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COM Freshman Will Attend Nobel Laureate Activities in December

COM Freshman Will Attend Nobel Laureate Activities in December

Published: 11/23/2015

Aswin Bikkani knew he wanted to do something scientific, but his interests were quite diverse.

Biomedical engineering, technical drawing and medicine all offered possibilities. Then a trio of summer shadowing experiences in high school with a neonatologist, a pediatric nephrologist and a clinical ethicist seemed to help Aswin somewhat narrow his choices.

The 18-year-old from Westlake, Ohio, is among the first crop of undergraduates to major in the new bachelor of medical sciences degree in the College of Medicine. Currently, Bikkani is leaning toward becoming a pediatrician, but he’s a freshman who has been admitted to UC’s Connections Dual Admissions Program and has lots of time to come to a decision.

He’s been admitted as an undergraduate and also as a medical student at the College of Medicine. Bikkani has a full scholarship to the university and also recently received a 2015 Tylenol Future Care Scholarship for $10,000. He will be one of five students nationally to attend the Nobel Prize Award ceremonies in Stockholm, Sweden, Dec. 5-11, 2015.

"I had a nice spectrum of shadowing experiences,” says Bikkani. "I had a family friend who was a neonatologist.”

Born premature, Bikkani says the experience resonated because he often thought of his conversations with his mom about his own premature birth when witnessing the experiences of new mothers at Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland.

"Whenever I asked my mom about my birth and some of the health issues that I had she would always tear up,” he says. "I realized that dealing with newborns and their families is incredibly emotionally charged. I knew it could be really rewarding or really heartbreaking.”

"I went to Rainbow Babies and got to see a lot of really interesting cases, babies that were brain dead virtually on arrival. The parents had already come to terms with the fact that their baby wasn’t going to make it. She was only on a ventilator because they wanted to know what had gone so wrong,” says Bikkani.

Physicians ran a battery of tests to identify the issue. In this case they hit a brick wall and there was no answer, says Bikkani, who shadowed physicians on weekends and during the summer of his junior and senior years of high school.

Bikkani was amazed at the impact that doctors, with their knowledge, words and demeanor, could have on patients.

"I remember shadowing and I walked in and it was a new mother and her husband and the neonatologist I was with and we were just having a regular conversation. The moment they start talking about the baby, the mother involuntarily starts sobbing. I am not sure if I want to go into neonatology, but I know it is one area where you can have a really direct impact on lives. It’s transformative and it sticks in your mind,” says Bikkani.

Another shadowing experience took Bikkani from meeting newborns to interacting with heroin addicts. He shadowed at a medical clinic in Garfield Heights and observed a husband and wife pair of physicians work with residents battling drug addiction.

"They were part of a pilot program for heroin addicts,” says Bikkani. "They were running a tiny little clinic, a few exam rooms, one room filled with supplies and in another area a little waiting room. It was nothing like any hospital I had ever been in. If they felt patients were falling off the wagon, they would try to get them back on. That was totally a different side of medicine because at Rainbow Babies the patients are little babies and their problems are purely medical. They really have just begun life and they don’t have social or psychological issues.”

Addicts spoke frankly about their addiction, where they got their drugs and physicians tried to get addicts to consider what else could they being doing rather than consuming heroin. What impact did these drugs have on their families?

"It was social medicine. The physician was talking to them about these issues while working on a skin graft for a patient injured as a result of their addiction,” says Bikkani. "There is a huge amount of diversity in medicine. If my inclinations change, I believe I can always find something—well, hopefully before it is too late.”

Another area of interest would be geriatrics and Aswin says that is primarily because of his admiration for noted surgeon Atul Gawande, MD, who authored the book "Being Mortal.” Gawande discussed how medicine can not only improve and prolong life tremendously, but also can inadvertently cause suffering at the end of life.

Medicine has made many advances and raised expectations among many Americans who simply expect to live longer with intervention. Gawande, during a speech at Stanford University, argued that living longer doesn’t necessarily mean that quality of life will be better and that physicians need better communication with patients and families facing end-of-life decisions. Asking patients about their values and priorities for the time they have left may be a smarter approach, according to Gawande.

"Modern medicine can intervene by fixing your broken leg, easing your pain and giving you a heart transplant, but can it do so forever without starting to hurt people? If it can’t, how do we have that conversation?” asks Bikkani.

As a high school student, Bikkani took Advanced Placement classes at Westlake High School and advocated for end-of-life care awareness through the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society at Cuyahoga Community College. He plans to volunteer in the coming months at the Hospice of Cincinnati. 

During the summer of his junior year, Bikkani worked in a biochemistry and cell biology laboratory at Stony Brook University through the Simons Summer Research Program. Currently, he works in the lab of Raphael Kopan, PhD, director of the Division of Developmental Biology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.  

 "The charm of biomedical research is one has no idea what is going to happen,” says Bikkani.  "You can draw conclusions from experiments and you can decide what to do next, but you can’t try everything so you have to make some educated guess – and that could have a huge impact.”

Bikkani and his cohort of 40 medical sciences undergraduates are scheduled to graduate in 2019 – the year UC celebrates its bicentennial. The university’s roots lie within the history of the College of Medicine established in 1819 as the Medical College of Ohio by pioneering physician Daniel Drake.

"We are delighted to have a student like Aswin in the Connections Dual Admissions and medical sciences undergraduate program at the College of Medicine,” says Anil Menon, PhD, director of the undergraduate program in biomedical sciences and medicine and professor of molecular genetics. "They represent some of the best and brightest budding physicians and scientists and we think they will be future leaders in patient care and medical research.”

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