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Solomon Mensah

College: City College
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2016

Engineering First-World Health Care for the Third World

Growing up in Ghana, Solomon Mensah dreamed of becoming a physician, even while earning an associate degree in mechanical engineering. When he emigrated to the United States to pursue a bachelor's degree, he says he found "a way to marry my two passions. Biomedical engineering gave me a platform, and City College has one of the country's most competitive programs. Most happily I got into the program."

Mensah (City College, '14), now a doctoral student in bioengineering at Northeastern University, has won a 2016 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to study intercellular interactions in cancer and cardiovascular diseases. It is worth $138,000 for three years of doctoral research. He focuses on the glycocalyx, a layer of sugars that coats the interior walls of blood vessels and influences the transportation of molecules and cells that seek to cross the blood vessel wall.

"I'm trying to understand the mechanical properties of the sugar coat, for it has been stated its degradation allows cholesterol plaques to form and cancer cells to penetrate blood vessels," he explains.

Basic science isn't Mensah's only interest. An entrepreneur at heart, he launched a startup, Therapeutic Innovations, to develop low-cost medical devices for use in the Third World.

"The medical machines in the United States are wonderful, but they are too expensive, need too much maintenance and require too many consumables for use in places like Africa and India," says Mensah. "We aim to redesign and reduce the cost of medical devices, so that children in poor countries can access the kind of high quality health care available to people in developed countries."

Mensah went to Ghana to see what devices would most benefit children in hospitals there. His top priority is to develop a bubble continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine for newborns who suffer respiratory distress. Northeastern recently awarded a grant to develop a prototype, and his team lined up beta testing through an Indian company and Ghanaian military hospitals. In the future, Mensah foresees developing orthopedic spine implants and bone-healing wearables.

To share the experience that he and his fellow biotechnology students are amassing, Mensah cofounded a student organization for budding entrepreneurs. They want to spread the word about how to move projects out of the lab and into the world. "We hope to deconvolute the process of taking a potentially disruptive idea or technology from concept to a tangible project," he says.