Grand Challenges Scholar

Helen Shammas looks beyond the lab to improve health care in low resource countries

February 27, 2022

Helen Shammas in the lab
Helen Shammas ’22, shown here in the research lab of Chia-Lung Wu, has also demonstrated competencies in entrepreneurship, interdisciplinary studies, global perspectives, and service.

Class year: 2022
Major: Biomedical Engineering
Challenge: Engineering Better Medicine

For Helen Shammas ‘22, the satisfaction of participating in the University of Rochester iGEM team extends well beyond the awards and recognition received during two years of global competition.

 “I felt we had an immediate impact on the community because we addressed an aspect of women’s health, which is often overlooked,” says Shammas, a biomedical engineering major.

 Shammas served as the hardware manager in 2020, when the team designed a non-invasive method for the detection of endometriosis, a poorly understood, often undiagnosed chronic disease.  Tissue similar to the endometrium tissue that normally lines the inside of the uterus grows outside the uterine cavity.

The project involved multiple parts.  A wet lab focused on the synthetic biology. The hardware sub team that Shammas led created a total of six devices to facilitate the detection process from sample collection to analysis. “We had policy and practice, focusing on communication with stakeholders, education, raising awareness, regulatory and safety policies, and IRB (Institutional Review Board) clearances for the team’s models and surveys,” Shammas says. The team also worked on several models related to endometriosis.

 “People told me they benefited from the website that we created, and the educational posters that we worked on,” Shammas says. “They really found hope in our research project, even though it wasn’t completely fulfilled because it was just for the competition.”

The following year, Shammas was hardware advisor for the 12-student team when it came up with a device to noninvasively detect sepsis from human sweat. The team was nominated for the Best Hardware award.

Her involvement in iGEM enabled Shammas to qualify as a Grand Challenges Scholar. The GCS program appealed to her because it embodies the “well rounded approach” she would like to pursue in her own career. GCS combines research with competencies in entrepreneurship, interdisciplinary studies, global perspectives, and service.

Shammas would like to improve access to health care in low-resource regions. Solving those kinds of problems “Involves more than finding results in the lab,” she says. “It includes communication with other cultures and the ability to balance functional engineering designs with ease of use and cost. This often means a lot of sacrifices when it comes to the complexity of components.”

Building a career pathway

While participating in Yale University’s Young Global Scholars program during the summer of 2017, Shammas became interested in cell and tissue engineering after visiting the university’s lung tissue engineering lab, she says. Shammas also discovered that the University of Rochester was one of the few campuses in the US that had a lot of accomplished cell and tissue engineering research labs. That was an important factor in her decision to apply.

The close proximity of the University’s medical center, just a five-minute walk from the engineering departments at the River Campus, has also turned out to be a plus. Shammas is working in the Chia-Lung Wu Lab. She is leading a project that involves engineering cartilage, using specific stem cell lines to make scaffolds that could hopefully be implanted as a substitute for total knee replacement surgeries.

Shammas has a personal stake in the research. Years of ballet and dance have taken a toll on her knees. Even so, she has taken classes in dance, and particularly enjoyed an opportunity to work with the dance department on a collaboration with a Rochester senior’s home. “I had an 84-year-old partner,” Shammas says. “We choreographed a dance meant to go through my partner’s memories while considering geriatric dance therapy. We performed the dance together at the final showing. It was a lot of fun.” 

After iGEM spurred her interest in accessibility engineering, Shammas has taken advantage of several opportunities to further explore the field. For example, she joined an Engineering World Health cultural exchange program, working with engineering students from Jordan and Lebanon to create low-cost ventilators within the constraints imposed by the Lebanese economic crises. 

She is currently working with five other biomedical engineering classmates on a senior design project with ApiJect Systems Inc. The medical device company creates sterile, non-resuable syringes for vaccines and medical injections. The goal is to prevent the premature deaths of an estimated 1.3 million people who receive medicine each year from contaminated syringes.

Shammas, says the opportunity to work with ApiJect dovetails nicely with her interest in accessibility engineering, “specifically when it comes to developing countries. This will bring me a step closer to learning more about navigating the World Health Organization (WHO) requirements when designing devices while also keeping in mind requirements from the FDA and other regulatory agencies.”

Next up: A master’s in device design

This fall, she will remain at Rochester to pursue a master’s degree with the Center for Medical Technology and Innovation. The center gives students training in all aspects of the commercialization process of medical devices. including FDA regulations, intellectual property, and quality systems. Students also spend time in those nearby Medical Center operating rooms and other clinical settings.

This helps them learn firsthand from clinicians not only what new devices are needed, but also the clinical constraints that need to be considered in their design. The students then work in teams on a capstone project.

Shammas will also continue working with the Wu lab, as well as serving as Hardware Advisor for iGEM 2022.

See Shammas' poster  describing her research and how she fulfilled the GCS competencies.