three women side by side
Pictured, from left: Assistant Professor Audrey Fan, undergraduate student Alexandria Schick and undergraduate student Poorvi Daga. (Steven Trinh/UC Davis)

International Women’s Day Spotlight on UC Davis Women in Biomedical Engineering

In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, the University of California, Davis, College of Engineering recognizes women in engineering, their journey to and in the field, and how they promote a diverse, equitable and inclusive world.

Meet some remarkable women in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and learn how they inspire inclusion in engineering.

  • Poorvi Daga, Undergraduate Student
  • Audrey Fan, Assistant Professor
  • Alexandria Shick, Undergraduate Student

What inspired you to pursue engineering? Describe your journey to UC Davis.

Daga: One thing I knew that I always wanted to do was work in the healthcare industry. I wanted to pursue something that would enable me to incorporate medical sciences and technology together. Being an undergraduate student at UC Davis majoring in biomedical engineering gave me the path to do so. As a young and curious student who always sought challenging opportunities in the sciences, I developed the passion to research surgical technologies along with the urge to help people lacking medical facilities. This intrigued me to study BME. Additionally, I am more captivated by the opportunities in biomedical robotics and the vast field of stem cell research encapsulating tissue regeneration. The various research opportunities Davis provides and its approach to improve human health by developing solutions shows its multidisciplinary approach to tackle problems in the healthcare sector.

Fan: As an undergraduate student, I was on the premed track but realized in the later part of my program that clinical service and wet lab research were not a good fit for me. (I should've figured that out sooner, given that I don't like blood!). At the same time, I've always loved math and especially signal processing concepts in college (I could do Fourier Transforms all day). I decided to pursue a PhD in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, and was delighted to discover that signal processing offers a way to learn more about human biology. The technical skills I was good at could allow more sophisticated images and modeling of our body, including complex organs such as the brain! As a PhD student, I built my engineering abilities in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology and then dove deeper into its translational applications by training with a neuroradiologist during my postdoctoral research at Stanford. I learned that my engineering innovations could help patients at risk of stroke and dementia; these interdisciplinary collaborations and clinical impact continue to drive my independent research now as a faculty member in Biomedical Engineering and Neurology at UC Davis.

Shick: During high school, I remember touring a lab that was developing an adaptive MRI machine that would be able to sense and adapt to patients’ movements. This would mean that the imaging would not be disrupted if someone moved during the process (unlike the current technology). This inspired me to pursue biomedical engineering, with the goal of making adaptive technology for patients, especially children. I began to search for programs, and was elated by the opportunity to join the BME department at UC Davis!

Describe your current research and its impact.

Daga: I am currently working as an undergraduate research assistant at the Functional Advanced Neuroimaging (FAN) lab under Dr. Audrey Fan. The goal of our lab is to develop advanced medical imaging technologies enabling us to measure and visualize cerebral blood flow. We are also identifying new biomarkers that can be used to study brain functions of patients with neurodegenerative disorders like Alzeihmer’s and Dementia. My research project focuses on studying the correlation between oxygen extraction fraction (OEF) in white matter hyperintensities (WMH). Through our research, we aim to engineer better methods that could be used to evaluate treatments and prevent cognitive decline in patients over time.

Fan: Our lab develops novel magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) methods to understand brain function. Specifically, because the brain is energetically demanding, we create new ways to image cerebral blood flow and oxygenation as measures of brain health. If we are able to non-invasively scan brain blood flow and oxygen usage, this information can alert us to changes in vessels of the brain before a person develops stroke or dementia. These images will also give us an opportunity to intervene and monitor lifestyle changes that can promote healthy brain aging. We are part of the Neuroimaging Core of the UC Davis Alzheimer's Disease Research Center and strive to support vascular brain health in diverse communities.

Shick: Currently I am part of Dr. Aviran's lab, exploring RNA binding sites with machine learning. This will further our understanding of the types and patterns of RNA binding proteins in different cell lines.

The 2024 International Women’s Day theme is #InspireInclusion. Why is it important to "inspire inclusion" in the engineering field?

Daga: Inspiring inclusion in the engineering field is paramount for fostering innovation, creativity, and addressing the diverse challenges defining the evolving world. I believe the field of engineering plays a pivotal role in shaping technological advancements impacting our society significantly in a positive manner. Embracing diversity ensures that a wide spectrum of perspectives, experiences, and talents contributes to the problem-solving processes. Promoting inclusivity and having a diverse workforce brings forth various ideas and approaches that lead to more effective solutions. Additionally, inspiring inclusion is important since it serves as a means of dismantling barriers that may impede certain groups from accessing opportunities in STEM fields. By doing so not only in the engineering field but other related areas we are contributing to a more equitable society.

