For many, public speaking can evoke anxiety, nervousness and fear. Now imagine presenting at the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) National Conference at age 16.
Priyasha Itani, of Upper St. Clair, did just that. A junior, she presented her research, “The Cellular and Tissue Level Analysis of Endometriosis Angiogenesis,” at the conference held in San Antonio, Texas.
This annual biomedical engineering conference is a celebration of the contributions made by BMES members in research, teaching, education and the workforce that directly impact many sectors of society. The event also highlights equity issues in health care and education stemming from racial and socioeconomic diversity, gender and sexual orientation, and disabilities.
Not only was Itani one of just 15 high school students selected to present her published research poster, abstract and presentation, she placed third among the more than 350 entries in the scientific poster competition.
“I am proud to not only have gotten the opportunity to display my passion for this research project amongst a crowd of such inspiring individuals but to also raise awareness for endometriosis and the disparities facing women’s health,” Itani said.
Affecting 10% of all women worldwide, endometriosis is a high-prevalence gynecological disease characterized by the presence of uterine-like tissue growing outside the uterine cavity. Symptoms may include chronic pelvic pain, excessive bleeding and infertility.
“Despite these terrifying statistics, there is still a seven-year delay in diagnosis and the disease is still one of the most underfunded fields of research today,” Itani said. “This means that there is very little known about how the disease develops and progresses through stages I-IV, leading to disputes about diagnostic guidelines and measures as well as treatment options from both research and clinical perspectives.”
The primary objective of Itani’s research was to study the development and progression of the disease through its angiogenesis, or the formation of new blood vessels.
“Using this approach, I studied the effects that estrogen levels and immune dysfunction held on the disease’s development,” she said. “We conducted this research with the hopes of gaining a novel understanding of the disease pathogenesis as well as creating a model for the disease’s growth.”
Itani completed an internship as a research assistant at the Vascular Bioengineering Laboratory (VBL) at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering. There she was able to conduct her research.
“I am thankful for Dr. David Vorp, director of VBL, Dr. Justin Weinbaum, associate director of the lab, and my mentor, Isabelle Chickanosky, Ph.D. candidate, all of whom I had worked under and gained guidance from while working on this project,” she said. “I cannot be grateful enough for this experience, as it made me realize even further how much I love the research field.”
In particular, Itani loved the rush of running back and forth from the lab to hospitals, with an ice pack full of Eppendorf tubes containing diseased tissue samples.
“Most importantly, on these hospital runs, I got the opportunity to converse with the women who donated those very tissue samples as they shared their own individual experiences with endometriosis,” she said. “These visits allowed me to connect with the patients and most importantly, see the people behind the disease itself, and I was honored to have raised awareness for their very stories on a national stage like BMES.”
The BMES National Conference provided Itani a different type of opportunity for connection.
“I loved being able to connect with a wide variety of individuals at BMES, whether it be explaining scientific jargon to the general public, discussing the inner workings of microfluidics with scientists, or even presenting my entire presentation in Spanish to a native-speaking Spanish-speaking judge” she said. “To me, science is a community, bringing together ideas, innovation, and people and allowing us to support and inspire one another.”
As a junior, Itani has time to consider her post-high school opportunities. She remains focused on making a difference in women’s health.
“With amazing experiences like this, I would like to continue my scientific journey, hoping to pursue a career as a physician-scientist, and one day, change the landscape of women’s reproductive health services,” she said.
Itani holds several leadership roles in student organizations. She serves as president of Almighty Voices, vice president of USC Speech & Debate, and manager for Generations Giving Back at Paramount. In addition, she participates in several STEM and STEAM initiatives as well as the I Look Like a Cardiologist program through the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute.
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