Mona Lisa Delva

Mona Lisa Delva made a promise to her mom: She will never use her technical expertise to build a network of self-aware supercomputers with plans for world-domination.

“I’m fascinated by neural engineering, so I wanted to get involved with anything space age: Robocop, iRobot, you name it,” she says. “We were watching Terminator and my mom was like: ‘Mona Lisa, please don’t build Skynet!’”             

But her mom – and humankind – need not worry. Graduating with a double degree in biomedical physiology and kinesiology (BPK) and engineering with honours, Delva has other – much more benevolent – plans for the future.

Delva was in fifth year of BPK, and uncertain of her next steps after graduation, when she did a Google video search for “engineering.”

 “I saw all this amazing technology, like the DEKA robotic arm for war amputees modeled after Luke Skywalker’s bionic hand,” she says. “I thought, ‘I need to be a part of this.’”

So she shelved her plans to study medicine, and instead dove into an engineering science degree, which she took to like a “fish to water,” she says.

In the future, Delva aspires to invent technology to help in disaster relief efforts. As inspiration, she cites a novel infrared water-purifying pen, which could have saved lives following the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, home to many of her family members. (Delva herself moved from Miami to Vancouver at age 15.)

On the way, she wants to direct a lab where she’ll create "the slickest, most cutting-edge technology,” and mentor young women in math and science.

Delva has good reasons to dream big. With five clinical and research co-op placements and a successful capstone project under her belt, she is already leveraging her multidisciplinary skills to make her mark on the world.

In 2007, Delva completed a co-op placement with Kintec foot lab, where she worked as a human kinetic specialist. Almost eight years later, in the final year of her engineering science degree, Delva and her capstone project team approached mechatronic systems engineering professor Carolyn Sparrey for potential industry leads.

“One project was creating a portable system to find warning signs of plantar fasciitis – one of the most common causes of heel pain,” she says. The project was commissioned by none other than Kintec, Delva’s previous co-op employer. The portable, standalone device, which can be worn by patients outside the clinical setting, became the focus of Delva’s capstone and her honour’s thesis.

“When the patients return to the clinic, the data collected by the device can be downloaded and analyzed by a specialist,” says Delva. “It will help people catch the warning signs early, which could prevent the need for surgery and a lengthy recovery.”

In addition to her work with Kintec, Delva also had the opportunity to explore other areas of research as a student at SFU. She worked in a multidisciplinary setting with BPK professor Dan Marigold in the sensorimotor neuroscience lab, and with Carolyn Sparrey, researching spine mechanics and injuries.

“Dr. Sparrey was my first introduction to what it means to be a woman in engineering and she has been an amazing mentor,” says Delva.  As the recipient of a Vice-President, Research Undergraduate Student Research Award, Delva also worked with professor Ryan D’Arcy in Surrey's Neurotech lab, researching EEG signals to determine consciousness in non-responsive patients with severe head trauma.

“My experience at SFU helped make me a good researcher: I learned how to ask the right questions, and present my ideas; not just to experts but to everyone,” she says. “Because at the end of the day, we’re not engineering for ourselves; we’re engineering for others.”

Update (Dec. 2015): Now a master's student in biomedical engineering at SFU, Delva is working on a novel device for stroke rehabilitation under the supervision of professor Carlo Menon.