new employee right out of college.” she said.

Her first formative communication training at Rice was memorable for a different reason. Dimoff said she arrived at Rice with a love of communication and four years of journalism experience. The technical writing in ENGI 120 was completely different than writing for a high school newspaper, but she rose to the challenge. At the end of the semester, Dimoff was chosen to present her team’s project.

She said, “We had put a lot of work into our project, and I put a lot of effort into the presentation. I practiced and gave the presentation to Dr. Volz the day before it was due to be presented in class. Dr. Volz constructively ripped my presentation to shreds. I actually cried. Now, Dr. Volz was very gracious and everything she said was absolutely correct; I was just prone to crying in emotional situations.

“We had 24 hours to fix our presentation. I cleared my head with a run around Rice’s Outer Loop, and then the team met to discuss the changes. Dr. Volz wanted new slides and visuals, a new narrative. We split up the work and put it back together at 9pm, when I began practicing the new presentation –which was well received. The time pressure and the need to get it right is what really launched my communication journey at Rice.”

“Ironically, the skill I tapped into that day, developing a new technical communication strategy under time pressure, is something I do often,” said Dimoff.

“My colleagues in France and I are working on new technologies that push the boundaries of physics. We use the same iterative prototyping philosophy that is taught at Rice. We split the prototyping burden according to the expertise of the teams. The US team leads the mechanical design, and the France team leads the power electronics design and software development.

“But, we don’t want to wait until both teams have finished products to make sure they work together. It is the same ‘fail often to succeed sooner’ that the OEDK emphasizes. A main part of my job is doing that iterative integration –taking an X-ray tube prototype we developed and plugging it into a prototype generator that the French team developed, and then trying to use the combined prototype to learn something about the design robustness.”

Dimoff said because she is dealing with prototypes and not finished products, that integration step often results in something that doesn’t actually work.

“And because of Murphy’s law, it always seems to fail right before I’m about to leave work for the evening, which is the middle of the night in France. I can’t just call my French colleagues and explain the issue. But if I can’t get them all the information they need to start an investigation without me, then they’ll lose most of a work day, because I don’t typically wake up until 2PM their time,” said Dimoff.

“I have to quickly grasp the nature of the problem –is it an issue with the hardware, software, firmware, or integration. What do they need to know to start investigating the issue? How can I provide that information in a way that is complete, clear, and concise?

“The communication challenge presented in those moments often reminds me of that afternoon when I worked on my presentation with Dr. Volz. But after almost 10 years of additional confidence building experience, there are fewer tears.”