Bioengineering an Impact with ‘Give a Hand’

Growing up in Mexico City, Isabela Castillo intended on medical school. She says, “I thought I would stay in Mexico and live there my whole life.” Plans changed when she pursued a personal project requirement in 10th grade at her school in Mexico. She decided to 3D print a hand. After downloading the files from the internet, her prototype worked. She reached out to a medical non-profit to help a girl who needed a prosthetic hand. “They liked my work, so I started printing and manufacturing hands for them.”

Castillo started the club Give a Hand at her high school, but the COVID-19 pandemic intervened. However, the project inspired her to reevaluate her college plans. She says, “I decided to apply to the U.S. schools a few months before the deadline. I realized that my work with medical devices could have a wider impact than a doctor. Give a Hand is why I chose an engineering school. I love the physical manufacturing of bioengineering.”

While visiting schools in Boston, Castillo walked around Northeastern University’s Interdisciplinary Science & Engineering Complex with her parents. She happened to run into Northeastern President Joseph Aoun, who promptly introduced himself. After hearing about her interests, he went upstairs and found the chair of the bioengineering department, Lee Makowski, who showed Castillo the lab and the department on a personalized tour. Between this experience and the excitement of the co-op program, Castillo knew Northeastern was where she wanted to be.

Give a Hand

After coming to Northeastern, Castillo brought the idea of Give a Hand with her. She reached out to three friends and fellow students to help start the club: chemical engineering student Paul Maurin, business student Constanza Tello, and philosophy student Valeria Solorzano. Maurin helps with building a design, while Tello and Solorzano work on fundraising, legal disclosures, and meetings with patients and their families. “We started meeting weekly to brainstorm a plan. For our first club meeting, we sent out invitations and got thirty people to sign up.”

She stayed in touch with Makowski, who became an advisor for Give a Hand. “I’ve met with him four times this year for advice on Give a Hand. If we need something for the club, he helps us get it. Her favorite class thus far has been Cornerstone of Engineering, where she learned to use C++, CAD, programming, and real-world engineering applications. For her team project, she made laser tag from scratch. Her instructor, Joshua Hertz, is the other advisor for Give a Hand. The first-year engineering department donated a 3D printer to Give a Hand.

Give a Hand is now working with Enabling the Future, a global network of volunteers making medical devices. “We got to be the first Boston community chapter. It gave us the credibility to provide hands through them.” They put the club in a patient matching program so that the club can take cases for patients near the Boston area. The first hand they made was for a five-year-old girl in Rhode Island who was born with a congenital hand malformation. Castillo says, “This girl has never had a prosthetic hand. I went to meet with her last week. Her mother told me the kids at school made fun of her. She had been waiting to get the hand I made. I wrapped it in a gift box—she loved seeing it and gave me a hug after.”

Castillo has tailored her classes and co-op to fit her passion. She greatly enjoyed a bioethics course. “The humanitarian part of what I do is very important; I want to do it ethically.” Her co-op will be at a medical device lab, Traverso Laboratory, a collaboration between Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

Castillo says it hasn’t been easy. “It’s challenging. Being an engineering student and starting a club is a challenge. I have to wake up and create a balance between classwork and Give a Hand.” However, the challenge is rewarding. “It’s grounding as outside academic work, it has an impact beyond my classes. I’ve learned how to manage my time. Learning how to reach out to people. Northeastern is here to help you. If you need something, you’ll be able to get it.”

Related Faculty: Lee Makowski, Joshua Hertz

Related Departments:Bioengineering