Wayne State BME student Sage Ryland pairs passions for medical and cultural discovery via study abroad experience

Sage Ryland at Plaza Mayor in Salamanca
Wayne State biomedical engineering student Sage Ryland visited Plaza Mayor in Salamanca, a city in western Spain where she spent the semester studying abroad.

Sage Ryland arrived in Spain on Sept. 23, 2022, three days before the start of classes at the University of Salamanca. She and her friend Allison MacMartin, a fellow biomedical engineering senior at Wayne State University, had been on a nearly 12-hour journey when they arrived at the home of their host family, who enthusiastically greeted the tired travelers at the door. Both students had been brushing up on their Spanish prior to starting their study abroad opportunity, but a realization quickly set in that they had been practicing a dialect more common in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking regions.

“Even though we did have some knowledge of the language, it meant nothing in Spain,” Ryland recalled with a laugh.

The experience gives her an amusing story to tell. It’s also one of many Wayne State memories centered on an appreciation for cultural diversity, part of an overall global perspective Ryland believes makes her a better student and will help her become a better biomedical engineer when she graduates in May.

Sage Ryland riding a camel in Morocco
According to Ryland, who accompanied a group riding camels in the Agafay Desert in Morocco, "my camel was being bad, so I was untied from the rest of the group and retied to the end, where my camel bit the person in front of me."

Ryland loved math and science at a young age, and developed an early interest in engineering. She also had an interest in medicine — particularly cancer, which had affected the lives of several friends and family members, and spinal injuries akin to the herniated discs that have afflicted her father for many years, causing chronic numbness in his legs.

In high school, Ryland took advanced biology and chemistry as well as calculus. As a senior, she enrolled in a genetics class to learn more about the medical field. When she started exploring colleges, she came across Wayne State’s biomedical engineering (BME) program and reached out to academic advisor Namrata Murthy.

“I didn’t know what my major would be because I had all of these interests but I didn’t know what I was going to do with them,” said Ryland. “Namrata explained what BME is and what their students do, and I thought ‘wow, this is everything I love all rolled into one.’”

Ryland was particularly drawn to the program’s early introduction to clinical research. With support from Brian Mundo, director of the BME design lab, and Carolyn Harris, associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science, Ryland and her team worked for over a year, including prototyping and testing, to develop a spinal disc implant that would increase mobility and reduce pressure from the injury site. Ryland reached out to her father’s doctor with questions and welcomed her parents to the group’s class presentation for more feedback.

“We were able to creative and work on projects that we’re passionate about,” said Ryland of the design lab. “It’s one of the best things about our BME program.”

Sage Ryland and Allison MacMartin in Segovia
Sage Ryland (left) and Allison MacMartin explored the Aqueduct of Segovia, built around the first century AD and one of world's best-preserved Roman aqueduct bridges.

From the minute she arrived to Wayne State, Ryland immersed herself in her new surroundings. She lived on campus each of her first three years. She bonded with like-minded students in chapters of the Biomedical Engineering Society and the Society of Women Engineers. But she reveled in the chance to connect with people who were different than those she had known growing up.

“I went from a community that was predominantly white to the most diverse school in Michigan, and I loved it,” she said. “All my friends were from different backgrounds, religions and cultures. I was so intrigued by that and learned so much.”

After discovering her passion for cultural exploration, she wanted to find a way to couple that with her academic interests. Through the American Institute of Foreign Study, Ryland found a program in Spain for students in STEM fields related to medicine and health care. In order to get there, however, she would need a few stars to align.

Mundo agreed to allow her to take the BME design lab virtually, despite it being an in-person class. “I’m thankful to him and to my groupmates for working with me while I’m abroad as we complete our capstone project together,” she said.

Ryland needed to make sure she could still take care of her responsibilities as vice president of the Biomedical Engineering Society and secretary of Tau Beta Pi. Both organizations allowed her to remain onboard while away, and TBP groupmate Xuan Xuan Tang attended events and interacted with initiates in person on her behalf.

Next came the matter of covering costs. While Wayne State’s Office of Student Financial Aid assisted with securing some scholarship funding because she was taking one class in the United States, Ryland was on the hook for most of the expenses.

“I paid to study abroad by working three jobs, including double shifts every day for months,” she said.

With the blessing of the Office of Study Abroad and Global Programs and the Department of Biomedical Engineering, her courses in Spain were approved for her concentration in biomaterials. The last hurdle cleared, Ryland and MacMartin would soon arrive at the University of Salamanca. Founded in 1218, it is one of the world’s oldest institutions and welcomes students from across the globe.

“We’ve met students from all over the U.S., as well as Ghana, Germany, England, Australia and, obviously, Spain,” said Ryland.

Even though classes are taught in English, she is still working on her Spanish. It’s improving, but she’s not quite fluent.

“It was interesting when we arrived, because I had practiced reading and writing Spanish more than actually speaking it,” she said. “It is nowhere near the same when you’re talking to somebody.”

Communication issues aside, she and her classmates are absorbing all that the study abroad experience has to offer. Weekend trips and vacations to surrounding countries have opened her eyes wider to the possibilities of connecting with — and improving the lives of — people anywhere in the world.

Ryland, who also has a business minor, is setting her sights on owning her own company — one with an international footprint. Her proven ability to work across cultures has already laid the foundation for a vast network of future colleagues.

“In order to succeed in business, and in life, you must have cultural respect,” she said.

Ryland will come home in mid-December a more enriched person and knowledgeable engineer. She’ll also have many more stories to tell.

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