Tawfik Hussein: From Heart-Zero to Heart-Hero

Tawfik Hussein ’19, M.S. Candidate, Biomedical Engineering

Research has allowed me to channel my interests into a career. It has given me the excitement of solving problems that haven’t been solved before and connected me with like-minded, driven individuals who, through their research ambitions, want to change the world.–– Tawfik Hussein ‘19 

Tawfik served as an Undergraduate Research Ambassador for the 2018 – 2019 school year. He graduated in May 2019 with a B.S. in Biomedical Engineering, a minor in Astrophysics, and a focus in Biomechanics. Currently, Tawfik is working towards his Master of Science degree in Biomedical Engineering with a focus in cardiac mechanics. He hopes to utilize his degree to innovate new solutions for problems related to the heart.

Tawfik’s Research Journey

Tawfik’s research journey began when he was a sophomore. He was very excited to pursue research because “[it] allows us to stand on the boundary of what is known and unknown, permitting us to stretch the limits of our knowledge.” Tawfik was interested in solving problems in biomechanics as “biomechanics is the main factor driving the behavior of biological tissues; having a sound understanding of it will, thus, give us a better understanding of tissue pathophysiology and allow us to innovate better treatments.” This lead Tawfik to join the Texas A&M Biomechanical Environments Laboratory under the supervision of Dr. Michael Moreno. Here, Tawfik worked on understanding the impact of mechanical forces on the protein expression of lymphatic endothelial cells (LEC). To Tawfik, this represented an important opportunity as “there is little known about the mechanical behavior of these cells, and such an understanding will allow us to better understand (and thus treat) lymphatic disorders such as edema, a common problem in both the developing and developed countries.”

His research opened doors to a variety of ambitious avenues. Tawfik’s work allowed him to become a part of the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program, publishing a thesis to the OAKTrust Repository. Additionally, Tawfik was selected for the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenge Scholars Program to work on the grand challenge of engineering better medicines. Through this program, he nurtured his interdisciplinary skills by participating in AggiE_Challenge, where he worked with students across engineering disciplines on a project to build an organ on a chip that models tumors. Tawfik then gained entrepreneurial depth by innovating and winning first place in Aggies Invent, where he innovated a solution to make paracentesis more accessible to physicians and less invasive for patients with ascites, a common problem in the developing world. He also gained fellowship to the National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps Site Fellows Program, paving the path for him to submit a provisional patent. Additionally, as a result of his senior capstone project helping detecting carcinogens encountered by firefighters, he was listed as an inventor of a new patent. As a result of his work with the grand challenges, he was recognized by the National Academy of Engineering and featured as a “GCSP spotlight alumnus”.

Besides his main research at Texas A&M, Tawfik also pursued clinical research during the summer between his junior and senior year at Houston Methodist through the SURE-EnMed program. There, he worked with an orthopedic surgeon to analyze the performance of rehabilitating athletes who underwent an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction surgery. This work could potentially allow physical therapy regimens to become more tailored towards the specific mechanism of injury. Additionally, Tawfik worked with another orthopedic surgeon to study the role of obesity on the perioperative time requirements for joint replacement surgery. As a result of this work, he presented his research findings in numerous poster presentations, one of which was attended by a Nobel Laureate.

All these opportunities converged to lead Tawfik to transition into his graduate work in the field of cardiac mechanics. He says “The mechanical behavior of biological tissues, especially the heart, is one of the most difficult fields (thus exciting) to study.” Tawfik is now working with Prof. John Criscione, his current research advisor, to study the utility of BNP (a cardiac marker for myocardial stretch) to evaluate Prof. Criscione’s diastolic recoil device in decreasing myocardial stretch, which helps in reversing heart failure, wherein myocardial stretch is increased. Additionally, he is working on a mathematical model that can be used to model the behavior of the myocardium, what he describes as an “inverse problem”. He says, “given an equation, it is rather straightforward to find the behavior that fits its parameters (a forward problem); on the other hand, if we are presented with the behavior, it is rather difficult to map it back to an equation that uniquely characterizes it (an inverse problem).”

The Inspiration of it All

Reflecting on how to he got involved with cardiac mechanics, Tawfik said that “there was a professor in our department who was a leader in that field, and I knew I liked the heart and mechanics, so I wanted to do something with them. When I was a junior, I heard he was teaching a class I had already taken, so I went to audit his class. I was quickly inspired after the first lecture, and my after-class questions quickly became extended office discussions about mechanics and soft tissues. Indeed, some of my best and enthusiastic conversations I had at A&M were in his office, as we discussed different perspectives of the field. After taking a couple more classes with him and more extended “office-hour” discussions, these conversations would later help refine my interests and career goals, leading me to pursue cardiac mechanics, what I’m doing right now! He thus became my current research advisor for my Master’s.”

Tawfik’s Advice for Freshmen

Tawfik’s advice for freshmen is to “make the most of your time as an undergraduate. You only get to be an undergrad once in a lifetime, so make it count. Texas A&M offers so many opportunities that allow you to surpass more than just a regular student that goes to class and does homework.  Explore your career interests early on, and choose the experiences that best prepares you for that career goal. Research will definitely refine your trajectory and you will make the most of it the longer you are in it. It allows you to explore your field through a different angle from the one you are used to in the classroom. The skills you gain from it allow you to transition anywhere career-wise. Also, don’t be afraid of immersing yourself in high impact experiences, which will result in you being a well-rounded individual that will change the world. Luckily, most of these experiences and opportunities are located in one location- LAUNCH.”

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