Helena Cirne SEAS‘23: A Focus on Healing In and Outside the Lab

Apr 17 2023 | By Harry Kelso

Helena Cirne, a senior at Columbia Engineering’s Morphogenesis and Developmental Biomechanics Lab (MDBL), studies chicken embryos by day and manages a campus-wide peer listening service by night. As she looks back on her years at Columbia and prepares to graduate, Cirne advises other students that “learning how to manage your time from the get-go is really important.”

From her early days at Columbia, Cirne knew she wanted to major in biomedical engineering (BME). She has loved all her classes, such as biomaterials with Professor Nandan Nerurkar, and micro/nano structures with Professor Lance Kam. Some of Cirne’s favorites, though, have been the tech electives. “I feel all fancy knowing how to use CAD software now.”

When Cirne is not in class, she’s likely leading one of the several student clubs she got involved with early on. “I went really heavy on extracurriculars,” Cirne mused. 

Peer-to-peer support with Nightline

Heavy is an understatement. Cirne is a director of Nightline, the fully anonymous on-campus peer listening service that operates from 9 PM to 2 AM every night of the academic year. Nightline is a crisis talk line, or as Cirne prefers to call it, a “warm line” for anything on a student’s mind. Cirne joined Nightline in the fall of her first year at Columbia and became a peer listener the following spring. 

In her junior year, Cirne became a director of Nightline. With her co-directors, Cirne manages all the administration, such as scheduling listeners, training, and making sure everything is going well across the four undergraduate schools. “I really loved that community on campus.”

Community connections

In addition to Nightline, dancing, and volunteering at nursing homes, Cirne is proud to give back to her communities. Cirne grew up in Northeastern Brazil, before moving to California with her family at six years old. One of her most rewarding experiences has been serving on the executive boards of two Latinx clubs, the Latinx Professional and Educational Network (LPEN), and Alianza.

While Alianza does more social events, LPEN helps Latinx students with resumes, networking, and building LinkedIn profiles. They also used to tutor at the American Dream School with 6th and 7th graders. 

“They were all so lovely and funny, but would be so nice and so mean at the same time. I think it’s a skill only middle schoolers have,” Cirne joked. While LPEN no longer works on that program, she has enjoyed seeing her former students and the organizations she leads flourish over the years.

“I think the big point of extracurriculars in college is to expand your worldview and do things you’re passionate about.” 

Making her own impact in the biomedical field

Cirne’s passions also led her to represent the MDBL lab with Principal Investigator Nandan Nerurkar at the national Biomedical Engineering Society conference in San Antonio, TX, in the fall of 2022. She is proud of her research that led her there. Cirne works with early embryonic stages of chicken embryos to characterize the biomechanical properties of the midgut, aiming to better understand how tissue is instructed to form vital organs.

All BME undergraduate students are required to take a capstone course called Senior Design, a favorite among Engineering students including Cirne. Students break into teams, identify a biomedical need, and develop a device to address that need. Cirne’s team has focused on neonatal intravenous therapies for babies who are born in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Babies born in the NICU are often small and in ill health. Currently, pressure gauges used in the NICU struggle with detecting unfavorable flow rates of fluid and nutrition to the babies.

“Helena and her team have excelled in Senior Design this year,” said Lauren Heckelman, lecturer in the BME Department and instructor of the Senior Design course. Cirne’s team has created a novel and compact light sensor to better detect the flow of fluids and nutrition to NICU babies. Their device is faster than today’s pressure gauges and can alert providers if the fluids begin to gradually decrease.

“Helena has done so remarkably well as a scientist, that I must confess I was a tiny bit disappointed that she intends to apply to medical school this year (despite my subtle nudges toward a Ph.D.),” says Professor Nerurkar, the Principal Investigator of the MDBL lab. “But I guess if the world is to gain one more doctor with intellect, humility, compassion, and a pretty good sense of humor, well, that's not so bad either.”

In June, Cirne plans to join Franklin Huang’s lab at the University of California-San Francisco where she will be a research technician working on cell signaling pathways for prostate cancer.

Moving across the country, Cirne will pack her best advice along for the journey: always look at the bigger picture. For a highly engaged student like Cirne, academics, extracurriculars, a vibrant social life, graduation, and other demands make it easy to get stuck in the micro day-to-day tasks of life. To that, Cirne advises that you are not your emotions, you are feeling your emotions.

“Things always turn out better than you think they will.”


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