High school injuries inspire engineering grad to explore biomedical solutions

Portia Rayner wasn’t sure she belonged in engineering — until she discovered her calling as an experimenter, innovator and leader.


After distinguishing herself as a student and STEM mentor, Portia Rayner will use the skills and confidence she gained at the U of A to continue pushing the boundaries of biomedical engineering as a master’s student at McGill. (Photo: Owen Egan)

Portia Rayner describes her University of Alberta engineering degree as a seismic “shift in mentality.”

At first, she wasn’t at all sure engineering was the right program for her. She had once wanted to be a veterinarian, and later thought chemistry or pharmacology would be a better fit.

“You always hear those stories of the kid destined for engineering who took things apart and put them back together,” says Rayner. “That wasn’t quite me.”

As she graduates this week, it’s pretty safe to say Rayner now knows who she is. Her first tastes of experimentation and innovation have given her the confidence to tackle major problems of medical technology as she heads off to McGill University on a McCall MacBain Scholarship.

She is especially interested in the emerging field of “soft robotics,” a technology that uses pliable materials such as silicone that better adapt to the human body. Her interest in injury began in high school; as a goalie in team handball, she suffered from concussions and a torn hamstring.

“That was a big driver for why I wanted to take up a biomaterials focus,” she says.

Through an engineering mentoring program called The Pod, she eagerly joined a project called the HANDi Hand, an open-source prosthetic developed at the U of A. She worked on using machine learning to enable the hand to automatically begin a grasping motion in response to a detected object, to make controlling the prosthetic feel more natural for the user.

In a design competition or “hackathon” called Neuro Nexus, she worked with a team of students on a device that helps seniors improve their balance and reduce their risk of falling. Rayner’s role was to create a pressure-sensitive mat that gauges a person’s distribution of weight while playing a movement game on the board.

All this experimentation has taught her to be fearless, she says, and to recognize that failure is the best teacher. 

“In trying to invent things, I know that even if I fail, that gives me information. If I try one thing that doesn't work, I can try my five backup ideas.”

Beyond her own training, however, Rayner is passionate about helping young women find the same thrill in experimentation. With funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, she launched her own mentoring event called the Ada Code Challenge, a workshop that introduces high school girls to the fundamentals of programming hardware.

“The support I got from the Faculty of Engineering for this event really made me feel as though I belonged here. It was really encouraging to find people who were passionate about creating more opportunities for women in STEM,” she says. “I wanted to create an event I wish I could have taken when I was in their position.”

Drawing on her pre-university summer experience as a junior instructor in the faculty’s DiscoverE program for children, she focused her own workshop on physical computing — such as programming a robot — since it more closely resembled the hands-on training she was receiving in engineering. In one workshop, she taught girls in grades 10 to 12 how to program a 3D-printed heart to beat and vibrate in time with their own pulses.

She sees a future position as a professor in engineering as the best way to continue her work on soft robotic medical devices and opening doors of opportunity for others in STEM. 

“As a professor, you have the chance to work with students and faculty to improve things for future generations of engineers. My experience in engineering has made me more confident as a leader and it’s taught me to see the world in different ways.”