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June 12, 2012 – Robert Mannino knows more about blood transfusions than most people. Diagnosed with thalassemia when he was just six months old, he’s spent much of his life in clinics, hooked up to transfusion machines for treatment of the disorder
Now 20 years old and a junior at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), Robert is turning that life experience into motivation for studying his chosen field: biomedical engineering.
“I’ve always been interested in science and math. And being in a hospital all the time growing up, and getting to know a lot of people with blood-related illnesses, I wanted to use my talents to help others,” he says.
One of the people he most wants to help is his 15-year-old brother, Kevin, who also has thalassemia. Robert says that the Cooley’s Anemia Foundation (CAF) has been there for his family throughout his life, pioneering research and improving treatment centers to make transfusion days more bearable. And, more recently, CAF helped Robert in another very significant way: providing a scholarship for him to study ways to help his fellow patients.
This semester, Robert is enrolled in 17 hours of classes at Georgia Tech. Each weekday, he typically spends three hours in the classroom, three hours in the lab and at least three hours on homework. Part of his work in the laboratory involves hands-on work with the kinds of machines he encounters each time he goes for a blood transfusion.
“I’m working on a project where I choose a medical device, figure out its flaws and strengths, tear it apart and put it back together again,” he explains. “There are a lot of engineering components, as well as mechanical and biological considerations.”
As Robert works in the lab, answering questions for this story, his fellow researchers stop to ask him what the interview is about.
“I don’t know if you know this, but I have a medical condition called thalassemia, and these are guys from the Foundation that supports me,” he tells them. This happens on several occasions and, each time, Robert is brave and patient in his explanation.
He says that research work in the lab is one of his favorite parts of the day; in fact, he enjoys it so much that he wants to go to graduate school to study hematology. Eventually, he’d like to work for a medical device company, building better products to improve the lives of those with blood disorders. It’s something that he knows, and feels, from a lifetime of experience.
“We’re driven to do big things.”
“There’s something different about people confronted with hardships like this,” Robert says. “We’re driven to do big things.”
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Thatcher Hullerman Cook