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EP132 Engineering Wellness with Nawal Panjwani
Aman: Folks, welcome back to another episode of the "I Am GPH" podcast. And today we're very excited to bring you to the world of engineering with our guest, Nawal Panjwani. Nawal recently graduated from the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, with a BS in Molecular Science. And she was also the President at the Undergraduate Student Council. She was once a medical writer and is currently working as a research assistant at Winkler Lab at Weill Cornell Medicine, where she improves MRI safety using deep learning frameworks. As of next week of this podcast recording, Nawal is actually going to Cornell University for a Master's degree, pursuing a Master's in Biomedical Engineering for the Fall of 2023. Nawal, we're very excited to speak to you. Welcome to the podcast.
Nawal: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so excited to be here.
Aman: So, we were looking you up and we were researching, and we see for so long you have had an interest in medicine and the world of medical stuff essentially.
Aman: How did that start for you? I wanna learn when was the first introduction to the world of health and the world of medicine for you?
Nawal: So I think my journey goes back to middle school, actually. So the town I grew up in New Jersey, the schools were not the best, and my parents wanted the best for me. They wanted me to be able to succeed academically while still holding onto my values. I grew up in a Muslim-Pakistani household, so I ended up being enrolled in a private Catholic middle school. So I went there for middle school. I'd gone there for a year for preschool. So I was sort of familiar with the community and the people, but obviously I am older now, and I understood that I was gonna be immersed in a completely different environment and religion, as so I thought. So I started at the school, I was definitely nervous because I felt a little bit out of place, but everyone was super accepting and I wasn't forced to participate in any religious ceremonies. I did have to take a religion class, which at first I was pretty hesitant about. But as I progressed through that course, I realized that Islam and Christianity are so similar. And I think the sort of values woven into the fabrics of both religions really emphasize helping people. So there were many experiences in middle school. We would go to nursing homes, for example, during Christmas, we would sing Christmas carols. And that feeling I got from being there for people, for helping people, really sparked this interest in sort of a health career. So I think it partly also has to do with me growing up in a South Asian household. My mom especially, she would always tell me, "Nawal, I think you would be a great physician. I think you would thrive in medicine. I think you're a people's person. And you should really consider looking into medicine." And I had always enjoyed science. I always enjoyed biology and learning about the human body. So I was like, "All right, I think this is something I wanna do.” So I ended up applying to this vocational technical high school. It was for students who wanted to pursue a career in medicine, primarily as healthcare providers. So I went to that school, it was a very challenging four years, but I learned a lot. I was immersed in the world of medicine in so many ways. We had to shadow doctors, we took medical courses. And so that really kind of helped me
decide that I definitely wanted to do something in medicine. But yeah, I started at Tandon as a pre-med student, and then I started research sophomore year, and then things kind of changed from there. So, yeah.
Aman: All right, all right. So let's take a step back to high school.
Aman: I didn't know that there were high schools dedicated to like a degree.
Nawal: Yeah, right.
Aman: So it feels like university, but for high school.
Nawal: Right, right, right.
Aman: How does that thing exist? So how did you know that, "Okay, I think I'm more sociable. I like the world of biology, I wanna explore this."
Aman: And then boom, there's a specific high school for that.
Nawal: Mm hmm.
Aman: Was there a thing inside you where, "Oh, I wanted to be a little bit more multi-faceted, kind of like people do AP or IB”? What made you so convinced that you had to take that path?
Nawal: I mean, I think that the fact that I had such a keen interest in medicine and the way that the school was framed was, you still take all the regular core curriculum courses, but in addition to that, you're taking medical-based courses as well as college-level courses. So I was taking dynamics of healthcare, medical terminology, anatomy and physiology, biomedical innovations, which introduced me to a lot of engineering concepts within medicine. So it was really catered to students in medicine, but I still did get a very traditional high school experience, honestly.
