This doctor is making Star Trek dreams come true

This doctor is making Star Trek dreams come true

We talked to Julielynn Wong, a doctor who 3-D prints medical supplies in remote rural areas, in war zones and even in space

Photograph courtesy of Julielynn Wong

What’s the mission of your company, 3D4MD?
We’ve tested 11 3-D-printable surgical instruments—sponge sticks, scalpel handles—that can be made on-site or delivered by drones. We have 50 more designs in our catalogue. Our goal is to deploy them in humanitarian settings and to teach locals how to use them.

What kind of printers do you use?
We use off-the-shelf 3-D models. The key is that they’re desktop printers, the kind you use at the library or at home. They’re portable and affordable. That’s how you get them to the places that need them the most.

What’s the coolest thing you’ve printed?
Definitely our ninja star two-point discriminator, a tool that helps doctors diagnose neurological disorders. We haven’t released most of these designs because we’re working on getting a Health Canada clearance for our devices. We’re going through that process now.

I guess Health Canada is going to be facing a deluge of applications soon.
Haha, yes. But that’s okay. If you have an idea, you can draw it digitally using free software that you can teach yourself to use, and you can make it physically real by clicking Print.

Sounds like sci-fi.
Star Trek replicators are real. This year we 3-D printed custom-fitted finger splints on the Space Station using a solar-powered replicator.

So you’re a real-life Leonard McCoy. Do people call you Bones?
I’m dual-board certified in aerospace medicine and public health, but my goal is to practise in Canada as a rural family physician. It would be so exciting to go to a real Canadian community and use recycled plastics to make low-cost medical supplies that are customized for patients, and use solar-powered 3-D printers to do that.

Seems like you’re more interested in going to the Yukon than going to Mars.
People in rural communities face challenges accessing health care services. By creating 3-D-printable medical supplies for space stations, we’re helping to deliver better health care for people on Earth. That said, SpaceX and NASA have announced plans for missions to Mars, and when they do, we’ll be ready. I think the point of sending people to Mars is to bring them back alive.

Speaking of space travel, you led a simulation at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. What was that like?
I was invited to be the health and safety officer for a two-week-long mission simulation. I brought my 3-D printer in a carry-on suitcase. We were at an off-grid, remote research station in the middle of a cold, dusty desert. I thought, why don’t we hook up my 3-D printer to solar panels and see if we can make some medical supplies, which is what we did.

How does airport security deal with your 3-D printer?
Once, when I was coming home from Edmonton, I told the guard, “This is my Star Trek replicator that lives inside my R2D2 suitcase.” He said, “You have made my day,” and waved me through.

How long until we can print “tea, earl grey, hot”?
Well, we’re not printing tea just yet, but I do have a pancake printer. Instead of putting out plastic, the printer head puts batter on a griddle in the shape you want.

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