Arif’s Story: Science Helps Humanity

Science Helps Humanity

By: Arif Mahmud


I was born in Brooklyn, NY and then moved to Bangladesh for the first four years of my life. I came back to the United States not knowing English which I learned as I pursued my education here.


When I was a young kid, I always thought I would grow up and be a power ranger. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out. Instead my interests evolved and now include medicine and research. I also love playing soccer and computer games. I didn’t always want to do medicine. It was through the exposure that I had that gradually inspired me to do medicine. Also, I have always been really interested in technology. I used to take apart fans and try to put them back together. I would also take apart mini motorized cars. I would try to take out the motor and engine and attach loose leaf paper to make a fan.


Throughout my life my mom and dad have always been huge sources of inspiration for me. My mom was originally a doctor in Bangladesh but when you come to the U.S., you can’t practice medicine without a United States Medical License. So I watched my mom study and persevere for an additional six years, in order to become an attending physician at a U.S. hospital.  She studied and passed all the steps of the United States Medical Licensing Exam with top marks. Many immigrant physicians don’t get into their residences because they are international students. But my mom was able to get into her residency program at The Brooklyn Hospital Center. Over the years watching how hard she worked inspired me. If she can go through all those hurdles and never seem to lose her composure, then I can also overcome and achieve my dreams. Now my mom is a physician, an internal medicine specialist, at The Brooklyn Hospital Center. In witnessing my mom’s dedication to the medical profession and her perseverance through all the difficulties that she overcame to become a physician, I asked her why she went through all of this and what motivated her. She explained to me, “We are very compassionate people. My job involves directly helping people.” That is when I knew I wanted to also dedicate my life to medicine.


I also grew up watching my dad support my mom. In Bangladesh my Dad had a Master’s Degree which is a huge accomplishment because he is from a small village where access to education is limited. When he came to the U.S., he could not do anything with his Master’s Degree from Bangladesh. So he started out in a small business then worked as a cab driver. He would work two or three jobs tirelessly to not only support my mom, but also to take care of me and my little brother. My parents remain my inspiration to this day.  


I attended Brooklyn Technical High School where we had majors. I was part of a 4-year program called Gateway to Medicine. It was like a pre-pre-med program. I took AP biology, AP chemistry, organic chemistry and anatomy and physiology. This got me really interested in the science component of medicine and then over time as I volunteered in hospitals I became interested in the humanity component.


The summer after my junior year of high school, I knew college was on the horizon and that I needed to strengthen my college resume. I applied to as many science research internships as I could. I started hearing back and became discouraged when I didn’t get accepted to many of them. But then Hk Maker Lab got back to me and they were really interested. After getting accepted to Hk Maker Lab, it turned out to be an amazing summer. It actually changed the course of what I was interested in. Before the program, I was planning to focus on only medicine and had put my technology interest in the back of my mind. However, the Hk Maker Lab program got me really interested in the intersection between entrepreneurship, biotechnology and medicine. That combined really well with my desire to do research and innovate. I was able to leverage all my interests within the Hk Maker Lab to pursue a biomedical engineering project.


The program was absolutely incredible. In fact, so much so that I am so glad I got rejected by those other summer programs. With Hk Maker Lab, I learned about collaboration and the importance of fostering a sense of community. The program was designed to make you want to, and have to, collaborate with others and to understand why collaboration is so important. Dr. Aaron Kyle, my mentor in the program, guided us in the right direction in many ways. We worked in teams of 4-5 people. It was through this team effort that I realized there were gaps in my knowledge that others could fulfill and there were gaps in their knowledge that I could help fulfill. Through our teamwork we worked towards a common goal that could actually help humanity. This was a powerful experience for me. 


The purpose of the Hk Maker Lab program is to introduce young people to biomedical engineering and teach the basics of electronics and the business behind it as well. The program is structured so that each team works on a different project. In order to graduate from the program, teams had to create some sort of biomedical device that would help hospitals in Kampala, Uganda.


Our professor and mentor, Dr. Kyle, had connections with engineers in Uganda. So we would Skype with them, listen to their problems and try to solve these issues with biomedical devices. Many students chose to work on water filtration devices, mosquito netting and stuff like that. Our group decided to pursue a different project. We worked on modular solar-power surgical lighting. When we were coming up with the idea for our project we saw that a lot of funding was going to projects like water filtration systems and mosquito repellant and that is because these are huge recognized issues in the region.