So I did like that sort of balance, but I was able to get a head start on my career interests, so..
Aman: And there was never a curiosity for you necessarily that said that, "Hey, I want to really explore something else." You were dead set on the world of medicine?
Nawal: Yeah, I mean, I think when I started taking the courses, I enjoyed them so much. And even shadowing doctors in hospitals, I really enjoyed that experience. So I feel like I felt comfortable in the environment I was in and knowing all the students around me that they were interested in the same thing, that kind of also is a motivating factor, so, yeah.
Aman: Awesome. So tell me how Tandon came to play for you. Because it's moving from medicine into engineering.
Nawal: Right, right.
Aman: You joined as pre-med and then you moved to engineering? Or you were always in engineering/pre-med?
Nawal: Yeah, sort of the intersection between the two. So, like I said, in my high school, we were also introduced to the engineering facet of medicine. So my biomedical innovations class, for example, I had to design, it was like a 3D blueprint of a pressure sensor for ulcers. So we used Blender for that and that was, it was really interesting to me. I never really considered that engineering plays such a huge role in medicine, and that sort of side of it was really cool to me.
So I decided I didn't wanna take the traditional biology path in college. I looked at other majors, biomedical engineering, for instance. Tandon has BME as a Master's. So their undergraduate degree, Biomolecular Science, is pretty similar to that. So I decided to apply to that program. And I'm really glad I did. I feel like it was a very challenging four years. Tandon is very rigorous in its coursework, but I think that rigor and the quality of the faculty and the leadership opportunities I got, the research opportunities, they really kind of opened doors for me. I feel like I was able to explore so many different facets of medicine through the lens of engineering, which you don't always get through a biology degree.
Aman: A lot of this is really cool, okay? Because a lot of the guests we have are more people that have a dream of influencing policy.
Nawal: Right, right.
Aman: They view the public health world, and from the larger perspective, seeing where the data lies, what the research is.
Aman: What are some cool, and you explained Blender. Blender is a software for the people that don't operate in engineering. It's a software to make these 3D models, correct?
Nawal: Correct, yep.
Aman: And then print them out and then that becomes a prototype for engineering going forward and that impacts the medical world.
Aman: So how have you seen the world of engineering in your time at Tandon as well, at Tandon, the School of Engineering, impact the world of health in general? What have you seen some things that have, "Oh wow. I did not know the impact that this technology that we made, or this technology that was made had on the world?"
Nawal: Yeah, so engineering, I'm gonna take it through the lens of my current research, which I work on biomedical imaging. So you take biomedical imaging, it plays such an essential role in medicine. Being able to diagnose patients reliably and quickly is so important. So the goal of our project – which is to standardize the use of ultra-high field MRIs, which provide better imaging – that goal, not only obviously you get clear imaging, but it actually, those machines are faster than MRIs currently in clinical use. So providing that sort of engineering perspective, you are able to sort of set off this chain reaction, right? You're able to get clear imaging, quicker imaging, so a physician is able to diagnose patients faster. You're able to administer treatments quickly, and ultimately, you're improving patient outcomes, which is the goal of any engineering-driven medical research. So the intersection between medical engineering and medicine is something I'm a huge advocate for. I feel like in order to move forward, you really need to use that sort of engineering-led thinking. And I would say a lot of people think that engineering plays a role only in sort of that physician to patient interaction. But there's so many systems behind the scenes that engineering makes more efficient. For example, hospital bed management, hospital healthcare administration, EMRs, which is electronic medical records, even how quickly a physician can take on new patients. You want to have sort of that flow of patients in and out smooth, so AI, for example, which is a huge topic in engineering…
Aman: Ooh, I really wanted to hear about that. Tell me more.
