Inventor-turned-medical student thinks good design just might be the key to improving health care

October 18, 2022
photo of man in lab coat on left and same man dressed as ironman at left. at top it reads designer. maker. dreamer.
Joshua Kim wants to be a pediatric surgeon one day. "I just seem to know how to connect with kids at their level," he says. Dressing up as Iron Man probably doesn't hurt either. Photos provided by Jeremiah Kim

Most sixth graders don’t know what they want for lunch, much less what they want to be when they grow up. But first-year MUSC College of Medicine student Joshua Kim wasn’t like most sixth graders. While most of his friends were playing video games or watching their hometown Chicago White Sox win the World Series, Kim was reading up on a pediatric neurosurgeon named Ben Carson. 

In particular, it was Carson’s work separating conjoined twins that most fascinated a then 11-year-old Kim. So, for his year-end class project, he dressed up in scrubs and latex gloves and gave his report on Carson. And a flame was lit.

Kim’s father, a successful podiatrist with a passion for his work, had already piqued an interest in the middle schooler, so it was practically inevitable that he would be drawn to medicine.

A young boy wearing scrubs, gloves and a mask sitting next to his poster on Dr. Ben Carson 
Kim and his 6th grade project on Dr. Ben Carson.

During high school, Kim never wavered on his dream of following in Carson’s footprints by becoming a pediatric surgeon, but an undeniable talent for making things with his hands took him on a few detours along the way. 

“I always wanted to figure out how things work and make the next big thing,” he said.

In high school, he taught himself how to build jet-powered rockets. (Yes, you read that right.) In undergraduate school at Northwestern University, he made a fully functioning Iron Man suit so detailed that you would have sworn it came from the Marvel Studios’ props department. And that’s when an idea was formed: What if he was able to combine his love of building things with his passion to heal?

“I feel like I was always balancing this duality between medicine and design. It just took me a while to realize I didn’t have to choose one or the other,” he said. 

After receiving his undergraduate degree, Kim was accepted to the Segal Design Institute’s Engineering Design Innovation Masters Program at Northwestern University. It was there that he took his creations to the next level. There was the gadget to help people who were recovering from strokes, the device to speed up the time a cancer patient spent going through radiation, the pediatric-focused injection device that aimed to decrease anxiety caused by getting a shot.

“I saw just how powerful human-centered and empathetic design could be in the health care field,” he said. “And I just wanted to keep making more things to help.” 

With the ink still wet on his diploma and a prestigious job offer already in hand, he was poised for his next big move. But a professor asked Kim if, before making any career decisions, he’d do him one favor and meet with a former colleague of his first. So Kim sat down with MUSC oncologist, David Mahvi, M.D., and a fork in the road quickly appeared.

“It was just immediately evident that he saw the world through a different lens,” Mahvi said. “He looked at things from a design standpoint, which is so refreshing in the medical field. He just came at things from a totally different angle.”

So Mahvi offered him a job. 

A young man standing outside holding a homemade rock that is nearly twice his height 
Kim and one of his many rockets. That he built in high school. At the same time you were not building rockets.

Within a month, Kim moved to Charleston and found himself working alongside Mahvi and Michael Yost, Ph.D. The task: leverage his unique skills and help create the Human-Centered Design Program at MUSC. The program would teach its students how to blend medicine, design and technology to make health care better. Kim lent his design expertise and passion for medicine to get the program up and running immediately.

Now in its third year, the program is very much the fruit of Kim's labor. He even did a fair amount of teaching along the way.

“When I came here, I literally had no teaching experience,” he laughed. “But now it’s something I really enjoy.”

two men wearing scrubs, one the father, the other the son, smiling for a selfie 
Kim and his No. 1 fan, a very proud podiatrist father.

Well, enjoyed. Right now, Kim is on the other end – learning right now. The first-year medical student has embarked on the second part of his master plan – this time looking to add a hands-on element to his health care contributions. 

The act of going to medical school and, in turn, temporarily stepping away from the Human-Centered Design Program – something Mahvi always knew was something Kim aspired to do – has proved bittersweet for both. 

“He has been really important to me,” Kim said. “He made me feel like I was one of his own kids that he was sending off to college.”

Mahvi’s father-like pride is evident: “It’s crazy to think, but Josh became an educator within the Department of Surgery that transcended MUSC. He actually did Grand Rounds. That’s unheard of for somebody who’s not a surgeon.”

This means Mahvi is left with a gaping hole to fill in the program. “Our hope is to bring him back one day so he can help us grow it even further,” he said. “I see him as this bridge between design and health care. There just aren’t that many people out there like him.” 

Kim shares his hopes. 

“I really hope I find time to come back and work with the program again. Marrying these two worlds together is so exciting,” he said. “Yes, I’m in medical school right now, but I’m always thinking ahead to what’s next. I’m a designer, a maker, a dreamer. That’s the core of who I am. So, I’m always going to be thinking about innovation and how we can bring those innovations to life.”