How Heidi Hinrichs, Abbott's Divisional VP of Cardiac Rhythm Management (CRM) Clinical and Regulatory Affairs, is empowering the next generation of STEM leaders.
Aug 8 2019
Years before Heidi Hinrichs became Divisional VP of Cardiac Rhythm Management (CRM) Clinical and Regulatory Affairs, she was like many high school students: unsure of what degree she needed to pursue her goals.
What she did know was that she wanted to work in a STEM field. "I was one of those kids that always loved science and math," she says. What fascinated her the most was the work on the total artificial heart at the University of Utah.
"I was inspired by that story," Hinrichs says, explaining how her dad, a civil engineer, brought home numerous articles discussing the groundbreaking project. "I knew I wanted to work on the total artificial heart."
She then went to the University of Iowa to earn a biomedical engineering degree. After she graduated, she promptly went to the University of Utah to earn her Master of Science — and work on the projects that she was so passionate about.
"A lot of high school friends said, 'You dreamed about working on the artificial heart in high school and you're doing it right out of college,'" she recalls.
Her work with the artificial heart led to a presentation at the American Society of Artificial Internal Organs. It was there, speaking with other scientists, that she connected with an engineer from a medical device company. From there, she made the connection to work in medical devices in a commercial setting. Hinrichs started in clinical affairs, where she saw firsthand how medical technology could impact people's lives. Starting as a clinical project leader, Hinrichs pursued various opportunities and roles, working as a clinical researcher and in the field as a clinical engineer.
When she joined Abbott, Hinrichs had already proven her ability to effectively lead groups.
Ensuring Product Safety
Today, in her role as Divisional VP of CRM Clinical and Regulatory Affairs, Hinrichs continues to work on life-changing products and guiding future STEM leaders to success.
As a part Abbott's medical device business, the CRM team develops, manufactures, and sells devices that help the heart function appropriately, such as implantable heart monitors, and pacemakers.
Hinrichs' role on the clinical affairs team is to develop a clinical strategy for various products. "We are essentially the last stage of the development process," she explains. Products are ready to be used at that point, but there may still be unanswered questions that couldn't be addressed through other types of testing.
Her team is responsible for proving the safety and efficacy of products by running and developing clinical studies, as well as making the results of those studies public through conferences, databases and journal articles. Even after products are on the market, the team continues to collect information to help physicians make educated decisions on patient care.
Changing the STEM Landscape
As the executive sponsor for the Women Leaders of Abbott Network at Abbott’s Sylmar office, Hinrichs is also focused on sharing the possibilities of STEM careers, just as her dad shared the possibilities with her. The network has a group focused on women in STEM, partnering with local schools to raise awareness about the types of science fields, to tour labs, and to ensure young girls are seeing women in science roles.
"Women's achievements in science makes me proud; the gender gap is changing," says Hinrichs, who has observed the shift over her career. "I've always been the lone female, leading a group of people who were much older than I was early in my career, so I was always more serious." That changed when a mentor told her it was OK to joke around every once in a while, to be humble and to not always know the right answer.
Now, she's in the position to pay that advice forward, reaching out to individuals who have talent and ensuring they understand their talent. She explains that part of this comes from telling them that they are capable and boosting their confidence.
For women and men who want to work in this field, Hinrichs recommends looking at colleges and universities that do research with medical devices. "It allows you to get involved and exposed to different technology early," she explains. When it comes to Abbott, she recommends pinpointing what you're most interested in. "What you'll find is Abbott has a ton of opportunities and variety. Identify where your passions and your skill set align."
Within the CRM team alone, there is "a plethora of different opportunities and a wide variety of backgrounds," says Hinrichs, citing R&D roles like software, mechanical and electrical engineers and cybersecurity experts, as well as clinical roles like biomedical engineers and scientists with backgrounds in physiology and biology, among others.
Two of the things she looks for in a potential team member are honesty and a natural curiosity — someone who asks a lot of questions and can drive projects forward. "A curious person generally discovers more and learns more along the way, making life-changing products that are as effective as possible," she says. "I want my team to understand and respect the regulations and boundaries we have to work in, but I also want them to challenge the status quo to find innovative solutions."
Leading by Serving
To build an environment that's nurturing for innovative thinking, Hinrichs practices servant leadership, where her focus is on developing her team and what she can do for others.
Witnessing the success of her team and mentees is a major motivator for Hinrichs. "Seeing an individual I've mentored who is now succeeding in their career and leading successful teams inspires me," she says. "I realize, 'Wow, I had an impact on someone who is having an impact on an entire team.'"
Empowering her employees to make the right decisions is key to Hinrichs’ take on servant leadership. "It's also empowering people," she adds. "It's trying to ensure we're providing products and designing clinical studies that really keep the patient in mind, not just from a safety perspective, but in connecting them to their healthcare and empowering them with more knowledge."
One example is the Confirm Rx? Insertable Cardiac Monitor, a small device implanted in the body and connected to a smartphone app. "It's monitoring you for irregular heart rhythms and the symptoms you're having. If you feel symptoms, you can go to the app and push a button to record the patient’s heart rhythm and it goes directly to your physician." This is important because abnormal rhythms can happen at different times and usually not at the exact moment the doctor is doing the exam.
Seeing the impact devices like this have on people is, for Hinrichs, the most meaningful part of her job. "It's a reminder that this is why we do what we do on a daily basis."
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