BME BIO: Tolu Akinade, Gary Stockard, Justin Saintil, Athena Pagon

Feb 22 2021 | By Alexis Newman

In honor of Black History Month, get to know our exceptional BME faculty, students, staff, and alumni throughout the month of February.

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

TOLU AKINADE - MD/PhD Student


Tolu Akinade

 

Education

  • B.S, Biomedical Engineering, 2015
  • M.Phil., Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, 2020

Noteworthy Achievements

  • SEAS George Vincent Wendell Memorial Medal (2015)
  • Robert E. and Claire S. Reiss Award in Biomedical Engineering (2015)
  • Columbia Engineering Jack Dicker Scholarship (2014 & 2015)
  • Columbia King’s Crown Health & Wellness Leadership Excellence Award (2014)

Where are you from?

My parents are both from Nigeria, and this is an integral part of my identity. I was born here in NYC and grew up predominantly in North Carolina.

What is your current position?

I am currently a 5th year MD/PhD student here at Columbia! I am completing my PhD in the lab of Dr. Kam Leong.

How did you become interested in STEM research and, more specifically, in biomedical engineering?

Science has always fascinated me. Even in elementary school, I loved doing science projects and little experiments. When I finally was in the process of applying to college, I knew that I wanted to focus on a major centered on human biology. I was drawn to the field of Biomedical Engineering after watching Anthony Atala’s TED talk on ‘Growing New Organs’ and, after researching this field, I decided that it was what I wanting to pursue. I love that biomedical engineering is such a multidisciplinary field.

Tell us about your family. Who has/have been your strongest influence(s) in life?

I come from a family of 5. My dad is a professor at Georgetown School of Foreign Service in Qatar and my mom is a research library specialist at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar. I have two younger sisters, Tope and Titi. My family is a big source of support for me and we are all really close. They motivate me so much and are always there for me.

Tell us about your experience as a Black academic professional in STEM.

I have always strived for excellence. Ultimately, I am in a field that I love so it makes it so much easier to stay motivated. My hope is that more Black professionals who are interested in STEM pursue this path and are given the opportunity to do so.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

Black History Month means honoring an integral part of America’s past and foundation that is often not acknowledged.

What accomplishment(s) are you most proud of, and what do you hope to accomplish in the future?

I was extremely honored to have been awarded the George Vincent Wendell Memorial Medal and the Robert E. and Claire S. Reiss Award in Biomedical Engineering by the SEAS community when I graduated in 2015. The main things I hope to accomplish in my career are helping patients through my clinical work as a physician and to contributing knowledge that can help future patients through my biomedical research.

What advice would you give to others who wish to pursue a degree and/or career in BME?

This is a field that is constantly growing so I highly recommend keeping up with the literature and current news. In addition, be sure to network with other professionals in this field.

 

 


Culturing my cells in the cell culture hood in Dr. Kam Leong’s lab

 


My family and I at my medical school white coat ceremony

 


My dog, Mochi, and I at an apple orchard

 


In front of my poster at the 2019 Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) Conference

 

GARY ANDREW STOCKARD, JR. - MS Student


Gary Andrew Stockard, Jr.

 

Education

  • B.S. Bioengineering 2019; University of Missouri
  • M.S. Biomedical Engineering (Exp. December 2021); Columbia University

Noteworthy Achievements

  • GoBME MS Representative
  • Multiple Dean’s List Honors
  • University of Missouri Chapter NSBE Executive Board

Where are you from?

I am from a smaller suburb of Ohio called Pickerington.

What is your current position?

I am currently a Master’s student in the Biomedical Engineering program here at Columbia.

How did you become interested in STEM research and, more specifically, in biomedical engineering?

I’ve always been interested in definitiveness that science brings and in the organic nature of biology which sometimes leads to less definitive actions and behaviors. Hence, I found Biomedical Engineering, which combines the two.

Tell us about your family. Who has/have been your strongest influence(s) in life?

My parents have been great. For me, my sister has always pushed me to be a better student. Whether it was competition or just a natural sibling rivalry, I don’t know; I think we’re both better for it.

Tell us about your experience as a Black academic professional in STEM.

