Purdue alumna Teri Whitman inducted into Bakken Society

Teri Whitman has been inducted into the Bakken Society, an honorary society recognizing Medtronic employees who demonstrate the highest level of scientific accomplishment. Named after Medtronic founder Earl Bakken, it honors employees who have made multiple technical contributions to the company, to the biomedical device industry, and to the lives of patients around the world. Whitman, a Purdue alumna and longtime friend of the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering, was inducted into the society on August 30.
Teri Whitman, a senior research manager at Medtronic, was inducted into the Bakken Society.

Whitman is a senior research manager at Medtronic in Cardiac Rhythm Disease Management. A 19-year veteran of the company, she focuses on pacemakers, pacemaker leads and defibrillation systems, and algorithm development. She played a critical role in developing the integrated defibrillation/pressure sensing lead and the world’s first hemodynamic sensor-enabled tachyarrhythmia detection therapy sequencing algorithm. Currently, she is pioneering the leadless epicardial pacemaker and exploring extravascular pacing and defibrillation therapies.

Change of heart
Whitman came to Purdue in 1991 after completing a BSME at the University of Wyoming with aspirations of becoming a food process engineer specializing in meat science.

“My goal was to build a better hot dog by detecting and sorting meat quality problems early in the postmortem period,” said Whitman. But, about a year into her research, she was stuck trying to make sense of her impedance measurements in skeletal muscle. That’s when she had a chance meeting with the late Dr. Les Geddes, Showalter Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biomedical Engineering. It was a meeting that would change her life.

“Dr. Geddes dropped what he was doing, listened to my ideas and measurement problems, and became as excited as I was about the problems that malignant hyperthermia cause in pork quality,” she said. “He sketched out a tetrapolar impedance circuit that would bring sense to my impedance measurement problems. So, in about an hour, he had solved the problem I was working on.”

Geddes led Whitman on a tour of the former Hillenbrand Biomedical Engineering Center at Purdue. “There just happened to be a defibrillation experiment involving new electrode designs going on in the lab,” she said. “There is nothing quite as stunning, really, as defibrillation experiments. I was awestruck.” He then showed her his monitoring invention aimed at preventing deaths in children during anesthesia from malignant hyperthermia.

“The same biochemical issues that I was tracking for meat quality, he was using to save babies’ lives.” Whitman was hooked. “In that moment I thought maybe I could use my knowledge of physiology and engineering expertise to help save kids’ lives. It was one of those days when your life trajectory changes. You’re doing good stuff, but you’re like, oh! This looks amazing. Can I do that? That day, biomedical engineering became my passion.”

Geddes, who had officially retired by then, became Whitman’s mentor and one day told her about his friend and colleague Earl Bakken’s invention of the first battery-operated pacemaker.

“Dr. Geddes’ highest praise for an invention was to describe it as an elegant solution,” said Whitman. “His definition of an elegant solution was a solution obvious to everyone in hindsight due to first principle simplicity. One of his illustrations of an elegant solution was the picture of Earl’s first pacemaker hanging around a boy’s neck, keeping his heart beating with a simple metronome circuit.”

She never forgot the story, and the image of Bakken’s pacemaker attached to the young boy has inspired her life’s work.

Global impact
In addition to her research in the cardiovascular space for Medtronic, Whitman collaborates with Medtronic Labs which designs healthcare delivery service models for underserved communities. She has spearheaded efforts assessing heart failure management in China and partnered with Medtronic Labs on hypertension initiatives in Ghana and a study on maternal health in Kenya.

Whitman also remains engaged with the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering. She has served on the School’s advisory board since 2007 and has provided insight and leadership during one of the School’s most transformative growth periods.

“Teri is an innovative thinker, strategic leader, and a gracious individual,” said George R. Wodicka, Dane A. Miller Head and Professor at the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering. “We were thrilled when we learned of her induction into the Bakken Society. It is a well-deserved honor.”

In addition to serving on the advisory board, Whitman collaborates with researchers at the Weldon School. Recently, a synergy arose between projects conducted by Whitman and the Weldon School’s Craig Goergen, assistant professor of biomedical engineering. Goergen is also researching maternal health of women in low-resource settings. Whitman hopes that by working together they will expand their reach and impact by attacking the problem from different approaches.

“Dr. Whitman is a delight to work with,” said Goergen. “She not only has a strong engineering background, but also has a firm grasp on the medical device industry and how to go from concepts to market. Our work together developing ways to diagnose and treat preeclampsia in low resource settings has clear potential to impact women around the globe. Dr. Whitman is key to these collaborative efforts combining engineering and clinical care.”

Full circle
After her recent induction into Bakken Society, Whitman reflected on her career journey. “Returning full circle to why I do what I do, it’s simply this: to use the gifts I’ve been given to help create technology that makes a difference in people’s lives. My goal in my next chapter at Medtronic is to leverage the work that has been done in miniaturization, materials and delivery systems to create an elegant pacing solution for babies — a pacing solution that won’t break as they grow. That would make me incredibly happy as I look back on my career journey in biomedical engineering that started at Purdue.”

Whitman has a BSME from the University of Wyoming and an MSE and PhD in agricultural and biological engineering from Purdue University.