Commencement Close-Up: Amita Shah literally operates with a new perspective

Amita Shah

Amita Shah

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(Dec. 17, 2010)--Talk about busy...

Early on Tuesday, June 1, Amita Shah, already a medical doctor, dropped off her doctoral thesis at the UTSA Department of Biomedical Engineering. Later that evening, she gave birth to her first child, a son. A week later, she defended her dissertation.

"I can't believe I did that," she recalled incredulously.

But she did, and at 1 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 18, she will cross the commencement stage to receive her doctoral degree in biomedical engineering. The occasion marks the end of a 10-year journey.

As an undergraduate at Trinity University, Shah was torn between medical school and graduate school. She wanted to become a surgeon, but biomedical engineering intrigued her, and she enjoyed her undergraduate research experience. Ultimately, she decided to attend medical school. In 2005, she graduated and began a surgical residency.

But, the prospect of graduate school still nagged her.

"As a surgical resident, I could see how much we really needed the techniques and products you can develop using tissue engineering methods," she said.

As Shah considered a doctoral program, Health Science Center Professor Mauli Agrawal joined the UTSA Department of Biomedical Engineering and eventually became dean of the UTSA College of Engineering. When UTSA established its joint doctoral degree program with the Health Science Center, she knew the time was ripe.

While a second-year surgical resident, Shah studied for the GRE, took the exam and submitted applications to graduate schools.

"I knew I wanted to attend UTSA, because I wanted to work with Dean Agrawal and Dr. [Anson] Ong," Shah recalled. Ong is the chair of the UTSA Department of Biomedical Engineering and director of the UTSA/UTHSCSA Joint Graduate Degree Program in Biomedical Engineering.

"I'd met them at the Health Science Center. I also knew the UTSA Department of Biomedical Engineering had a great relationship with the Health Science Center and the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research," Shah added.

UTSA accepted Shah, and she matriculated in fall 2007. Immediately, she began to conduct tissue engineering research for the Department of Defense in Dean Agrawal's laboratory. She studied the role of endothelial cells and osteoblasts in improving the growth of blood vessels and bone tissue in a synthetic bone scaffold. Her findings will contribute to better treatments for soldiers who sustain large, segmental bone injuries as a result of rocket-propelled grenades or IEDs. Current treatments often result in amputation, she says.

On July 1, 2010, Shah returned to the operating room, resuming the sleepless life of a surgical resident. However, she now brings a new perspective.

"Now, when I'm doing surgery, it's more 'how can we make it better?' than just 'how can we do it?'" she said. "The doctoral program taught me to look at things critically including journal articles. I'm able to read them better and pull out more information than before. And, my practice of medicine is more evidence-based than it was before."

Ideally, Shah envisions a career where she can combine her surgical skills with her passion for biomedical engineering. She is eager to create new devices that she can use to improve the lives of her patients.

Her mentor, Mauli Agrawal, has no doubt she will accomplish her goals.

"Dr. Shah is a perfect example of the brilliant young minds who will lead us into the future," he said. "She is a young, critical thinker who is well-educated and driven. I can't wait to see what the future holds for her."