Fan: As a biomedical engineer, my end goal is to create technologies that will serve human brain health, and do so broadly. I believe this is not possible if the engineers who are designing the medical technologies only have one viewpoint or similar identities. I believe that inclusivity in our engineering education and research leads to more creative solutions to challenging health problems, and that these solutions will provide better health outcomes for all.

Shick: Since engineering is the work to create technology, devices, and infrastructure that meet the needs of diverse groups of people, it is vital to include diverse perspectives. In the end, engineering is a creative process, and the best solution to a problem can only be reached when all opinions and inputs are considered. Inspiring Inclusion allows the best engineering possible, with the ability for all needs to be seen and met.

What people or programs have inspired inclusion throughout your journey in engineering?

Daga: The entire UC Davis community I am surrounded with has inspired inclusion in my engineering journey. From my professors to advisors to peers, everyone has had a significant impact throughout my journey. Being able to gain access to various opportunities as an aspiring engineer makes me value the connections I have built over the years. However, a quarter studying at the UC Davis Health Campus as a part of the Quarter at Aggie Square program has allowed me to perceive inclusivity in the field of research and engineering in a totally different manner. The program provided an immersive biomedical engineering experience for me as an undergraduate where I got to interact with leading researchers and experts in the field of health sciences. Learning from each one of them and their stories about what led them to pursue their field of interest has significantly inspired my future goals as an engineer and understand the importance of inclusion.

Fan: I struggled frequently with imposter syndrome during my graduate education, such as worrying that my engineering contributions were not "technical enough". My Ph.D. adviser, Prof. Elfar Adalsteinsson, was a wonderfully inclusive mentor who showed through his words and dedicated time (in coaching me) that my work not only gave new technical insights but had direct clinical impact on neurological patients. He also directly connected me to senior graduate students and female faculty, who provided a safe network for me to share my experiences at a critical time when I was growing into engineering research. While a postdoc at Stanford, I continued to meet generous mentors who were women faculty, including Prof. Miriam Goodman. They offered a safe network for me to practice job talks and were unabashedly proud of my accomplishments. Their advocacy made me feel like I belonged, and that I could also be a successful woman faculty leading a lab with heart and scientific rigor.

Shick: I really appreciate student groups such as the BioInnovation group, B-Hours, and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). These groups truly welcome all students, and have helped me find my place in Davis while allowing me to meet inspiring students. They also inspire inclusion through the diverse array of teams, projects, and events they hold. In addition, I have been inspired by my professor’s dedication to inclusion in the classroom, and reaching out to make sure that students are finding what they need in the course.

How do you make others feel welcome in engineering and promote diversity and equity in the field?

Daga: Creating a welcoming and inclusive environment in engineering involves fostering a culture that values diversity and equity. The most important factor is valuing and listening to everyone's perspective. Also, recognizing the contributions that individuals from various backgrounds bring to the field is significant to promote diversity and equity. Another effort we can take to make others feel welcomed is by establishing networks that can provide guidance to underrepresented groups. This would enable them to feel empowered and connected within the community. As a consequence, taking such measures and prioritizing the importance of diversity as well as equity would enable us to empower everyone, regardless of their background.

Fan: I promote diversity and equity through open and honest communication. In my research group, we discuss openly about our lab values, including respect of members' diverse perspectives across geographic backgrounds, skillsets, and career stages. I am comfortable sharing my own mistakes and lessons learned and what I still do not know. I am also candid about my identities outside of work, for instance as a mom of a toddler, which helps me relate to my colleagues and makes me a well-rounded engineer. I believe this sort of honesty can chip away at the stereotype of the "know-all" professor that can be intimidating, especially to trainees. Finally, I seek to amplify the voices of my peers who are also women faculty. For instance, I serve on the Executive Committee of the Women Faculty Special Interest Group in the Organization for Human Brain Mapping. I have profiled several women leaders in our field to share their science and journey, and hope to continue supporting diverse members in our group.

Shick: From the perspective of a student, I believe that the most important part to make others feel welcome is to have a diverse collection of programs and learning structures. As engineers know, there is no one perfect solution for anything,  and the same goes for what everyone connects to. Connecting to people on as many levels as possible helps people to feel seen and heard.

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