I have had a great time learning alongside other people of different cultures and I hope they have enjoyed me. The thing about science is that it is one of the most open fields in academia. As I am pretty fair skinned, I actually pass more often than not (my sister does as well), so I’ve been lucky enough to never have had a bad experience.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

It’s always a reminder that progress is a continuous movement that takes years to come to light. Many quote MLK today from all corners of the political spectrum, but his movement at the time was not popular with the broader population. It shows that doing what’s right isn’t the same as doing what most people want.

What accomplishment(s) are you most proud of, and what do you hope to accomplish in the future?

I’m proud that I’m working for my Master’s degree, but I hope in the future to utilize it to help people in a meaningful way. Whether it be in academia or somewhere else, I hope to make a difference.

What advice would you give to others who wish to pursue a degree and/or career in BME?

DO IT! It’s a growing field and we need as many minds as possible to solve the problems of the future.

 

 


In-person classes during COVID-19 require masks, but nothing replaces in-person learning!

 


It has become a tradition in my family to run a 4-miler on Thanksgiving morning; you get a wine bottle for finishing!

 


Me and my father mean-mugging before the graduation ceremony!

 

JUSTIN SAINTIL - Undergraduate Student


Justin Saintil

 

Education

  • Bachelor of Science; Biomedical Engineering Major and Computer Science Minor; Junior (2022)

Noteworthy Achievements

I have been able to work on a ton of impactful projects with my amazing classmates and friends. The three that immediately come to mind are below.

  1. Along with a few of my friends, namely Bella Barnes, Jessica Barrios, Lord Crawford, Maxwell Johnson, Maya Joudi, and Tyrese Thomas, we created the Black Innovation Fund during the summer of 2020 in response to the tragic and catalyzing event of George Floyd’s murder. In addition to raising $5,369 for organizations focused on the holistic wellbeing of black entrepreneurs, we aggregated resources and publicized a large database of black businesses and entrepreneurs to support.
  2. During my time serving as co-president of the Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs (CORE), Columbia’s preeminent entrepreneurship community, I have had the opportunity to collaborate with so many amazing individuals and build exciting programs. I was honored to be a founding member of Elevate, an initiative committed to creating spaces that uplift marginalized communities at Columbia University, West Harlem, and beyond through creating inclusive communities and amplifying the work of underrepresented founders.
  3. Lastly, working with Pelin Cetin and Olivia O’Driscoll, we created a mentorship program that paired undergraduate students with graduate students interested in various career tracks in the realm of finance. It was wonderful to hear about how much of a positive impact this program left on the lives of my fellow students.

Where are you from?

I hail from the great state of New Jersey. I view myself as an authentic New Jersian, having lived in West Orange, Princeton Junction, and Basking Ridge.

How did you become interested in STEM research and, more specifically, in biomedical engineering?

There are two people to whom I owe my interest in STEM research / Biomedical Engineering.

The first of these people, Dr. David Hauser, was my high school biology teacher at the Princeton International School of Mathematics and Science. To this day, Dr. Hauser is one of the most brilliant, charismatic, and hilarious people I have ever met. He converted my disinterest in the plethora of biological terms and the seemingly useless memorization of the Krebs Cycle, into a genuine interest in biology by exploring concepts like site directed mutagenesis. The day we forced the mutation of green fluorescent protein (a naturally occurring protein from jellyfish) into blue fluorescent protein and saw the blue glow indicative of our success, I was sold.

The second integral person to my BME journey was Dr. Kimberly Cook Chennault. Dr. Chennault was my Principal Investigator during the summer of my junior year in high school when I helped conduct research in her lab at Rutgers University. During my time in that lab working under Udhay Sundar and Siddharth Gokaraju, we developed piezoelectric scaffolds to aid in the regeneration of bone after fractures and breaks. This required a thorough understanding of the biology of bone and how to develop biocompatible materials as well as an exploration of the mechanics of scaffolds. The interdisciplinary nature of the project was incredibly alluring.

Tell us about your family. Who has/have been your strongest influence(s) in life?

Family is an interesting topic because (similar to many immigrant households) most of my childhood was being introduced to “cousins” I had never seen in my life. My father is Haitian and my mother is from Dominica.  They both arrived in the United States around their teen and pre-teen years. I am the eldest of 3, my brother is currently a junior in high school and my sister is a sophomore. The three most impactful influences in my life are my mother, father, and Aunt Rowena. Those three individuals have had an incomparable impact on where I am today.

