Francesca Riccio-Ackerman recalls shadowing neurosurgeons in the operating room at a local hospital. Her head filled with engineering ideas to facilitate the doctors’ work and improve patient outcomes. It was at this moment that she knew she belonged in the biomedical engineering field.

Riccio-Ackerman ’18 graduated recently with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering and minors in chemistry and psychology. Through FIU’s Honors College, she was offered multiple opportunities, one including the unique experience of shadowing neurosurgeons at Baptist Hospital.

Francesca presenting her research

As a member of the Honors College, Riccio-Ackerman had the opportunity to participate in ARCH (Advanced Research and Creativity in Honors), a year-long course where honors students work with top researchers at FIU, complete a thesis and present their findings at research conferences. She presented her work on the perception of touch and its intricacies in the hands as part of a larger prosthesis development project in the Adaptive Neural Systems Lab. Through this, she learned how to design and conduct experiments using devices that were prototyped with the use of 3D printing.

Through the Honors College, she was also able to take a course on biophysics of neural computation taught by Jorge Riera, associate professor for FIU’s Department of Biomedical Engineering.“Francesca’s interest for neuroscience research amazed me from the very beginning. Her motivation will lead her towards even more success in the future,” said Riera.

Francesca’s tenure in the Honors College led her to excel in multiple aspects throughout her college career. “From the perspective of a biomedical engineer, the Honors College allowed me to take interdisciplinary courses, find mentorship, register early in classes and get involved in research. I would recommend it to any FIU student, particularly biomedical engineering students,” said Riccio-Ackerman. Additionally, Riccio-Ackerman had the opportunity to start an organization which created a community for students interested in neuroscience, cognitive sciences and biopsychology, calling it the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, where she also served as president.

Students from ANS Lab

Riccio-Ackerman was a member of FIU’s Adaptive Neural Systems Lab, where she studied the sense of touch in human hands and their interaction with objects. “We need this knowledge to develop neural prostheses that give the user a sense of touch,” said Riccio-Ackerman. In the lab, she worked under the mentorship of Ranu Jung, department chair and professor, and Liliana Rincon-Gonzalez, research assistant professor. “Francesca not only has a sharp intellect, but she is passionate about her mission and has the ability to achieve specific outcomes,” said Jung.

During her last semester and as part of her senior design project, Riccio-Ackerman worked in collaboration with the Max Biedermann Institute of Biomechanics. She and her team worked on a product designed to decrease the cost of a device by 95 percent and increase efficiency by 98 percent. “This really opened my eyes to the solutions that problem-solving principles can achieve for low-budget environments. I’m hoping to use this mindset to strive for international health equity through my future work,” said Riccio-Ackerman.

This fall, Riccio-Ackerman will continue her studies at Scuola di Direzione Aziendale Bocconi (SDA) in Milan, Italy, where she will earn her master’s degree in international healthcare, economics and policy. “Although the location is a bit far from home in Miami, I could not pass up the opportunity to strengthen my presence in the international healthcare field,” said Riccio-Ackerman. Additionally, Riccio-Ackerman’s brother and his wife, both also FIU alumni, are starting an international healthcare company called Wellness Bulgaria, Inc. in their home country of Bulgaria. There, she plans to collaborate with her family to help facilitate relationships between uninsured or financially at-risk patients in the U.S. with the top surgeons in Bulgaria to provide the treatment they need at a low cost.

Francesca shadowing in Bulgaria

As a biomedical engineer with a passion for achieving global healthcare equity, Riccio-Ackerman’s specialization in global health and development will allow her to not only learn about determinants and solutions for transnational healthcare issues, but will also offer a collaboration in Geneva with organizations like World Health Organization and the Red Cross. Working with these organizations, Francesca will gain tangible professional experience in the global healthcare field. Her goal is to combine her education at SDA Bocconi and connections in the international healthcare community to find new ways for disadvantaged populations to receive the healthcare they need.

Following her master’s degree, Riccio-Ackerman plans to return to the United States to start medical school and pursue her passion for surgery. “I love being a student and constantly learning new ways to apply my knowledge to innovate and help others, to me, that’s the true heart of engineering.”

During her time at FIU, Riccio-Ackerman was a recipient of FIU’s Presidential Scholarship, and within FIU’s Biomedical Engineering Department (BME), she was awarded the BME Excellence Scholarship, as well as the Coulter Undergraduate Research Excellence Scholarship. Francesca was also involved with FIU’s Student Government Association for two semesters as a senator for FIU’s College of Engineering and Computing, a member of the Student Advocacy Committee, and a member of the Financial Committee. During her time as senator, she received the award for Senator of the Year for the 2017-2018 academic year. Additionally, she served on the executive board of the Muslim Student Association, as well as the Relay for Life Chair in Theta Tau, the Engineering Fraternity.