Jackie Leverett Wasson

Step by Step: 5 Questions with Fitbit Engineer Jackie Leverett Wasson (B.S. 2012)

Jackie Leverett Wasson sometimes finds herself running around in as many as three fitness trackers at once. She considers herself part of the "Quantified Self" movement, which incorporates tech and data to log aspects of daily life.

This all comes into play at her role as a staff electrical engineer on the research team at Fitbit, a leader in wearable fitness devices and digital health. During her two years with the company, Wasson has helped design new biosensors for Fitbit's future devices.

Before her entrance into the world of wearable tech, Wasson earned her master's degree in electrical engineering at UC Berkeley in 2014, after graduating with her B.S. in biomedical engineering from UT Austin.

While on the 40 Acres, the Sugarland, Texas native won first place in Texas Instruments' Beagle Board Open Source Design Challenge, collaborating with, electrical engineering major at the time and her now husband, Zach Wasson on "The Smart PillBox" for elderly patients.

We sat down with Wasson to learn more about her work at Fitbit, and how her experiences in biomedical engineering at UT Austin prepared her for success.

What's it like to work at Fitbit?

It's exciting to work on products that give people information about their bodies and empower them to take control of their own health. Most people don't take physiology classes like we took in BME, so they don't understand how their bodies work. If there are issues, they go to the doctor, expecting the doctor to fix it.

I'm a firm believer in giving people the information they need to understand how their daily life choices affect their well-being. Small choices, like making sure you standup at your desk and walk around every hour, really affect your overall health.

Is there anything you can tell us about the future of wearable tech?

Most of what we work on is confidential at this point. However, I would love to see wearable tech not only gathering data, but also giving people actionable insights on what they should do with that data.

Right now, a lot of people might get overwhelmed with information and not necessarily know what to do with it. I think the next great leap in wearable devices is using all the info in a really smart way to help people take control of their health.

Did you always know you wanted to go into industry?

I knew at a young age that I wanted to help people and to see the bigger picture of what I was doing day to day. I was gravitating toward medicine, but once I learned more about what doctors actually do, I was more excited about the devices they were using. I was interested in building devices to make their job easier.

Once I was in BME, I always knew I wanted to go into industry because I liked the idea of making devices a lot of people will use. Oftentimes with academic research, researchers are coming up with one piece of a puzzle. I wanted to get the things I was making into the hands of users. The track I did in BME was electronics-focused, but I felt like I wanted to dive deeper into that area, so I pursued a master's in electrical engineering from Berkeley.

What kind of research did you do at UT and later at Berkeley?

At UT, I worked with Dr. Kenneth Diller on therapeutic-induced hypothermia. If you can reduce the core body temperature of someone who's had a stroke, you can also reduce the amount of damage done to the brain after the stroke. I helped build a device to record temperature from a lot of different places to track those experiments. I also did research with Dr. Adela Ben-Yakar looking at how you can use nanoparticles to make cancer therapies more efficient.

At Berkeley, I worked with Dr. Jan Rabaey on brain machine interfaces. Berkeley has a big brain machine interface program with a lot of people working on a lot of hard problems. I worked on a project where I designed a tiny wireless device that sits on rat's head and records action potentials from the brain. The future application would be used for prosthetic arms that could be controlled with your mind.

How did your time at BME prepare you?

I have a lot of great memories at UT. Going to Cambridge with Dr. Diller and taking his Transport Phenomena course was amazing, not only because you're learning cool stuff but you're also in this great university with so much history. We took weekend trips around Europe and got to know the area. That was a great experience, and I would encourage everyone to study abroad at some point.

The people in BME were always awesome. The professors really cared, and the students were all super smart and also very friendly and welcoming. I really liked that the courses were pretty evenly split between men and women, which you don't always see in engineering.

Being in the BME program taught me to think about problems in a variety of ways, which is especially important if you're designing something for humans. [At Fitbit,] I think about the electrical part and how that works with biology, biocompatibility, patient comfort, and the mechanical design. At UT, I valued being able to take a lot of different types of courses, which highlighted thinking about the whole picture and the whole system and prepared me for designing wearable and biomedical devices.