Tell us about your experience as a Black academic professional in STEM.

When it comes to being a Black academic in STEM, specifically BME, the main thing that comes to mind is representation.

According to a 2018 study by the National U.S. Department of Education, only 6% of master’s degrees conferred in STEM fields were to Black students. According to a 2018 report by the American Society for Engineering Education, the percentage of Biomedical Engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded to Blacks was 3.8% and the percentage of Black faculty members in biomedical engineering was 1.8%. Although, even without the numbers, the reality of the situation is apparent. It is quite difficult to envision yourself in a position when no one in that position looks like you.

This lack of representation also results in life or death. According to the U.S Food and Drug Administration’s 2018 Drug Trial Snapshots, 5% of clinical trial participants are Black. In oncology trials, only 4% of participants are Black. These are terrifying numbers for a population that represents 13% of the United States.

Being a black academic in STEM is knowing that you are one of few, and that your work is in dire need.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

This is a time to celebrate and amplify our achievements, our heritage and our ancestors as well as our continued fight for change. This month and all months present opportunities for advocates and allies to reflect and engage around how they can help to create a better future. It’s also a time to recognize the multidimensional contributions that we continue to make to society.

What accomplishment(s) are you most proud of, and what do you hope to accomplish in the future?

BME is widely considered one of the harder engineering tracks and I am proud of myself for not letting the stigma of the discipline intimidate me and stop me from pursuing it.

My long term goal is to found a successful company. And I am confident that it will happen … eventually.

What advice would you give to others who wish to pursue a degree and/or career in BME?

  1. Learn Matlab as soon as possible.
  2. Looking at the big picture or larger application of a concept is useful, both when you are struggling to understand a concept and also when you are on page 13 of a pset, it's 5:00 am, and your bed is right there.
  3. Professor Aaron Kyle, Professor Elizabeth Hillman, and Professor Lance Kam are extremely passionate about their work. Finding professors that love what they do makes the learning process incredibly enjoyable.

 

 


Delivering the introduction at the Young, Gifted, and Non-Dominant Launch Event at Barnard’s Diana Center.

 


Posing on Governors Island with friends from the Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs

 


The family

 

ATHENA DOMINIQUE PAGON - Undergraduate Student


Athena Dominique Pagon

 

Education

  • Bachelor of Science; Biomedical Engineering (major), Dance (minor), Class of 2023

Where are you from?

Kingston, Jamaica

What is your current position?

Sophomore Engineering Student (+Orchesis Dance Group Social Chair)

How did you become interested in STEM research and, more specifically, in biomedical engineering?

When asked about career choices as a child, I figured you had to simply choose one of the professions your parents did. Thankfully, my older siblings showed me that that is not the case and I could choose whatever I wanted. However, I kept coming back to my parents’ professions looking for answers. I wanted to help people like my mom, but I wasn’t keen on injections, sick children, or the long journey of medical school, so a pediatrician seemed off the table. I wanted to solve problems with math and science like my dad, but I was never drawn to computers and coding, so the IT field also seemed off the table. (There was also my side dream of wanting to be just like Iron-Man, Batman, and Spider-Man and do something creative and build gadgets with my hands that can be used to save people.)

I didn’t know what I specifically wanted, but I had little chunks of the puzzle-help people, use STEM, be creative, be hands on. Some fifty Google searches later and I finally stumbled upon a nice intersection: Biomedical Engineering.

A couple more Google searches and career fairs later and I was hooked. This was it. This is the field for me. The possibilities for how to help people by developing new things with BME feel endless. The groundbreaking medical advances and discoveries being made in the field feel like something out of a movie or comic book and I desperately want to make it a reality to help as many people as I can!

Tell us about your family. Who has/have been your strongest influence(s) in life?

I pretty much summed up how my family has influenced me in the beginning of the earlier question.

But just to add a few more: both of my parents were very supportive of me at a young age and very encouraging-I was always told to try and be whatever I wanted to be. Though some of my goals were shot down for realism's sake, I’ve never resented them for it. They always wanted what was best for me and allowed me to constantly explore my passions and hold onto them as hobbies even if they were off the table career wise.

