Mary Lou Jepsen is on a Quest to Improve Imaging Technology
“What I try to do is make things that everybody knows are utterly, completely impossible—I try to make them possible.” – Mary Lou Jepsen
Have you ever had an experience that propelled you toward building something for the benefit of society? Mary Lou Jepsen, founder of Openwater, a company that’s creating wearable imaging technology, had just such an experience. When a brain tumor required her to have an expensive MRI, Jepsen dedicated herself to learning more about the brain and designing alternative low-cost imaging solutions. Her journey has taken her to heading the Display Division at Google X, leading virtual reality innovation at Facebook’s Oculus, and now to being CEO of Openwater. Read on to learn more about this woman in STEM who’s changing the way we gather health data from our bodies.
When Jepsen was 13 years old, she spent the summer in the hospital, and doctors couldn’t identify her disease. This experience left her feeling that she may not live long. She decided to live the best life she could: “I wanted to live, to do interesting, fascinating work in the limited time I thought I had left.” She studied Studio Art and Electrical Engineering at Brown University, Media Technology at MIT, and later returned to Brown for her Ph.D. in Optical Physics.
But while she was working on her Ph.D., the mysterious disease from her youth grew steadily worse. A tumor had been growing inside her brain. Even though the tumor itself was benign, it disrupted the function of Jepsen’s pituitary gland, resulting in symptoms such as the inability to do simple subtraction. She had the tumor removed, along with part of her pituitary gland, giving her another chance at life. But now she has to take daily doses of hormones, and getting them has proved difficult: There are often layers of people who need to give approval before she gets these crucial medications. Her frustration with the medical system adds fuel to her fire for improving access to health care through technology.
After getting her tumor removed, Jepsen went on to finish her Ph.D. at Brown and is now a technology leader: She was a professor at MIT, founded start-ups, co-founded the One Laptop Per Child organization, led projects at Google X and Facebook’s Occulus, and now runs Openwater in San Francisco. This most recent venture aims to test the limits of imaging technology to serve many purposes, from the medical to the telepathic. In a nutshell, Jepsen wants to create wearable, consumer-priced imaging technology that you can wear in a hat.
Currently, getting an MRI is an expensive procedure. How many people who cannot afford MRIs have suffered with tumors (like Jepsen) or other diseases around the world? Jepsen describes the technology this way: “We’re working on a wearable MRI system that doesn’t use MRI. MRI resolution ‘plus plus.’ And the impact is targeted for two areas. One obviously in health care. And not so obviously, the same device will enable telepathy, meaning communication with human thought alone.”
Mary Lou Jepsen is an example of someone who has chosen to take experiences that could be debilitating and use them as motivation for making devices to help other people. Paired with her technical and artistic skill sets, her past experiences have helped her craft an extraordinary life of innovation. But Jepsen knows that working as a woman in technology can be difficult. And when women get to senior levels, they face unique challenges: “At the senior level, women are so rare, and men, particularly young men, find it hard to take technical expert counsel from a middle-aged woman. It doesn’t match their pattern of what an expert is.” Getting more girls interested in STEM who may eventually enter technical careers can help change this perception of what an ‘expert’ is.
Help the girls in your life get the technical and character skills they need to create their own inventions and be technology leaders! Did you know that getting students to start as early as elementary school will reduce their apprehension about STEM and increase their chance of choosing a STEM-related career later in life? Sign up your child for Tynker and have them try coding activities for free!