March 2020 - BME Blaze: Tolu Akinade

Mar 04 2020


In this monthly spotlight, get to know the alumni, students, and faculty of Columbia's Department of Biomedical Engineering. Read what our BME folks are up to, from our faculty's latest research, to our students' plans for the future, to our teams' innovations, start-ups and other career successes.

We loved catching up with Columbia BME alumna and current Columbia M.D./Ph.D. candidate, Tolu Akinade (B.S. '15), to discuss her experience as an undergraduate student and now as a graduate student in the Columbia BME program, and her advice to future BME students. 


Where are you from?

I grew up in North Carolina for most of my life, and then in 2008 my family made a huge change and moved to Doha, Qatar. I lived in Qatar for 3 years while finishing up high school.

What drew you to the field of Biomedical Engineering?

From a young age, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in medicine and provide patient care. My first introduction to Biomedical Engineering was Anthony Atala’s TED talk on ‘Growing New Organs’. This struck me as such a brilliant and innovative way to impact the lives of future patients. I started looking into different ways Biomedical Engineering could be used to impact the medical field and I was hooked.


What is your current role?

I am currently an M.D./Ph.D. student at Columbia BME. I loved the school so much that I stayed for graduate school! I’m in my fourth year of the program and am working in Dr. Kam Leong’s lab. I am investigating the application of cationic polymeric materials to scavenge inflammatory damage-associated molecular patterns. 


Why did you choose Columbia BME?

Simply put, I felt at home at Columbia. The courses and research opportunities offered by Columbia’s BME program enabled me to get a solid engineering education through the foundational courses and also learn about tissue engineering. The ability to receive an education at an incredible university in New York City was such a blessing.


What were some of your favorite projects/memories from the program?

During my time in SEAS, I was an active member in Columbia’s National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) chapter. I served as our NSBE chapter’s Technical OutReach and Community Help (TORCH) chair for 3 years. I absolutely loved planning community events with local high schools to promote STEM. In addition, going to regional and national NSBE conferences provided great networking opportunities and a chance to bond with other NSBE members.


What was your proudest moment at Columbia?

I would definitely say that this was when I was honored with 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. It was humbling to know that the faculty and my fellow graduating classmates thought that I was deserving of these awards.


How has your experience with Columbia BME contributed towards your goals?

I started performing basic science research as a BME undergraduate and fell in love with it. I conducted bone tissue engineering research in Dr. Helen Lu’s lab for 3 years at Columbia. This prompted my decision to pursue a dual M.D./Ph.D. degree with the goal of becoming a physician-scientist.


What are your thoughts on the strength of Columbia BME's alumni network and how has that influenced your career path?

You never know when you will run into a BME alum, whether it be at conferences or the airport. The main way the network has influenced my career path is that I gain a lot by hearing about all the great things that alumni are doing with their careers. This continually inspires me to keep working hard to make a contribution to this field! Another strength of the alumni network that people should definitely take part in are Columbia’s annual reunions. These are always a fun time to connect with your former classmates. This year is actually the 5-year reunion for my 2015 class and I’m really looking forward to connecting again with friends I haven't seen in years.


Any words of wisdom or tips for prospective BME students?

Work hard, but don’t forget to also leave room for fun! BME is not any easy major, so it’s important to learn how to strike a balance between pursuing academic excellence and protecting your emotional and social wellbeing. The fondest memories that you will make during your time here will be spending time with your fellow classmates bonding. Join pre-professional societies such as BMES, NSBE, and SWE, and attend events held by the Columbia community. You truly have the chance to make lifelong connections during your time at SEAS.


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