Rising junior Zulekha Karachiwalla was undecided about her major until she took Engineering 101 at Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland, and partnered with another student on a project to build an LED persistence of vision display.
The trick behind LED persistence of vision systems is to repeatedly interrupt an image beamed by light-emitting diodes in such a way that a viewer sees the image continuously even during those intermittent instances when light is not actually striking their eyes.
“I spent all my free hours working on this project as if it was a full-time job, and I enjoyed every moment,” says Karachiwalla, who had a chance to cultivate her interest in STEM this past summer as a participant in the Stanford Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF).
For eight weeks she worked with Mark Cutkosky, a professor of mechanical engineering, and graduate student Sam Fishman, her peer-level mentor, on two innovative and impactful medical technologies.
The first involved small tactile sensors that relay a sense of touch and pressure that could help provide more sensitive controls for minimally invasive robotic surgical systems and other medical devices. The second project revolved around fatigue analysis of the small rings that surgeons implant to tighten up faulty mitral valves in the heart, an operation called an annuloplasty. The rings must stay tight to help the faulty valve pump blood in the right direction, instead of leaking back, which could lead to heart failure. On that project, Karachiwalla got to create a mechanism that simulated 10 years of heart activity to test the rings’ endurance.
Back in Baltimore, Karachiwalla helps run a program through her local mosque, mentoring high school girls and creating a safe environment in which they can discuss topics of concern. She is active in Girls Who Code and other groups that encourage women to enter STEM. For her, SURF provided the sort of confidence and skill-building assistance that she has tried to pass on to younger students from her own community.
“SURF gave me insights on how to prepare myself as a candidate for graduate school, how to pick the schools I want to apply to and how to work in academia,” she says. “This experience really bolstered my motivation to pursue a PhD to do research in medical device development.”