Perfusion Technologist Student Channels Isaac Newton, Name-Drops Fig Newtons

After starting his career as a surgical technologist, Owen McKinley is earning his master’s in cardiovascular perfusion — and pursuing his passion for statistics at the same time

A smiling man seated on an outdoor bench

The statistics show that Owen McKinley is ready to excel.

McKinley is a second-year student in Rush University’s cardiovascular perfusion master’s program, which is training him to enter a field that is expected to grow 14% from 2018 to 2028, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. McKinley might be curious about how that percentage was calculated, because he has developed a deep interest in statistics that he wants to use to carve out a unique career path.

He doesn’t want to go all in on statistics and be a groundbreaking mathematician like Isaac Newton, but he does like to use Fig Newtons as a way to illustrate the niche he’s trying to create. McKinley recently talked about his career goals, how he developed an interest in mathematics, and fig-filled snacks.

Tell us about your background.

Owen McKinley: I don’t have the most common background for someone in the perfusion field. I'm an older student at 32 years old.

I was a certified surgical technologist at Barnes Jewish Hospital in Saint Louis and was in the cardiac clinic, so I got to learn about heart surgery and what goes into patient care. As a surgical tech, I got the operating room set up and all the equipment ready for the surgeon.

Two years into that job, I noticed the heart-lung machine. How can you not notice it? It’s a massive contraption that's part of nearly every heart surgery. It keeps the patient alive while their heart is stopped during surgery so the surgeon can perform. It circulates the patient’s blood and keeps it oxygenated. Someone needs to run the machine, and that’s where a cardiovascular perfusionist comes in.

I became curious about the field. It’s neat to see the workings of the machine and watch the flow of blood and how it supports the patient. I mean, the setup and size of the machine would generate curiosity from nearly anyone. I spent a little time watching our perfusionists operate the machine, and I convinced myself that I needed to be in their shoes.

What drew you to health care initially?

OM: My dad. He has been an orthopedic surgeon in Indianapolis for a long time. After undergrad, I wasn’t happy with where my career was. I sat down with my dad and talked about options. He said, “If you want to get into the operating room, a surgical technician is a good job.” The training is brief but intense. He thought I’d like it.

So my father generated the interest in health care, but I developed that interest even more as I got into perfusion. The field really is what you make of it. You need to be well-trained and committed.

Having been around health care, I’ve noticed that the best health care professionals are always on. If they’re fatigued, they don’t show it. Every patient is treated with the same level of effort. I strive to be that way because every patient deserves it.

Why did you choose Rush to continue your journey?

OM: There aren’t many cardiovascular perfusion programs across the United States. Some of the perfusionists I worked with in St. Louis went to Rush, and they had very positive things to say about the program. As a student, all of that has been confirmed. Every professor does everything they can to make sure students are successful. I really couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

Are you working on any particularly interesting projects right now?

OM: We have to complete a research project or thesis, and I’ve joined one of my classmates to investigate the efficacy of a filtering device on toning down the effects of cytokines, which are a molecular component in our blood that that can promote an inflammatory response.

As part of this, I’m using statistics, which is one of my hobbies. I took statistics as a prerequisite for this program, and I became obsessed with the topic. So I do a lot of self-study in statistics.

At Rush, the program is very open to creativity and letting students explore research opportunities that interest them. So, along with my research partner, I’m using a form of statistics that is not commonly used in health care. It's known as Bayesian statistics. The inferences that can be made using Bayesian techniques are very intuitive — to the point where you don't even need to put numbers into it.

I’ve wondered if I should have gone into statistics, but Rush is giving me the opportunity to pursue this side of me. I can’t think of another scenario that would allow me this freedom to bring my interest in statistics into my studies. It has been really neat.

You seem really passionate about statistics!

OM: Yeah, I find it interesting that if you're doing pure mathematics or if you're studying classic Newtonian physics, or anything with math underpinnings, there's a distinct process that leads you from A to B. What's different and neat about statistics is the part that allows autonomy and creativity in selecting the study design, tests and approach.

It seems you might have a distinct career path in mind.

OM: I definitely envision myself as a practicing perfusionist. However, I want to be a go-to resource for perfusion-related statistics, and I'd ultimately like to spend a lot of my time as a practicing statistician in perfusion research.

I mean, I could go out and get a statistics degree instead and apply my knowledge to just about anything. I could be a statistician for Fig Newtons, for example, or whatever the case may be. But I’d prefer to stick with perfusion because this is what I have an interest in.

Fig Newtons seem slightly random. Are you a fan?

OM: Not really! It’s just a go-to example whenever I talk about how widely applicable the field of statistics is. Think about it: You know there’s a lot of data behind the production and distribution of Fig Newtons. There has to be. It's just that we don't think about that every day. But the point is, I don’t intend to leave perfusion and end up applying statistics to a random field. I want to marry statistics with perfusion.

Do you have any advice for someone who might be following a similar path?

OM: I have a great support system, with my parents and the perfusionists in St. Louis who are behind me. When you have people who are supportive, it's life-changing, and it can really alter your mindset for the better.

And trust the process. If you trust the process, you're going to have success because the faculty here know what they're doing. If you have any reservations, trust the faculty. They know how to educate and get their students to a level that is appropriate for getting into the hospitals and starting clinical training.