Mian Finds Meaning through Research, Outreach

March 14, 2006

Matt MianFor senior Pratt fellow Matt Mian, engineering represents a way to apply his broad interest in science in “a more meaningful sense -- a way to get involved.” During his time at Duke, the Charlotte-area native has found many methods for doing just that, from research aimed at unraveling the mechanisms behind irregular heart rhythms that can portend sudden cardiac death to work geared toward changing the attitudes of underprivileged kids about science and learning, both in the local community and in places as far-flung as a Tanzanian orphanage.

Mian’s early interest in science led him to strike out on his own two years earlier than most kids. As a high school junior, he enrolled at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, N.C., a residential public school that offers a challenging science and math curriculum. At the school, his enthusiasm for science blossomed.

“It was exciting to be around other students who were like me -- students who were passionate about science, not just about getting grades,” Mian said.

Even today, Mian still can’t say which area of science interests him most, and it was that broad curiosity that drew him to the biomedical engineering department at Duke, where he could pursue an interdisciplinary blend of scientific topics. To ensure even more balance in his studies, Mian opted for a second major in mathematics.

In both arenas, Mian has shown himself to be an exemplary student, winning an international math competition, pursuing research in biomedical engineering as a Pratt fellow, and volunteering his time as a founding member of InnoWorks, a non-profit organization originated at Duke whose mission it is to inspire underprivileged middle school kids to pursue science and engineering.

“InnoWorks (www.innoworks.org) has really taken off,” Mian said. “The program isn’t meant to teach science, but rather to change student perceptions of science. It’s rewarding to see our results afteronly two years.”

Mian practices the enthusiasm for science he encourages in young people. Last year, a three-person team of students from Duke, including Mian, won an international math competition called “The Mathematical Contest in Modeling.” Teams of students were presented with a problem – how to optimize the number of toll booths on a highway – and then had four days to work out and present their solution.

His team applied three separate approaches to the problem, he said, all of which converged on roughly the same result. The group received the Mathematical Association of America award for their efforts, offering them the opportunity to present their findings at the group’s professional meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“The contest allowed us to use principles taught in the classroom in a practical scenario,” Mian said.

Matt MianIn search of more such opportunities, Mian also applied to the Pratt fellows program. “I wanted to explore research,” he said. “It’s exciting as an undergraduate to be able to contribute something new to science.”

Mian’s first pick was a position in the lab of BME professor Craig Henriquez, a selection he said he chose in large part due to his respect for Henriquez’s teaching philosophy.

“I saw Craig as a person that I could identify with and that would be a good mentor,” Mian said. “His educational philosophy also meshes well with my own.

“He encourages students to have a mature approach to learning. In courses, he doesn’t bog you down with tests or homework, but rather fosters independent exploration of a subject so you get a real idea of what scientific inquiry is like. I appreciate that.”

In the Henriquez lab, Mian went to work to understand the factors that contribute to a heart condition known as discordant alternans. Electrical alternans is an alternate-beat variation of cardiac tissue that can be seen on an electrocardiogram (ECG), he explained. Discordant alternans represent a special case of the phenomenon, in which neighboring heart regions exhibit alternans with opposite phases.

“We wanted to look at the specific conditions that are conducive to discordant alternans,” Mian said. “To see how the phenomenon arises.

“This heart abnormality has been shown to be a precursor of arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death. If we can identify signs that a person has a predisposition for this, scientists may ultimately find a means to prevent its effects.”

Mian built from the work of other scientists in the field to produce models based on animal studies of heart behavior and to examine their dynamics in computer simulations.

His research found that an earlier model developed by another group in simulations of homogeneous heart tissue holds up in a more realistic model that considers the actual variation found in cardiac muscle. He also found that certain ionic configurations make hearts particularly prone to discordant alternans, as do certain kinds of structural barriers in the heart. His early research findings were published in Vertices, The Journal of Science and Technology at Duke.

The study of cardiac electrophysiology helped inspire Mian to pursue a future in academic medicine. Like his cardiologist father before him, he plans to enter medical school immediately after graduation. He has already been accepted at some schools, but is awaiting word from others before making a final decision.

“Originally, I didn’t think I wanted to be a physician, but I don’t want any one thing to define my life or my career. I think medicine offers the opportunity to do a number of other things too.”

For example, Mian said he hopes to apply his experience to work with children abroad. His interest in international work stemmed from a spontaneous trip to Africa, which he and two friends squeezed in during a month’s summer vacation prior to his full-time research commitment as a Pratt fellow.

The three traveled to Tanzania, where they lived and worked with orphans. Rather than sightsee, they taught English and math and got a glimpse of what life is really like for those less fortunate.

“I didn’t want a tourist trip,” Mian said. “I was looking for something more authentic. It can be hard living in an academic bubble – not understanding how the rest of the world lives. If I’m able to offer something to others, I’m excited to contribute.”