She’s Out of This World

| November 15, 2017

Nina Singh BME ’19 receives an Astronaut Scholarship, an honor reserved for the best and brightest STEM college students

Nina Singh BME ’19 (R) is presented a 2017 Astronaut Scholarship Award by Al Worden (L), the command module pilot for the Apollo 15 mission, at the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation’s Innovators Gala in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Nina Singh

Nina Singh has never been your typical college student.

Instead of starting her senior year of high school in her familiar Bay Area neighborhood, Singh skipped a grade and moved to Los Angeles, becoming a 16-year-old college freshman through the USC Resident Honors Program.

More recently, Singh pulled off another extraordinary, head-scratching feat. The now 18-year-old junior was awarded a  prestigious Astronaut Scholarship – as a biomedical engineering major.

An Astronaut Scholar

After procuring one of only two nominations chosen by a university-wide selection committee, Singh received the prize founded over thirty years ago by the six surviving Mercury 7 astronauts – Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Walter Shirra, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton. Originally called the Mercury 7 Foundation, the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation was created to make sure that the United States remains a leader in science and technology by rewarding merit-based scholarships to the most exceptional college STEM students.

For the honor, she was invited to the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation’s Innovators Gala September 16-18 in Washington, D.C. While attending, she and fellow 2017 Astronaut Scholars enjoyed a tour of the National Air and Space Museum led by Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden and chemist and Expedition 27 astronaut Cady Coleman.

“It was so inspiring and humbling,” Singh said. “Hearing about the work that the other Astronaut Scholars are doing and what their goals for the future are. I learned about new majors (like photonics) and fields of research in the best possible way – from people who are extremely excited about their work.”

The award marks another in a stack of accolades for Singh in 2017. Earlier this year, she received two other major scholarships: a USC Provost’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship and a USC Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) Fellowship.

A Cilia Researcher

Adding to Singh’s fast-growing scientific pedigree is her undergraduate research project on cilia. She explains that cilia are “little hairs” in various parts of the body that help transport fluid. And when not working properly, cilia can no longer aid in key bodily functions, like mucus removal from the respiratory tract, leading to infections. She is developing a mechanical and mathematical model to better understand cilia movement in order to remediate damaged or dysfunctional cilia in the future.

Singh with her research partner, Albert Kong ME ’19, in Luhar’s Fluid-Structure Interactions Lab. Photo courtesy of Nina Singh

“We are trying to understand why the cilia move the way they do,” Singh said. “Although biologists understand the structure of cilia, they don’t get why it would create the patterns of movement they see.”

Singh and her research partner, Albert Kong ME ’19, hope to show that passive control (caused by fluid dynamics) may play a more significant role than active control (due to internal protein motors) in explaining movement patterns of cilia. Knowing the exact mechanics of cilia movement could lead to bioinspired technology, such as microfluidic pumps and motors that could be implanted in patients to mimic the behavior of functional cilia and restore normal fluid transport in the body.

A Class Act

Through her research efforts, Singh deeply impressed her lab supervisor, Mitul Luhar.

Luhar, an assistant professor of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, remarks that whenever he throws something new at Singh, she responds with a casual and confident “sure, I can figure it out.”

“I think what really sets her apart is her independence and willingness to go beyond her comfort zone,” Luhar said. “For her research project, she has to learn many new scientific concepts and use research tools that go far beyond her undergraduate training.”

This can-do attitude has also served Singh well in extracurricular endeavors. In fact, she has played a key role as a member of the first-place teams for both the 2017 USC ASBME Makeathon last March, designing an orthotic device for foot-drop, and Hack for Health in April, a USC computer programming competition to create innovative technologies for cancer patients.

I want to help patients manage diseases and minimize their effects on daily life because I believe that this is deeply meaningful.Nina Singh

Singh’s future plans include her USC coursework and four main commitments: her undergraduate research in Luhar’s Fluid-Structure Interactions Lab, an ongoing collaboration with UCLA’s Yeh Lab, volunteer work at the USC-affiliated Violence Intervention Program (VIP), and her efforts in a start-up called MedMind, an app that spawned from Hack for Health and helps cancer patients manage their multiple medications. After graduation, she wishes to continue her education, most likely in an MD/PhD program that merges her interests in research and medicine, seeking to improve outcomes for patients.

“Initially, I thought that I just wanted to do my MD. But once I began exploring the mathematical side of drug networks with the Yeh Lab in high school and plunged into the mechanical and mathematical side of ciliary systems with Luhar’s lab at USC, I changed my mind,” Singh said. “I want to help patients manage diseases and minimize their effects on daily life because I believe that this is deeply meaningful. But simultaneously, I want to bring clinical insight back to the lab environment to work toward ever-improving treatments and potential cures for their diseases.”

And even though Singh balances out her more studious activities with pastimes like solving escape rooms, foodie adventures in Los Angeles, and practicing henna tattoo art, she will continue to defy norms in the future.

After all, Singh is on track to start her post-graduate studies at the ripe old age of 20.