As the daughter of a civil engineer and medical doctor, Amna Haider ’18 was exposed to a barrage of ideas and information early on and learned to ask big questions. She wanted to know how things worked.
She wondered why it was dangerous for some objects to come into contact with an electric current but not others. So she built a simple light bulb circuit, tested different materials and recorded her findings. It was that curiosity that helped her win first place in a science fair when she was in third grade.
Years later, as a biomedical engineering major at Stony Brook University, Amna continued her quest for knowledge, which paid even bigger dividends on a larger stage. In 2016, at an Engineering Medical Innovation Global Competition in Hong Kong, her research team was 20 minutes from demonstrating a medical device prototype to a panel of judges. Suddenly, a critical wire came loose and the device became inoperable.
With no lab equipment and time slipping away, Amna took a safety pin from her bag and used it as a conductor.
“The lights immediately blinked back on,” she said. Another team member salvaged tape from part of the device to secure the safety pin in place. The presentation was successful.
Because both her parents valued scientific knowledge, it was only natural that Amna was drawn to the STEM curriculum. And while her childhood was stimulating, it was itinerant.
“I moved around a lot as a kid,” she said. Before the age of 11, I had relocated six times, attending a total of five different elementary schools from inner New York City to Michigan and Canada,” she said.
But New York is where she made seven of those years her home and where she found both diversity and stability at Harrison High School upstate.
Amna’s language skills reflect her colorful life. While English is her first language, she learned to understand basic Urdu, which is a blend of Persian, Arabic and Hindi, from interacting with her Pakistani grandparents. She also picked up French when she attended elementary school in Canada and continued to hone her skills in that language during middle school and high school.
At Stony Brook, Amna is an active member of the Muslim Student Association at Stony Brook, an organization that hosts a series of events that bring Muslim and non-Muslim populations together. One of the club’s hallmark activities is Islam Awareness Week, during which the campus community is invited to learn about Islam, ask questions and open up dialogue among people of all faiths and beliefs.
Academically, Amna has also made a point of diversifying her laboratory techniques to strengthen her methods of scientific analysis. From 3D printing to finite element modeling and dissection, she has expanded her methodology.
“Scientists don’t necessarily analyze data with the exact same tools – each analysis tool is field-specific,” she said. “Even within the same field, such as biomedical engineering, there is a treasure trove of tools used to analyze data for different projects.”
During the summer between her freshman and sophomore years Amna participated in the Explorations in STEM Research Program funded by Stony Brook’s Undergraduate Research & Creative Activities and PSEG LI. She has worked simultaneously in the labs of Professor Mei Lin Ete Chan and Professor Hassan Arbab in the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
The president of the Stony Brook Biomedical Engineering Honor Society, Amna would love to see more gender parity in the STEM fields. “When I took Calculus III, there were only five women in my class of 25, and in some of my engineering classes the ratios are similar. While there is a rise in the number of women in STEM, it is not even close to 50/50,” she said.
The gender gap has not held Amna back, however. Always a team player, she has participated in a number of research projects, including developing a video game that aims to improve postural stability for clinically obese patients in collaboration with physicians from Stony Brook Medicine.
Victory Trails, the video game that her research group created in collaboration with the Department of Computer Science, was created to develop a system for measuring postural stability. “My principal investigator had the initial idea of creating the game. My main role was the game concept design, from the landscape and storyboard to the exercise movements players would perform during gameplay,” she said.
For another biomedical engineering research project, ProperGait, Amna helped develop prototype hardware in a shoe insole created to monitor and aid in the correction of abnormal gait patterns.
For her senior design class project in biomedical engineering, Amna’s five-person team created a device to help patients undergoing at-home stroke rehabilitation under the supervision of an occupational therapist. It awaits approval from an institutional review board for clinical testing.
“Once we gain information about the effectiveness from our clinical studies, our team’s ultimate goal is to license and market our device,” Amna said. Her team won the People’s Choice Award in the State Finals for the New York State Business Plan Competition at Albany and is in the process of filing a start-up company for the device.
“The nexus of medical technology and medicine is what sparks my curiosity,” Amna said. “I aspire to become a physician-innovator who develops revolutionary technology for patients, connecting the bridge between the two fields.”
She and her research team have presented their findings at international competitions and national conferences in Florida, Minnesota and Arizona.
During national mentoring month in Spring 2016, the Explorations in STEM Research Program at Stony Brook to which Amna belongs, was featured on Fios 1 News. She considers meeting with Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone to talk about the importance of the mentor-student pairings in academic research to be among her Stony Brook highlights.
Graduating with a degree in biomedical engineering, Amna, a University Scholar, will be attending medical school this fall to pursue her dream of becoming a physician-innovator.
“I am always striving to be the best version of myself that I can be and give back to the community so that others can also have the opportunity to shine and thrive,” said Amna, a former undergraduate teaching assistant. “I enjoy mentorship because not only do I get to pass on my knowledge, but I also learn from my mentees and mentors about how to refine my abilities even more.”
— Glenn Jochum