How an Obstacle Led Me to Find my Passion for Biomedical Engineering

By Vrinda Madan, senior at Lake Highland Preparatory School and Regeneron Science Talent Search 2017 ninth place winner

I was 13 when I first waded (literally) into the world of scientific exploration. I was knee-deep in the river near my home, wearing only my dad’s scrubs and kitchen gloves as protection. In one hand, I hauled a pool net and in the other, I carried the water testing kit I had just ordered online. A few months ago, the river had been infected by a septic tank leak, and even though government officials constantly reassured us that the river was back to normal, I needed to make sure for myself. And so after hours of research on the Internet, there I was standing in the middle of the river, mining the riverbed for macroinvertebrates, collecting samples of water, and evidently paying no heed to safety hazards.

Regeneron Science Talent Search 2017 ninth place winner Vrinda Madan.

On a whim, I submitted my findings to the Young Naturalist Awards and, to my shock, I was named a national winner. Winning a trip to New York City and having the opportunity to present my research to renowned scientists was an exhilarating experience. However, the most incredible part of the trip was meeting others who shared my passion for science. My freshman self was absolutely blown away by the research that the other kids were conducting, from the senior who grew algae under her bed (shout-out to Science Talent Search alumna Sara Volz!), to the young boy who built his own solar panel, to the girl who conducted research under a college professor. I was simply in awe. And that was when I knew that I didn’t just want to wade into the world of science — I wanted to dive in headfirst and immerse myself completely. The very next year, I applied for the ASPIRE research program at my school. My teachers, noticing my love for biology, were able to match me with a mentor who had been conducting malaria research. And well… the rest is history.

Over the past three years, I have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to conduct malaria research under Dr. Debopam Chakrabarti at the University of Central Florida. My research not only enabled me to explore the wonders of science, but also become a Regeneron Science Talent Search finalist!

The laboratory is like a portal to a new world — a world where I am no longer treated like a high-schooler, but rather a scientist. A world that is the birthplace of new ideas and the battlefield for humanity’s most urgent challenges. A world where the avenues for discovery are endless. A world that I absolutely love.

Vrinda conducting research in a lab.

Yes, there have been moments of frustration: cell cultures not growing, assays not working and codes not running, to name a few. However, these curveballs did not reduce my enthusiasm: they motivated me to work harder, learn from my mistakes and persevere. Furthermore, they were a reminder that obstacles like this will continue to exist, both in and out of lab. We aren’t defined by setbacks — it’s how we approach them that serves as a testament to our character.

On Jan. 5, 2015, I was confronted by an obstacle that changed my life. One minute I was skiing, and the next, I was being told that I had crushed and broken my lower back. One question raced through my mind: was I paralyzed?

Time seemed to stop, a shiver ran down my body, and it felt like the weight of the whole world was collapsing on me. Too afraid to hear the answer to my own question, I let time be the bearer of news. In bits and pieces, I learned that fragments of shattered bone had missed my spinal cord by inches. Tears of relief streamed down my cheeks.

However, the most painful part wasn’t the injury itself — it was what followed. During my recovery, everything was unclear. “Why me?” was all I seemed to ask myself. Only after months of introspection did I come to realize that the accident was a blessing in disguise. It had given me a new mission: to help those who were not as fortunate as I was. Today, more than 1.2 million people suffer from paralysis due to spinal cord injuries (SCI). If the mere thought of being paralyzed elicited such fear in me, I could not imagine how difficult it would be to live with paralysis. I knew I had to do something for those who were not as lucky as I was. Ever since the accident, I have been raising money for Wings for Life, a charity that supports SCI research. Looking deeper into the projects funded by the organization, I realized that I, too, wanted to be a part of this research.

In addition to conducting research and going to school, Vrinda co-founded Project Be-YOU-tiful to empower women.

And that is why I want to study biomedical engineering, a field that will place me on the front line of this battle against SCI. However, I know it will not be an easy fight. There will be many more obstacles in my way as I explore the world of scaffolds, seed cells, and tissue repair. But my tenure as a malaria researcher has immensely prepared me for these challenges. My experience at lab has taught me how to solve problems even in the face of limited knowledge. For instance, when a mysterious plague would sweep through the land of cell cultures, it was up to me to determine why. What if I add a little more PBS solution? Nope. How about incubating it for longer? Nope. What if I alter the ratio of cells to media? Aha! This process of trial and error — a key tenet of engineering — has allowed me to see challenges as learning opportunities rather than as hindrances.

I hope that in the future, I can take these problem solving skills to the next level as a biomedical engineering student. Using the critical thinking skills honed by my research, I dream of optimizing spinal cord repair. I dream of plunging into the world of scaffolds just as deeply as I’ve immersed myself into the world of parasites. Most importantly, I dream of making a difference.

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