Virginia Tech student Amina Rahimi, of Burke, Virginia, a double major in biochemistry and microbiology in the College of Science, has been selected as a 2017 Goldwater Scholar.

The Goldwater Scholarship is the premier undergraduate award of its type in the fields of natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering.

After graduation in the spring of 2018, Rahimi’s goal is to obtain a M.D.-Ph.D. in cancer immunology and bioengineering and work as a lead scientist and practicing surgeon at a major cancer research and treatment center, such as the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard.

But, as a first-generation Mexican-Afghan college student, Rahimi began her tenure as an undergraduate student at Virginia Tech with one goal in mind: to become a doctor. She saw participating in research as a necessary stepping-stone to achieving that goal.

“Honestly, when I first started research, I started it to get into medical school,” she said. “There was this whole check sheet you had to check-off. So, I get into a lab freshman year, and literally two days into it I realize, ‘I really like this.’ It was exciting because I haven’t always been a top 1 percent student. I was academically talented, but I wasn’t a stand-out student. But, I think one thing that I always did have was a natural curiosity for what was unknown.”

Rahimi’s initial research experience was in the lab of Carla Finkelstein, associate professor of Biological Sciences. As a first-year undergraduate student, she was assigned to lead a project using sugar, rather than traditional plastic, for 3-D printing of vascular networks for the development of in vitro three-dimensional tumor microenvironment models. This was a project which required, in addition to molecular biology and biochemistry, skills and knowledge in computer science, mathematics, and engineering; areas well outside the bounds of traditional life science disciplines.

In the spirit of an idea Rahimi holds dear, everything with purpose, she rose to Finkelstein’s challenge, putting together an interdisciplinary research team to tackle the questions in front of her.

“That was the first instance that allowed me to find purpose within research,” Rahimi said. It was an experience that opened her eyes to the potential that collaborative, interdisciplinary research has for revolutionizing healthcare.

Rahimi also worked in the structural biology laboratory of Deborah Kelly at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, developing better imaging techniques to study viral interactions. Under the mentorship of Kelly and Cameron Varano, a doctoral student in Virginia Tech’s Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health Graduate Program, Rahimi published two papers in scientific journals, Chemical Communications and Journal of Analytic & Molecular Techniques.

“Through research, we find solutions, we develop better diagnostics, better drugs,” Rahimi said. “I want to be able to tell my patients that I am working towards something that will hopefully improve their lives.”

This interdisciplinary perspective is one she has worked to cultivate within herself as well. In the fall of her junior year, in order to strengthen her social science knowledge for the Medical College Admission Test, Rahimi signed up for the course on medical dilemmas and the human experience, taught by Monique Dufour, a collegiate assistant professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. The experience transformed her, and required Rahimi to learn how to think and communicate in a manner very different from that of science and engineering.

“That class flipped me upside-down,” Rahimi said. “But the thing was, I needed to shift my perspective. I had been solely focused on developing my research skills to address the pathology of disease and health, and I needed to expand my perspective to include the biography of health and the societal factors that permeate an individual’s health.”

She took two more courses with Dufour. Through them she learned the value of communicating science well. She also gained an understanding of narrative both as a powerful tool for conveying the impact of research to society at-large, as well as for the critical role it can play in clinical settings.  As Rahimi stated, “by understanding the patient beyond a set of symptoms, but as an individual with a unique story, a physician can best serve the patient’s priorities.”

“While Amina is among the most intelligent and ambitious students I have ever known, what truly sets her apart is her dedication to learning itself, and the difference that it can make in her own life, in her research projects, and in the world around her,” Dufour said. “In each of the three classes that she has taken with me, she has taken up assignments in the spirit that they are offered — not as tasks to be ticked off a list, but as opportunities to ask and pursue questions. I can’t wait to see where her fierce curiosity and intellectual integrity will take her.”

The admiration is mutual. When asked about what it means to her to be awarded the Goldwater Scholarship, Rahimi credits a good portion of her success to the long list of individuals who have acted as mentors to her during her tenure as an undergraduate student at Virginia Tech, and as a researcher at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard.

“What made me so proud to win it was, looking at the list, they have the student’s name, what you aspire to become, and then they have a list of your mentors,” Rahimi said. “My list of mentors was, I think, the longest list there. It goes to show that I didn’t win this by myself, but that it takes an entire team to make this happen. And ‘by this’, I don’t just mean Goldwater, I mean have a student come to this point in their undergraduate career.”

Rahimi will return to work at the Wyss Institute this summer. In the fall, she will resume her research on developing on-chip technology to simultaneously detect pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines during sepsis with Caroline Jones, an assistant professor of biology.

Among many other extracurricular activities, Rahimi will continue her work as an ambassador for the Office of Undergraduate Research and as a volunteer with the Adult Day Services program in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

Written by Melissa Ripepi