In the middle of Santa Clara University’s green grounds rises a campus of glittering glass and steel. Inside the state-of-the-art classrooms and laboratories, students work right alongside professors constructing experiments, testing theories, and building tech. This wonderland is the $300 million Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation (SCDI)—one of the largest STEM campuses in the nation.

Here, exciting efforts are being made to push Santa Clara into new, fertile ground in health care, one of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S.

In her 2023 convocation address, SCU President Julie Sullivan touched on the desire for the University to play a role in addressing inadequacies and inequities in an imperfect, monstrously huge, and complicated health care system that needs more providers and more innovative thinkers. But how does a small liberal arts school dwarfed by much larger research institutions in and around Silicon Valley make a real mark? By being itself, of course.

Associate Professor of Bioengineering Prashanth Asuri says as much when speaking about the tremendous “spirit of collaboration” here. “We’ll excel by being deliberate, by training students to understand the needs of various stakeholders, and creating products for them in an ethical and pragmatic way,” he says. In 2017, Asuri started the Healthcare Innovation and Design Program in which students and faculty from different disciplines partner with companies and leaders within the industry to address complex challenges in health care.

At larger institutions, says Chan Thai, associate professor of communication and director of the Strategic Health Communication Lab, there’s no way she could be working outside her designated lane. “There’s a lot less red tape and bureaucracy here to reach across schools and just talk ideas,” she says. “At SCU, faculty have more flexibility and freedom to do things they like. … This leads to creativity in the way we think about projects.” More than anything, Thai says, “There’s an overarching value here of ‘We care about people.’”

At Santa Clara, we’re not interested in creating tech for the sake of tech, Asuri adds. “We’re creating to have an impact on humans.” We don’t need to worry, in other words, of forgetting the “why” of it all. “The why is obvious,” he says. “The how is that students are always at the center.”

Santa Clara Magazine profiles four projects that touch on various health care challenges, from tech-assisted pain management to nanovaccines that could work on cancer cells. In every one, students were able to take leading roles in the research and execution. And in each case, the care of humans was the focus.


Pain In Brain

A soccer player injures their knee while dribbling. The injury requires extensive physical therapy, perhaps even surgery. Overcoming the pain is a hurdle in treatment. But if, in her mind’s eye, the player can see herself dribbling with ease, jumping, and bending her knee without pain, rehabilitation could be easier. She could get back on the field sooner.

That’s the idea behind Karuna Labs, which creates digital neurorehabilitation therapy to address chronic pain. Their slogan: Retrain your brain. Unlearn your pain. It’s pain management via virtual reality in which “you perceive your body being able to do more than it actually does,” says Julia Scott, the director of Santa Clara’s Brain and Memory Care Lab. “By tricking your brain into thinking you can do it, theoretically, you can overcome pain.”

Scott is partnering with Karuna to track what’s actually going on inside the brain when someone is in the VR program. “The overarching thing is ‘How do we design these digital, noninvasive innovations that are well validated and backed with evidence?’” she says. They’re helping prove that the program works by retraining the brain.

Neuroscience major Soraya Miremadi ’24 is working with Scott as a research assistant on the project, in which participants are fitted with an EEG cap that measures electrical activity in the brain beneath the VR headset. As the participants work through a series of simple exercises, like tossing a flower into a pond, the team is detecting brain metrics linked to pain.

“If we’re able to say that this is what’s happening in the brain while doing this activity, and the brain is firing more in this way or less, I’m thinking these calculations can be used as diagnostic markers for people with chronic pain to track their progress,” Miremadi says. “And if that’s decreasing over time, then you can say this rehabilitation is effective.”

It’s the potential that’s exciting—to offer intervention that’s gentle, that’s not a pharmaceutical, and that offers another option of help to people in pain.



Similar in appearance to a nicotine patch, but instead of helping you quit tobacco, this patch helps you improve your tennis serve. Or golf drive. Or layup.

In what sounds like something out of a futuristic sci-fi novel, Nick Cmager ’23, M.S. ’24, is developing a patch that utilizes microfluidics—which deals with the flow of liquid in tiny channels—and is placed on the skin to detect human movement. And it has huge implications for sports and physical therapy.

A recipient of the Fitzwilson Family Endowed Scholarship for student-athletes studying engineering, Cmager is working in associate professor of bioengineering Emre Araci’s microfluidics laboratory, which is supported through Araci’s prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER award. The skin sensors in the patch “can differentiate between movements so we can know what’s a healthy versus an unhealthy movement,” Cmager says.

