Posted by: Academy of Achievement | 01/11/2012

Samuel Sia, Ph.D., Class of 2002
Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Columbia University

Even though I didn’t realize it at the time, my participation at the International Achievement Summit in Dublin in 2002 was a life-changing event. It came at a time when I was finishing my Ph.D. in biophysics and reflecting on how I should use my skills as a scientist to try to improve the world. The career choices were typically binary: continue to do basic research, which could produce discoveries with immensely broad impact but might not trickle down to improving lives for decades; or leave research altogether and pursue an alternative career. Attending the Summit, combined with time I spent in West Africa a year before, crystallized for me the possibility to engage science in a creative manner in order to tackle some of the most pressing health issues of our time.

The Summit itself was spectacular — and wholly impossible to describe to those who were not present. I had a chance to talk (briefly) about the South African AIDS crisis with President Bill Clinton, the state of American politics with Ralph Nader, and the past and future of science (at considerable length) with Dr. James D. Watson. At the end of the meeting, I asked Marvin Minsky who his favorite speaker was, and he mentioned Bono, who poetically urged the student delegates to use their talents for the better good of the world. It became clear to me that while it was a less traveled path, there was no rule barring the mixing of academic research with a focus on producing immediate impact on society. In fact, there may be no more scaleable way to improve the world than development of transformative technologies.

After the Summit, I switched fields to biomedical engineering, an emerging and exciting field of research at the intersection of medicine and technology. I joined the faculty of Columbia University in New York City in 2005. Since that time, my lab has focused on developing low-cost, handheld diagnostic systems that can be used in sub-Saharan Africa as well as in Western countries. We are also developing new implantable devices with unprecedented functions. While the last decade in technology has been dominated by developments in the Internet and social media, my goal is to help bring that same level of excitement to medical devices and technologies.

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