Grand Challenge Scholar Reflection Paper


Being a Grand Challenge Scholar has incredibly impacted my Duke experience. Through my entire portfolio of involvement, I was able to connect each experience back to an effective and tangible goal of helping tackle one or several of the Grand Challenges. Not only has this program allowed me to think about my actions and goals on a global scale, it has taught me to recognize the necessity of a future in which many fields (including engineering, global health, environmental science, education, computer science, public policy, and many more) combine in an interdisciplinary way to solve the dynamic challenges facing the world.


Many of the biggest problems in the world now require interdisciplinary approaches, gathering people of different backgrounds to contribute their ideas and skillsets to produce working solutions. This was highly evident when I began conducting biological research on neurodegenerative mouse models; I needed to collaborate with imaging system engineers in order to visualize the biological processes. Soon, I was learning about optical alignment and light-tissue interactions from the engineering mentors while working with biologists who performed intravitreal injections of drugs in mice. The more I learned about each field of study, the easier it was to communicate with the experts in those fields, and to produce experimental results. This type of collaboration must occur because as we delve deeper into varying fields of knowledge, it is essential to bring together all we’ve learned as a society to solve the complicated challenges that the world is facing, with for example, a mind-controlled exoskeleton or autopilot cars. These are products of collaborations between biologists, engineers, psychologists, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and many others. However, if a portion of the people in each specialty had a little experience in some variety of subjects, that could lead to improved communication and innovation in collaborative projects. A wider understanding of different areas of knowledge is crucial to facing the challenges of the future.


When I first began my journey in the Grand Challenge Scholars program, I had hoped that it would help me gain a wider perspective for connecting and innovating with a variety of people with different backgrounds to solve problems. While all of my experiences contributed to this learning, there were two in particular that taught me the most by testing my ability to engage with individuals in a wide range of ages and from very different cultures.


Mr. Mkwizu was an established technician at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Arusha, Tanzania, where my partner and I had been assigned to work as part of a global service program. On the first day that we reported for duty, he had been called away to help fix some equipment in a nearby city. As two young female engineers who had just arrived in a relatively patriarchal society, maybe we should not have begun fixing a centrifuge before Mr. Mkwizu returned. But we did. When he returned, he was surprised to see that we had started to work without him. After that day, we had to build a trusting relationship by first assisting him with his projects and fixing small pieces of equipment. Eventually, however, he was comfortable with allowing us to independently seek out broken machinery throughout the hospital. Indeed, we learned not only so much technical skill from him, but also much about Tanzanian culture. We took tea time with him, spoke almost entirely in Swahili, and heard about the state of healthcare in Tanzania. The development of our relationship with Mr. Mkwizu was helpful for fixing equipment, but more importantly, it was essential to strengthening the bridge between the service program and the community partner in Tanzania. This partnership will allow many more students to experience a wonderful culture while learning how to navigate foreign customs to connect with a variety of individuals. When we left the hospital, we also left Mr. Mkwizu an old laptop and created a Facebook account for him. To this day, we keep in touch through Facebook Messenger calls.


On the other end of the spectrum, I wanted to bond with and teach 4th and 5th grade girls in the Durham community as a part of the club FEMMES (Females Excelling More in Math Engineering and Science). In the beginning, it was difficult to connect with some of the girls who came from low-income families and were not all that interested in learning about sound waves or chemical concentrations after a full day of school. However, one of the great aspects of this program is that we have the opportunity to see the same students weekly and really get to know their personalities and passions. Over the course of the year, I connected with them through music and sports rivalries to become a friend as well as a teacher. I used many hands-on experiments such as making goop and testing the pH of various household solutions to engage them to learn about chemistry, math, and engineering. Once we even brought in a circuit kit to build flashing lights, temperature sensors, and small fans! Often, I was just as excited about these activities as the students and wished that I had access to programs like this when I was younger. Now, I love that I get to chance to be part of their STEM exploration and foster their curiosity for experimentation. I’ve learned that the Grand Challenges are indeed both grand and challenging, and it will take generations of scientists to solve them. Thus, it is just as important to make progress in the present as it is to pass on our knowledge to the newer generation.


Being a part of the program has pushed me to strongly consider the different opportunities offered in and around Duke. It has given me a chance to find a focus for the variety of experiences that I have had. My experience as a biomedical engineer at Duke, and participating in engineering, entrepreneurial, and global experiences, has greatly contributed to my development as an innovator and collaborator while discovering the needs of the public through associations with medical practice. Through the experiences in my Grand Challenge Scholars portfolio, I have expanded the skills necessary to not only pursue a medical career, but also to tackle some of the grand challenges in engineering through a medical venue. In the near future, I plan to pursue an interdisciplinary MD/PhD in ophthalmology and biomedical engineering to practice medicine while continuing to conduct research into engineering the tools of scientific discovery and engineering better medicines.