On the other hand, my team and I focused on something that not a lot of people were thinking about, a very basic need: surgical lighting. In developing countries like Uganda there are very weak power and electrical grids. After speaking with our contacts in Kampala, Uganda, specifically at Mulago Hospital, we noted that there were frequent blackouts and brownouts in the region and this affected them a lot. For example, consider if you’re a surgeon in New York City and the power goes out while you’re in surgery, say an open heart surgery as an example. In this city you have backup generators and other sources of light that you can use. But in developing countries if the lights go out, that is it. That is a huge problem.


So what happens in these situations, what the doctors in Uganda were trying to do, was continue the surgery if it was not a major one. If it was an invasive procedure, they would try to get it to the point where they could pick it up later. However, because of low lighting they were more at risk of making mistakes. The stitches were more likely to be poorly executed. Due to these risks they may have to redo the surgery since it didn’t go well the first time. A lot of the time, patients die. Other solutions doctors leveraged during these blackouts and brownouts were to use things like kerosene lamps or cell phone flashlights. So what we saw was that the situation was not sustainable. This couldn’t continue so we tried our best to come up with a better solution. 

Our project and researched resolution was to develop solar-powered surgical lighting. Essentially it was a bunch of LEDs on a solar panel. We knew that this had been done before. There are plenty of low-cost lighting solutions, but what we wanted to do was to make the lighting system and then provide the plans to any university in the local area or in Uganda so that they could reproduce these lighting systems themselves.


We tried to make the lighting as a Lego system or a very modular system so that the pieces could easily be connected to create a fully functional system. The most memorable moment was when we were learning about the basic electronics of biomedical systems. At one point, my team and I attached a 9 bolt battery to an LED light and it combusted. We all got scared, but then laughed it off as it was something unexpected. We learned not to do that in the future. I think that is primarily what science research is: you learn through trial and error. You learn through doing things. This is why I think Hk Maker Lab is so important because they don’t sit you down in a classroom and tell you about things. Instead you learn by doing things. I feel like a lot of kids are not interested in science because they don’t see the impact that it can have. They are sitting in a classroom and they are learning about the cell or they are learning about engineering systems, but they’re not seeing what science can actually develop into. They’re not seeing the tangible result. So that’s something I really appreciate Hk Maker Lab for.


During our research project, we created a very basic first prototype which we pitched to Hk Maker Lab representatives. They really liked our project and we won the Hk Maker Lab competition. They set us up at Harlem Biospace to continue researching and developing the prototype.  We continued with the project as much as we could with our limited knowledge and time since it carried over into our college application season. Although we didn’t complete the project, I wouldn’t consider it a failure because we learned so much through the process. Even though it didn’t proceed to the step we wanted it to go to, it did teach us a lot.


The Hk Maker Lab taught me about collaboration, the scientific method and persistence. If you have an idea, it is not going to work out right away. During Hk Maker Lab we consistently had to revise our idea. One thing wouldn’t work. So we’d try another way. And then that thing wouldn’t work so we’d try yet another way. And so on. We’d all get together and try to figure out different ways to accomplish the task at hand. It taught me that science isn’t easy, but it’s worth pursuing because it can have a tremendous impact. The program also taught me the importance of surrounding yourself with people that have more experience than you, who can mentor and guide you. That’s what Dr. Aaron Kyle did for us. 

I am now about to enter my sophomore year at the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College. I’m still figuring out what to major in, but my two main interests are bio-chemistry and economics. Hk Maker Lab got me really interested in entrepreneurship so at Hunter I am part of the Macaulay Venture Club which is an entrepreneurship program connected to the school’s business club. It is a very new club so we have been getting students together to brainstorm ideas and encourage one another. We are cultivating a very collaborative environment, not unlike the one I experienced with Hk Maker Lab.


Currently I’m pre-med but I’m also doing science research. That’s something that I was encouraged to do by my experiences in the summer program. Currently I am involved with pancreatic cancer research at NYU School of Medicine’s Miller Lab. The laboratory is studying immune regulators of pancreatic cancer and liver disease.


Science is difficult, but it’s very fun and rewarding. You might be discouraged at times when experiments or your prototypes are not working, but if you persist and are committed to the goals then you will eventually accomplish it. Science introduces us to necessary life experiences such as working in collaboration with others and presenting in public. I truly believe science is important and needed to advance humanity.


As an alumni scholar of the Consortium, I think this is an amazing community with a diversity of science programs that collaborate with each other and also introduce us students to one another. I feel great to be a part of something like this. It means I am a part of mentoring and encouraging the scientists of tomorrow. As corny as that sounds, it is true.


For Additional Information:

Hk Maker Lab