Beginning a journey to the intersection of engineering and medicine

By Alexandra Koktsidis

Growing up, Roya Edalatpour wanted to be an astronaut. “Completely different from being a doctor,” she says with a laugh. “I didn’t really consider medicine, I didn’t think I had the guts to do it,” she explains. She speaks with clarity and collectiveness, in a mature, light tone.

Roya, 19, is now a rising junior at the University of Texas, El Paso, where she studies engineering on a pre-med track. During her sophomore year, she was accepted to the Early Medical School Selection Program (EMSSP) offered through her school and the Boston University School of Medicine, where she’ll be this summer to complete a six-week residential program. Roya was one of four students recently accepted from her school to fill twelve national seats.  As Roya continues her studies, she plans to apply to complete her M.D./Ph.D. in engineering and medicine.

Inspired in Cambridge and Austin

In 2011, Roya took part in the inaugural class of the MIT Online Science, Technology and Engineering Community (MOSTEC) offered by the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs. Through the program, she took part in a number of hands-on science and engineering experiences, including one of the most memorable for her: standing in the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel during the one-week MOSTEC Conference on MIT’s campus. Recalling the tunnel, she positions her small frame into a boxer’s stance. “I had to stand like this the whole time to fight the wind,” she says, laughing.

Through MOSTEC’s coursework and inspiration from MIT professors and counselors, Roya identified her passion for biomedical engineering, robotics and electrical engineering. Her time on campus also helped her recognize that she wanted to come back to the Boston area.

So how did medicine become part of the mix? In 2011, Roya participated in a computer science program at the University of Texas, Austin, where she had the chance to witness the da Vinci Surgical System – a robot used for minimally invasive surgery – in action. “As I was sitting there, working with the team, I was like, oh my gosh this is so accurate. It was amazing for me to see this robot being so precise,” she says.

The summer before her freshman year at UTEP, Roya shadowed a doctor. The clinical experience confirmed her interest in medicine, but she didn’t want to let go of engineering. So, when her pre-med counselor at school told her she could do both by completing her MD/Ph.D., she jumped at the opportunity.

The impact of a mentor

“Enthusiastic, creative, passionate and bright” are some words Roya’s mentor Martine Ceberio uses to describe her. Ceberio, an associate professor of computer science at UTEP, has given Roya career advice and introduced her to the National Center for Women in Technology Aspirations in Computer Science program, which “made a big difference in the opportunities that were sent her way,” Ceberio says. “Granted, without NCWIT AiC, she would have been successful anyway,” she adds.

Roya first met Ceberio during the summer of 2010, when she and another student were sent by her high school, Harmony Science Academy, to participate in a summer research internship in Ceberio’s lab. “Her energy and ability to make the most out of everything,” Ceberio says, is what stood out about Roya. One opportunity led to the next, and Roya agreed to continue conducting research with Ceberio during the academic year.

Now, Roya facilitates mentorship opportunities for others through a role on the marketing team for Magikstra, an all-student startup. It’s a new kind of social network aimed at connecting high school students with professionals in fields the students are interested in. The platform gives students a new chance to take action on an opportunity, as Roya did with Ceberio.

Motivated by family

Originally from Iran, Roya and her family moved to the United States when she was five years old. In El Paso, she lives with her parents and 11-year old sister, Shakila. It’s a 20-minute commute to campus, but she doesn’t mind living at home – especially having the luxury of home cooked meals. “I still do my own laundry,” she says.

Roya explains that knowing the sacrifices her parents made for her future is a great part of what keeps her going. In Iran, her mother had a research job at a university, and her father was the head of a company. “They had a lot of really great opportunities over there,” Roya says. But Roya’s family passed on their own opportunities to ensure even better ones for Roya.

“They told me it’s because they wanted me to have a better future, for me to grow up in the education system here,” Roya recalls. “Knowing that really pushes me to do better in school, to strive to learn and achieve my hopes and dreams, because I know that makes them happy, to see me succeed.”