Voices for change: Celebrating diversity within the AO
AO Research Institute Davos (ARI) Senior Project Leader Manuela Ernst believes a diverse array of perspectives is essential to solving patient problems and, in turn, advancing patient care. Ernst is no stranger to problem-solving: A member of ARI’s Biomedical Development team and deputy of its Concept Development focus area, she has been a key contributor to the development of the AO Fracture Monitor, an innovative, implantable telemetric sensor system to monitor bone healing.
A native of Schwyz in central Switzerland, Ernst considers herself fortunate to be part of ARI’s passionate, diverse, and patient-centered team.
“My older brother and I come from a nonacademic background, but our parents always supported us in our education as well as our interests and activities,” Ernst said. A natural curiosity for “how things work” and a love of skiing collided when she was 14, triggering Ernst's interest in orthopedic surgery.
“It was—and is—amazing what medicine can achieve to get you back on track.”
“It’s almost inevitable that if you ski competitively… you will get injured at some point. An anterior cruciate ligament—ACL—injury was my first connection to traumatology. Of course, I was curious about how my injury could be fixed,” she recalled.
When her surgeon offered her the opportunity to stay awake during arthroscopic surgery to repair her ACL, her answer was an enthusiastic, “Yes!”
“This was all very interesting to me in general: from the biomechanics of the injury mechanism to the surgical techniques until the rehabilitation process,” she said. “It was—and is—amazing what medicine can achieve to get you back on track.”
Ernst chose human movement sciences as her career path and field of study at ETH Zurich. Her first brush with ARI was in 2011 when she completed her master’s degree with an internship and master’s thesis with ARI’s Biomedical Development team.
“If I had gone to work for a medical device company instead of ARI, it would have never been possible for me to accompany a project so closely from the initial idea all the way to the final product.”
Underscoring the importance of mentoring—a fundamental element of AO Access—Ernst explained the role former Focus Area Leader Concept Development Markus Windolf played in her professional development.
“From Markus, I really learned a lot, from always putting the clinical problem in the center, or how to approach technical challenges to soft skills,” she said. “He was also very sensitive to the atmosphere, the team spirit. I'm convinced this has a major impact on the work output and this is something Markus’ successor Focus Area Leader Concept Development Jan Buschbaum and I will try to keep up in managing the Concept Development focus area.”
Ernst’s work at ARI concentrates on the development and management of the AO Fracture Monitor, a project with considerable potential to optimize patient recovery. The system is on track to first-in-human application this year as part of a four-center, European clinical study.
“It has been a long journey but also very exciting. If I had gone to work for a medical device company instead of ARI, it would have never been possible for me to accompany a project so closely from the initial idea all the way to the final product,” Ernst said. “Since we are such a small core team in Concept Development, we are really involved in each little step—and detour—along the way.”
“At ARI, it’s really motivating to see that I can really make a difference. What’s most rewarding is not so much whether an idea will be a million-dollar idea, but seeing surgeons being able to use what we develop to improve patient care.”
After having been the only woman in the Biomedical Development program for a while, three female junior project leaders have joined the team recently. Overall, she considers ARI a diverse community of scientists and a nurturing environment for researchers who want to make a difference. She credits her mentor, ARI leadership, and her colleagues for fostering and maintaining that culture.
“Markus has been my mentor for my entire career but ARI Director Geoff Richards also impresses me in how he leads the institute. And I have so many colleagues with different backgrounds and areas of expertise who are doing great work. So, I can learn from all of these people around me,” Ernst emphasized. “At ARI, it’s really motivating to see that I can really make a difference. What’s most rewarding is not so much whether an idea will be a million-dollar idea, but seeing surgeons being able to use what we develop to improve patient care.”
She added that she believes AO Access plays an important role in the AO’s commitment to addressing existing inequities to entry and advancement within the AO and to identifying and overcoming barriers.
“I do believe that AO Access is important to identify barriers and see how we can improve. Having a dedicated program like AO Access is key to making sure inclusion and diversity is not just an empty phrase,” Ernst said. "I also think it's not just the right thing to do, but it will have a positive impact on the AO's performance."