Academics Science and Technology

Student looks forward to making inroads in health care

Senior David Oliver hopes to use his biomedical engineering degree to improve the health care arena for all patients.
David Oliver
David Oliver graduated this spring with a degree in biomedical engineering.

David Oliver can still recall the presentation at a medical conference he attended during his last year of high school. 

There was a man named Larry Hester giving a talk on the innovative bionic eye, a computer-based device that was surgically implanted in his retina to help improve his sight, which he had lost 30 years before. Today, the invention is able to help many people with retinitis pigmentosa, a condition which robs people of their sight. But it meant the world to Hester, who had been in the dark for three decades. 

It was the first time that Oliver considered melding his lifelong interest in becoming a physician, with the field of engineering. 

“It caught my attention, and I realized this is what biomedical engineering is about,” he said. “And I saw how it could complement medicine.” 

The invention piqued his interested in the field, and soon, Oliver applied to the University of Miami. He graduated with a degree in biomedical engineering. And while Oliver had never visited campus before, he said coming to the University was a great choice. 

“When I applied to UM, I never even took a campus tour,” said Oliver, a native of Orland Park, Illinois, just southwest of Chicago. “I did my research and was attracted to the program and the pre-med curriculum it offered, so I took my chances, and it was the best decision I have made.” 

Although he still plans to go on to medical school, through his degree, Oliver learned about things as detailed as the innerworkings of medical imaging devices and programming applications. And he even got experience working with biomedical engineering associate professor Ashutosh Agarwal on an innovative technology called “organ on a chip,” where small, 3-D printed chips combined with human or animal cells are helping researchers to test  treatments for illnesses like diabetes and cancer. 

“From a young age, being a doctor was one of those things I always wanted to do,” Oliver said. “Getting my BME degree has prepared me well for the rigors of medical school, so I now have an idea of what it takes to excel.” 

He also gained experience in offering new solutions to problems in health care. For his senior design project, Oliver worked with a team of students to create a computer code that recognizes eczema in a variety of skin types.

“One of the students in my group was Black, and she went to a doctor a few years ago who could not identify the eczema because the lesions are harder to visualize on darker skin,” he said, adding that the group may try to turn the code into an iOS and Android app. “Our code helps to get better detection and visualization.” 

Oliver will also spend the next year working in Agarwal’s Physiomimetic Microsystems Lab at the Miller School of Medicine. In the lab, he will continue his research using the chips and patient cells to investigate individualized treatments for pancreatic and prostate cancer. He also wants to work as a medical scribe and shadow other physicians in a clinical setting. 

Soon after his arrival in Coral Gables, Oliver decided to get involved in Phi Delta Epsilon, the University’s coed international medical fraternity. Last year, he served as its president, leading 130 members in events and fundraisers like the Anatomy Fashion Show—where students paint their bodies with different biological systems—all to raise funds for the Children’s Miracle Network. The previous year, as vice president of programming, Oliver matched members with UHealth physicians for in-person and virtual shadowing opportunities. He also formed a strong study group through the fraternity, which helped him excel through the rigorous biomedical engineering curriculum. 

“Phi Delta Epsilon has given me great opportunities for leadership at UM, and having those experiences encouraged me to go further,” he said. 

For example, Oliver got involved in Student Government and served as student liaison for the College of Engineering and the School of Architecture last year. As part of that role, Oliver was able to host a fireside chat during the College of Engineering’s Talis Day with Dean Pratim Biswas and Jeffrey Duerk, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost. He also gave campus tours to prospective students as an ambassador for the President’s 100. Through those roles and others, Oliver has also gained the respect of his mentors. 

“David is very reliable, very driven, and always willing to learn,” said Agarwal, who has also followed Oliver’s growth at the College of Engineering as his academic advisor. “He will be a real asset to the lab this year, and I’m confident he will get into a good medical school and will make a great physician one day. He is determined to create a positive impact on human health care.” 

At his family’s church, Oliver also gained a love for music, which led him to join the University’s Hammond Butler Gospel Choir, where he served as its accompanying pianist. And last summer, Oliver got a chance to work as a wellness program assistant at the University’s Patti and Allan Herbert Wellness Center. He used the Bod Pod machine to take clients’ body fat composition to relay their metabolic rate, which gave him some patient interaction experience, but Oliver also worked with the Mini Canes camp and taught kids about health and nutrition. The experience made him realize how much he enjoys teaching, but also helped him recognize the importance of physicians as educators for their patients.

As a physician, Oliver hopes to specialize in surgery because it aligns with his interest in hands-on solutions, which he honed as an engineering student. He also got interested in orthopedic medicine after spending time with a hand and wrist surgeon in Chicago and admired how patiently she explained the details of each procedure option to her patients. By fully educating his patients, Oliver hopes he can help break down some of the systemic health care disparities that exist in minority communities today, which were highlighted during the peak of the pandemic. 

“I want to be a doctor that other African Americans can look up to and feel comfortable coming to, so I can relay the best health practices possible and insert my voice more to set the example when it comes to things like COVID-19 vaccines or other treatments,” he said. “I’d also like to bridge the gap between the faith-based African American community and medicine, and in doing so, help prevent unnecessary losses of life.”