Though there are already technologies on the market that capture motion through the epidermis, Cmager says, they need to be used in a very controlled environment and can be difficult to wear for long periods. “We want them to be user-friendly, very comfortable, to be worn throughout the day.”

In testing out the patch on his wrist, Cmager, who played on the Santa Clara men’s tennis team, says he can measure the minute differences between wrist movements when hitting, for example, a slice serve. Eventually, he could determine which movement results in a better serve. Moreover, Cmager says the patch could be used to assess, and potentially prevent, injury. For everyone. “What type of movements cause irritation, cause problems? We could know that before the injury even happens,” he says.

Made with inexpensive materials and biocompatible silicone, the devices are designed to help anyone—pro athletes and weekend warriors, Cmager insists. “The goal is to improve the accessibility to health care for those unable to afford therapy or face long wait times,” he says. It’s in line with Cmager’s future goals: “To develop cutting-edge technologies that will have a significant impact on the medical device industry and help as many patients as possible.”


Tiny Sciene

It sounds, frankly, a little too utopian. A medical system that, rather than taking the typical one-size-fits-all approach, considers your uniqueness in pursuing treatment, from the environment you live in to your very genes. The patient’s body learns to help itself in treating disease, says Joy Ku ’23, a researcher in the lab of Associate Professor Bill Lu in the Department of Bioengineering. Precision medicine. It’s the buzzword du jour, and Ku is helping make it a reality.

Through their research on nanoparticles, Ku and lab partner Renceh Flojo ’23 designed software to develop nanovaccines to make immunization more precise.

“We wanted to take unnecessary parts that might be detrimental to the body and create negative side effects to improve the safety and potential benefits,” Flojo says. In the case of COVID, their software parses through the full length of the coronavirus spike protein (yes, it’s what you’re picturing) and identifies the most likely spots the immune system will target. “Then using these specific parts, we can create this Frankenstein protein,” he says.

Rather than the current mRNA vaccines that work by teaching your body to make the protein that triggers an immune response when a virus enters, their nanovaccine is coded to only make the most important parts of the protein. “This can help counter some of the negative effects you get with the COVID vaccines currently on the market,” says Ku, referring to often reported side effects like headache, chills, nausea, and fever. “It’s the three core tenets of our project: precision, efficacy and safety.”

Excitingly, Ku says, the software they designed isn’t tailored specifically for COVID. “We’ve been able to test it out on cancer antigens. There’s a whole field now looking into cancer vaccines where basically you’re utilizing your own body’s immune system to identify and destroy rogue cancer cells,” she says.

Currently, they’re working with a vendor to begin testing on mice. And they’ve filed to patent their software, a huge deal for a pair of undergraduates. “Since we’re a small school, you’re afforded a professor’s entire attention,” Flojo says. “They’re willing to train you, and foster your scientific inquiry. [We’re allowed] to throw darts on a board and actually try things.”



Brush your teeth morning and night. Floss every day. See the dentist twice a year. Spring for the fluoride treatment. The messaging is so rote most of us likely tune out after “brush.” But when it comes to our kids, our ears perk up when hearing that poor oral health can lead to serious health issues down the line. Increased risk of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. Bacteria that cause gum disease can travel to the brain. And so on.

This is what parents wanted to learn more about in focus groups conducted by Associate Professor of Communication Chan Thai and researcher Sofia Molina Perez ’23 through a partnership with San Mateo County Health’s Oral Public Health Program. “You can’t just tell them to do it, you need to say why. Frame good dental health as a gateway to overall health,” says Thai, who leads the Santa Clara University Strategic Health Communication Lab.

Another key finding, as the county’s campaign is targeting low-income and immigrant populations, is the need for marketing materials to target complex topics but be easy to understand. “Just because you’re presenting information in a simple way, that doesn’t mean the information itself has to be simple,” Thai says. “The parents repeatedly said, ‘You keep telling us to brush twice a day, floss, we get that. You’ve pounded that into our head. But we have questions about what the heck is fluoride … or how do I actually teach a 2-year-old to floss?’” The challenge becomes translating complex concepts into understandable language.

Now published on the county’s website in English and Spanish, the report recommends actions to improve public oral health outreach.

Fluent in Spanish, Molina Perez led one of the focus groups and helped design the questions. “I was nervous at first, but the parents were open with me and it felt like I was just having a conversation with them,” she says. Through her work on the project, Molina Perez found a passion in public health communication—a career path she wasn’t aware of until taking Thai’s research methods course. “At bigger schools, it can be more intimidating. Here, it’s more welcoming,” she says. “The way Professor Thai reached out to me and said I have the skills and drive needed for this project … that’s so valuable.”

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