My brothers’ influences on me feel much more recent. Of course they were around my whole life but we shared different interests but as I got older and we all sort of settled on the same ‘playing field’, I look to them as sources for ‘street-smarts’ as I am heavily ‘book-smart’. I have also grown more emotionally intelligent and have learned to have effective conversations with people of differing opinions by speaking with them.

Tell us about your experience as a Black / Caribbean academic professional in STEM.

Having grown up in the Caribbean, I don’t feel as though there were ever any systematic barriers set for me in my pursuit of STEM. And even now, at Columbia, I don’t really see many glaring obstacles preventing me from exploring my STEM interests. In fact, I’ve come to see a whole array of opportunities because of my race/ethnicity.

The biggest struggles I have faced as an academic professional came from trying to be a stand-out candidate in a field of other international students also striving to stand out. Thankfully, I had a strong support system at my back, and a very faithful God.

Most of the times I learn something new in STEM, I’m having a blast. It’s truly one of my biggest passions in life-learning about how the world works from a scientific point of view. So my experiences have been mainly akin to a child in a candy store or at a new amusement park.  :)

What does Black History Month mean to you?

At school in Jamaica, Black History Month was always a way to honor our National Heroes and other outstanding members of our society who have impacted Jamaica (and the greater Caribbean) or have impacted the world while representing us.

I have always enjoyed it deeply and, to me, it’s always been about honoring extraordinary people. The color of their skin/ their race, at first, was not the main factor (despite it being the name of the month). I always just saw them as really great people.

Now, having been educated about the history of the world as where Black people have been and what they have been through, I feel even more joy to see them being honored for a whole month. Like parents seeing their children graduate-I feel pride and elation to see so much impact come from a people who have always been so impacted. It’s truly inspirational and a month full of learning about new and exceptional Black world changers is very exciting for me.

What accomplishment(s) are you most proud of, and what do you hope to accomplish in the future?

  1. After sitting for my first bout of exams (CSEC), I got a call from my friend in the middle of the supermarket that I had placed first in the entire Caribbean in the subject of Biology. I started crying right next to the grapes. It was unbelievable how overcome with emotions I was. I still couldn’t believe it for days, even after seeing my name at the top of the list. This particular news came after a very rough three years of preparation for the exam. Sometimes I was so down, thinking I wasn’t good enough in Biology, that I thought about dropping it altogether and changing my goal of BME. A lot of forces went into that achievement, and to this day I still cannot fully comprehend that it happened. I went into the exam only wanting to pass. I came out with the highest overall score. I will forever be grateful for this success and the fact that it reaffirmed my faith that BME was the calling for me.
  2. My achievement as Head Girl of my high school is another. I remember the day in 7th grade (we use 7-13th grade system for all of High School) telling my mom how much I loved my high school and how much I wanted to be Head Girl so I could lead. The job itself came with a whole lot more work and grueling challenges for me, of course, but I learned so much and it was an almost 6 year plan in the making that finally came to fruition.
  3. And finally, my awards for dance. Particularly in the 12th grade winning a school-wide, and national award for a dance I choreographed to ‘Room Where It Happened” from the Musical Hamilton, will live rent-free in my head till the day I die.

What advice would you give to others who wish to pursue a degree and/or career in BME?

Don’t be daunted by the field- it holds so many different paths!

Some people, myself included, joke that the workload is extra for us since we are ‘training to become a doctor and an engineer simultaneously.” Sometimes it feels true, but don’t give up. Think about how many people you’ll be able to help with all that double knowledge!

Find friends! Learning in general but especially engineering should be collaborative. Sometimes you’ll need friends as support, sometimes you’ll need them as group members. It’s going to be a long and hard pursuit, so it’s best to not try and take the burden on all alone.

Whether you’re interested in one very specific area of BME or, like me, you love them ALL, look around, explore, dabble in research and learn hands-on, not just from a book. BME is so versatile, that makes you versatile, so don’t be afraid to use that versatility to explore and learn new things about science and yourself!

 


Final Day at Columbia (March 2020) with my roommate

 


First day of ISOP (August 2019)

 


Art of Engineering Project (we made a dance-game like Dance Dance Revolution)

 


Trip to Coney Island

 


My dogs...because I love dogs

 


Last day of high school

 


Dance picture

 


Dance picture (at my graduation ceremony)