Nawal: I think that can really optimize the patient experience in hospitals. You are, like I said, you're shortening the time a patient is spending in the hospital, for example, in diagnostics. In our case, we're working on MRIs, and they're able to get treatment quicker. They're able to improve patient prognosis, especially in emergency situations where you need quick answers. I feel like engineering is sort of interwoven into medicine. And a lot of times people separate the two, but I feel like engineering-led thinking is sort of inherent in any field. You have to be creative, you have to think outside the box. I feel like that's really what engineering is.
Aman: You walked us through this entire journey, right? Of how engineering actually impacts public health. It's making things more efficient and realizing that, talking to someone that's involved in the creation of it, or the utility of it. It's very interesting to hear those perspectives. You have done a lot of practical work with doctors, and I'm assuming you have had real-time experiences. What were some of those stories where, if you can take me to those moments, when you were in the clinic or inside a hospital, and whatever that was to you. Do you have any instances that you remember?
Nawal: In terms of like engineering specifically or…
Aman: Well, even in what you notice, like, "Oh, wow." So for example, some people, usually a lot of our students that at GPH, they have an inherent feeling to them, something they saw, something they saw with a family member, something they saw when working. Something, an accident that's happened, something that's influenced their society.
Aman: So was there something for you when you were working in these environments that made you very passionate about this area?
Nawal: Yeah, so there's this one experience in high school. It was my second year shadowing at a hospital. This was like required as part of our coursework. So I was shadowing at Robert Wood Johnson in New Jersey. And I was in the ER. So as everybody knows, the ER is pretty fast-paced. It can get pretty stressful at times. But I remember sitting there in the nurse's station, physicians walking by, and it was so odd to me how calm everybody was. The nurses were talking about where they're gonna go on vacation, and I just felt so comfortable for some reason, in the ER, I felt this bubble of peace. And it made me realize the difference a good healthcare provider can make in a patient's life. All of these nurses, you could tell they were so passionate about what they do, they were sort of in their element, you know? And seeing that, it really sort of inspired me to perfect my craft. I felt like they obviously knew medicine very well, but they were people's people, so it was really cool to see that. And the importance of obviously both knowing that the scientific side of medicine, but also being able to communicate with people and being able to put yourself in somebody else's shoes. And so that was really cool to see that.
Aman: How lovely, how lovely to hear that. Everyone has some sort of ER experience, and I'm glad that's one of the few positive ones I'm hearing in a long time where seeing it on the backend and seeing how much that influences a patient's life.
Nawal: Yep, mm hmm.
Aman: I'm very curious to hear about this medical writing portion.
Aman: So to me, medical writing sounds very boring. So what is a medical writer? What does a medical writer do? You have been a medical writer for two years at one of your previous roles?
Aman: What was that experience like? Tell me more about it.
Nawal: So this medical writing was more research-based. So, for me, I love staying up to date with obviously, all the newer things, especially in terms of medical technology and things like that. So I was an intern at Ospina Medical. It's an interventional pain practice in New York. So they focus on regenerative medicine. And I thought it was really interesting to see their perspective on certain health issues. Instead of going in with invasive surgery, they wanted to use interventional pain practices, such as platelet or plasma therapy and trying that to see if that lessens the pain before going in with a knife, and going in with invasive surgery. So I really liked that. And being able to write about that and sort of share that new research with their patient population and others, I'm sure it was on their website, so if anybody was interested in going, reading the blog kind of gives you an idea of what's booming in that field. So yeah, I really enjoyed that. It was also a learning experience for me, but I was able to make certain medical terminology and things like that more accessible to people, which was, it's important to me. So like for example, with my parents, if I explain my research, sometimes they're like, "You need to slow down. I don't know what you're talking about." It's a lot, it's very medical-terminology heavy. So for someone that's not in the field, it can be difficult to understand. So being able to make that accessible for people, it was important to me.
Aman: What are some examples of making it accessible? So what are words that one might find, "Oh, what is this? I have no idea."
Aman: And then how did you translate that for everyone else in your experience?
