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Megan Guidry '14 Wins a Whitaker Fellowship to Study Cardiac Modeling in New Zealand

Megan Guidry '14, who will earn a master's degree in biomedical engineering at the University of Auckland, on an earlier visit to New Zealand.

Megan Guidry is by her own estimation “an adventurous person.” She decided on NJIT following a single snowy visit her senior year of high school, unfazed by the more than 1,000 miles between home in Baton Rouge, La. and college in Newark. And lest there be doubters, the recent graduate will soon travel about seven times that far for graduate school.

Guidry has been accepted into a master’s program at the Bioengineering Institute at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, where she will develop a computational model of the heart with some of the leading researchers in the field. She arrives fully funded as a fellow of the Whitaker International Program, an organization that sends emerging leaders in U.S. biomedical engineering overseas to pursue self-designed, career-advancing projects within the discipline, while promoting international scholarship and cooperation.

The prospect of working with eminent cardiac modelers, albeit more than 7,000 miles from home, was “too good an opportunity to pass up,” she recounts.

“It’s critical to have a model that replicates the heart’s contractions as accurately as possible using computer technology. And going forward, more and more areas in bioengineering will depend on computational processing, so I’m eager to get into the field now.”

She adds, “I think it’s also because NJIT is so diverse, and you meet people of so many different nationalities here that it inspired me to look for something new to try. There were six international women on NJIT’s tennis team with me – from Russia, Canada, Latvia, Switzerland and two from Brazil. I was the local.”

Despite the distance, Guidry will not be the first NJIT graduate to join the research program in Auckland as a Whitaker fellow. Lauren Dupuis ’12, also a biomechanical engineering major with an interest in cardiovascular mechanics, earned a master’s degree there in 2013 and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands.

In fact, Guidry’s research will be a continuation of Dupuis’s work there developing an improved model of the sarcomere (the basic unit of the heart muscle), and studying the effects of calcium concentrations on it. Guidry’s model of the heart’s left ventricle will use Dupuis’s sarcomere model as a building block, showing how individual sarcomeres work together in the left ventricle as a whole and demonstrating how calcium affects heart function at a more complete, ventricular level.

“I heard about Lauren’s experience and it sounded tremendous. I wasn’t sure I’d have a chance at the fellowship, but she encouraged me to go for it, and it turned out that both the Whitaker program and the host institution were on board,” Guidry recounts. “I feel really lucky that Lauren paved the way – I think the research team there had a great experience with her.”

Both Dupuis and Guidry learned about the fellowship and the program at the Bioengineering Institute from William Hunter, a professor of biomechanical engineering at NJIT and an expert in cardiovascular modeling who has worked closely with researchers at the University of Auckland.

“I took modeling with Dr. Hunter and really enjoyed it. He also showed me it was a career option and put me in contact with the research team in Auckland,” Guidry says. “I like the field of cardiology – I feel it’s a really important one to be in. And if I’m trying to make a difference in the medical field, I like the idea of my work helping as many people as possible.”

Hunter describes the New Zealand team as “recognized world-wide for their pioneering research developing computational models of cardiac function.”

“The institute has welcomed leading researchers from around the globe to collaborate with them, and in turn, they have sent bioengineers trained there to work with outstanding groups throughout the U.S. and Europe,” he notes.

Guidry, a member of Albert Dorman Honors College, developed a love for hands-on research working on a senior capstone project under the supervision of Richard Foulds, an associate professor of biomedical engineering. She and her team created a device to control a robotic arm, which scaled up small movements of the wrist for people with upper arm immobility. At this point, she plans to pursue a career in industry developing individualized heart models.

“I would love to be a part of developing solutions, using computation to have a direct influence on research and development in this area,” she says. “I see it as a different angle of personalized medicine. I think it would be really interesting if we could take information from patients – a few factors – and make an accurate model of their heart and treat them with personalized therapy.”

For the next year, however, Guidry will be focused on research – and recreation. She has already compiled an extensive list of Down Under must-dos.

“I will be spending as much time as I can outdoors – camping, fishing, hiking, kayaking, and skiing – and seeing my first live professional rugby and cricket matches. I plan to get all over,” she says. “Perhaps most importantly, I am determined to learn how to kite surf – or at least try. It looks like so much fun!”