Michigan Engineering News

Twin sister scientists: Aftin & Astin Ross

Aftin and Astin Ross, PhDs in biomedical engineering, are making a name for themselves at the FDA.

Portrait of Aftin and Astin Ross smiling together
Portrait of Aftin and Astin Ross. Photo: Laura Rudich | Michigan Engineering

What’s better than one Michigan Engineer making critical innovations at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)? How about two?

In the fall of 2007, after earning their bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, identical twins Aftin and Astin Ross joined U-M’s biomedical engineering master’s program. They were eager to apply their longstanding interest in science to improve the quality of people’s lives.

Flash forward 10 years later: They both went on to earn PhDs in biomedical engineering from U-M and are using their degrees to advance public health in the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH). Between the two of them, they’ve exerted influence on the FDA’s research itself and the way the organization manages its projects and communications. Although Aftin and Astin didn’t initially plan to come to the same center, and actually followed diverging paths for a few years after obtaining their Michigan doctorates, they have been brought back together again.

After graduating from U-M in 2012, Aftin performed research at The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany. She joined the FDA in 2013 as a Commissioner’s Fellow in emergency operations involving medical device availability and delivery. Now as a Senior Project Manager, she continues to provide engineering expertise for a preparedness program that makes sure patients have access to medical devices during emergencies like disease outbreaks or radiological events. She also aids in incident response for medical device public health concerns and is working to develop policy for medical device cybersecurity.

“We want to make our decisions based on science — that’s a key part of what we do at the FDA. I can put a huge technical background into the work I do, and I’m then able to use that to make broader, more immediate impacts. It is a wonderful feeling to know that the projects that I work on have helped enhance or even saved people’s lives.”

Her work in Germany also gave her a cross-cultural understanding of scientific approaches to global issues that she works with now. “These issues that are happening in the United States are not just happening here. They also have global impact,” she points out.

After graduating from U-M in 2014, Astin worked as an editor for Cactus Communications and as a researcher for the National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders at the National Institutes of Health, before getting a call from the FDA asking her to join as a Staff Fellow in 2016.

Now, a Senior Science Health Advisor, she manages two main projects at the FDA. She is coordinating the implementation and continuous improvement of an internal regulatory science review process that fosters more collaborative relationships between researchers and regulatory reviewers in CDRH. This is done by providing the opportunity for people with similar scientific and clinical interests to interact in-person and use human centered design approaches to brainstorm ways to enhance regulatory science research. She has also been instrumental in launching a program that serves as an all-inclusive resource for various groups working on issues with broad impact across CDRH, enabling FDA employees to understand which experts are already working in a given area and where there may be gaps that they might address by starting new project groups.

“What really attracted me to come here was that, although I enjoyed research, it took a long time to see the application of my work. Coming into a position like this, I can see the application and visibility of my impact. To coordinate and improve the way people work effectively at the FDA, which in itself improves public health, is really powerful.”

During graduate school, Aftin and Astin had been involved in many of the same extracurriculars, including the Society of Minority Engineers and Scientists – Graduate Component (SMES-G) and the Movement of Underrepresented Sisters in Engineering and the Sciences (MUSES).

Their graduate studies, coupled with their activities outside of class, have given them a boost in collaborating, organizing, leading and networking in their current roles. “Working with people with different personalities, and various nationalities and cultural perspectives at Michigan was extremely valuable,” Astin says.

It doesn’t hurt that Aftin and Astin have been surrounded by Michigan alums at their organizations post-graduation — the shared experience has been a jumping off point for countless new conversations and collaborations.

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Cara Gonzalez

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