Nawal: Right. So regenerative medicine, for example, some people don't really understand that concept. So just explaining that regenerative medicine is focusing on augmenting the body's healing process.
Nawal: So instead of going in and cutting something out, you wanna see if you can work on improving that, using some sort of injection, or some sort of therapeutic. So like for example, my prior research at NYU Langone, I was working at an orthopedic surgery and cell biology lab. So we were focusing on novel therapeutics for osteoarthritis. So obviously you get to a certain point, you can go in and go with surgery and you can replace the knee. So that's a very invasive surgery. The healing process can be very long. So we were focusing on going into the sort of cellular level and providing treatments that can reduce inflammation in the knee. So we worked, we were obtaining samples from patients who were having knee replacement surgery at Langone. And I would use different types of treatments, either protein treatments, or silencing certain things using siRNA, and we would then evaluate the gene expression of inflammatory cytokines, which they essentially cause inflammation in the body, right?
Nawal: So you wanna lower them. So the whole point of this was administering a local treatment or therapeutic that can lower that gene expression so that you have less inflammation. Because the way that arthritis progresses is an inflammatory response. So yeah, that was just sort of a different lens we took, instead of going in, like I said, with a knife. And that's really what regenerative medicine is. It's healing the body from the inside out, using sort of its own resources.
Aman: It makes sense to me. It sounds very futuristic at the same time, but it's the body and we are helping the body work.
Aman: That's really cool. Tell me.. you know what? Let's take a little bit of a transition. I feel like we're getting too medical-oriented as well, which is awesome. There's so much going on in your world. I'm very excited for what's happening. Tell me about your experience at NYU. So you said a lot about what Tandon did for you. Did you have some interdisciplinary experiences here? Our school, I would say is very interdisciplinary. We can go into any building, the fact that you're a Tandon student coming into this building as well. And we, people from this building have gone to Tandon as well. What are some interdisciplinary experiences you had here at NYU?
Nawal: So, the fact that Tandon even has a biomolecular science major, sort of combining biology with engineering was so fascinating to me. And I think they've done a great job at providing, still providing that biology aspect, but you're still being introduced to so many engineering concepts. Like for example, I had to take Python, which I never thought I would have to take, but it ended up being so valuable for my research that I do today. So that sort of interdisciplinary world that Tandon offers, I think, I feel like if I took the traditional biology route, I wouldn't have been introduced to medical research involving engineering obviously. So I think that connection that Tandon has to the medical school, I think that's very valuable.
I do think there could be a closer relationship between the med school and Tandon. I feel like there are a lot of ideas that students have and even faculty have, that I think the med school could benefit from and we could benefit from their ideas as well. But I do know a lot of students who were in my major who had done research at NYU Langone and it sort of opens up so many ideas that people have and honestly, a lot of people ended up switching from pre-med to wanting to go into research, which is exactly what I did after doing my research at Langone. I feel like I ended up falling in love with research that during that one year stint as a research assistant. So just sort of the opportunities you get from being at an engineering school, I think is really valuable.
Aman: What about a lot of people, when they hear the word "research," it sounds exhausting to them. What about it excites you?
Nawal: I mean, there's so many things. I feel like the fact that I am able to test my theories on certain things, I feel like that's always really cool. Especially during my time at Langone, obviously the first, I would say few months I was mentored by a fantastic postdoc and my PI was also really great. And so I was sort of side-by-side working on things with them. But at a certain point I had control over the project and I was able to test things based on the results I got. And I think that's super cool. We have so many questions every single day and the fact that you're able to sort of get answers to those, obviously not always, but you're able to address a lot of those questions, I think that's really cool. Obviously you have to have the right tools at your disposal and the right people around you, but the fact that you're able to do that and also make an impact at the same time, it's really cool to me.
Aman: That's awesome to hear. I'm glad you're contributing to the world that way. Tell me… you're on your journey right now. You're going to grad school this week.
Aman: In less than seven days, you're gonna be in a new environment, new space.
Nawal: Yep, yep.
Aman: Tell me about the process for you of going to grad school. A lot of folks tend to stay in the working world and then some people go immediately into grad school. What was that whole process for you? Like how did you apply? How did you end up deciding that I'm gonna go to Cornell?
Nawal: So I was actually enrolled in Tandon's BS/MS program. So for people that don't know, it's an accelerated Master's program. You start your courses your senior year of undergrad, or even earlier. And you're able to finish your Master's usually under a year. So I was enrolled in that for biomedical engineering. And I think the professors were great, the courses were great. I just didn't feel like I was getting much hands-on experience. And this is where I say I think a closer collaboration between the med school and Tandon would be super beneficial. But yeah, I wanted more hands-on experience. I wanted to be able to create something, and so I decided to look at other schools. Tandon's BME program is relatively new. I think Cornell's program has been established for a long time now, and they have a close collaboration with obviously their hospitals, and even the vet school they have a lot of close ties with. So it was really cool to see that. And the way the program is structured is you obviously take all your regular courses that you need to for biomedical engineering, but you work on a design project. And what that entails is you either work with a research mentor, or you work with an industry mentor and you basically design something. They give you a budget. They give you, like I said, a mentor, and they give you a team of other students. And you're really sort of on your own to figure it out. You have to be resourceful, you have to be creative. And that to me was really cool. And I think that is really what I need. Obviously I've been able to do research but a lot of it I have guidance. And I think with this sort of being on my own and having to navigate not only the design process, but also regulatory affairs, patent process, things like that is super valuable. And I think that's what biomedical engineering sort of needs is hands-on technical skills. So I'm really excited for that.
Aman: Yeah, did you apply to other schools? Or this was the only school you were looking at?
Nawal: I applied to Cornell and I applied to Carnegie Mellon.
Nawal: So I was accepted to both, I was tied between the two. CMU, I applied to their artificial intelligence in BME program. First ever of its kind that I've seen, where they're integrating AI directly into biomedical engineering. But out of all schools, it would make sense that Carnegie Mellon is excelling in that, because their engineering program is fantastic, and they really sort of pioneered the AI field. But I think the fact that I was able to work on something hands-on like that at Cornell, I think that's really what enticed me. So I ended up sticking with that. And I'm also familiar with the faculty and the resoures and everything. The community since I've been working there for over a year now. So I think that comfort level also made me gravitate towards that.
Aman: How lovely. So when I'm speaking to you now, you're very clear in your path right now. You're clear like, "This is what I want, I chose this over this. That's awesome, but I choose this." And we often struggle with these questions in life.
Nawal: Oh, for sure.
Aman: And you're pretty clear. What's the future hold for you now after you graduate? Where do you see it going? Have you been more of a, "I'll see what comes my way," but what do you see happening next in your world?
Nawal: Yeah, so the interesting thing about this program is you get to choose the project. They create the ideas and like I said, you either get to go the research route or industry route. So I'm excited to look through the projects and see which route I wanna go down. I've been doing research for so long, so I feel like that's a comfort zone for me. But I feel like industry has so much to offer. So I'm excited to dip my feet into that and see if that's something I would wanna pursue. But yeah, I mean, I definitely want to work in some sort of medical engineering-driven career. So whether that's medical research or something in industry, like medical devices or biopharmaceuticals, I'm excited to sort of figure that out. But yeah, that's where I guess my head’s at right now.
Aman: We're very excited to see the future of your journey, Nawal. You're very, very talented.
Nawal: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Aman: And excited to see what's coming your way.
Aman: Good luck on your degree.
Nawal: Thank you. Thank you.
Aman: All right folks, that's the world of engineering for you. Thanks for tuning into another episode of the "I Am GPH" podcast. We'll probably have Nawal back in the future, who knows? And thanks for doing this.
Nawal: Awesome. Thank you so much for having me.