Biomedical engineering student was quick to impress in research labs
Friday, January 23, 2015

To describe Sraavya Undurty, you’d do well to start with “involved.” Then add “dedicated.” Or, just go with “busy.”

The University of Iowa senior and biomedical engineering major has worked in two faculty research laboratories, helped teach an engineering class to her peers, volunteers at UI Hospitals and Clinics, interprets for native Spanish speakers at mobile medical clinics in eastern Iowa, and occupies center stage in an a cappella group that mashes American pop music and Indian Bollywood.

All the while, she carries a 3.98 grade point average, and will enter medical school this fall.

“I really kind of like being busy,” says Undurty, who grew up mostly in West Des Moines after her parents emigrated from India when she was 3 and attended Valley High School. “Ever since I was little, I’ve always been involved in a lot of activities, so I’ve been used to this concept of you manage your time well; when you tell people you’re going to be somewhere, you’re there. And, whatever activity it is that you’re doing, you really give your 100 percent there, no matter how much it is you’re involved in outside of that.”

Undurty committed herself nearly from the moment she stepped on campus. She enrolled in a freshman fall honors seminar class in biomedical engineering, and within weeks, approached the teacher, Sarah Vigmostad, about working in her cardiovascular mechanics lab.

“I think this is the first time I’ve ever hired a freshman,” Vigmostad relates, “It was definitely because of her that I created the position.”

Undurty initially cleaned equipment and did “simple stuff,” she says. But soon, she had shown enough intellectual chops to be grouped with a post-doctoral researcher and graduate student as they examined how implanted medical devices may impede blood flow, through microscopic and computational analyses.

“She was keeping them on their toes,” Vigmostad recalls with a laugh. “She was finishing her work more quickly than they expected her to, and they had to find more work for her.”

Sraavya Undurty working in a lab
Sraavya Undurty's research experiences, which include work investigating genetic causes of facial cleft palates, have underscored her interest in helping people, children in particular. Photo by Tim Schoon.

That first taste into research led Undurty to another lab, run by Jeff Murray, into the genetic reasons for facial cleft palates, a physical deformity.

Undurty’s interest was personal: Her 6-year-old second cousin was born with cleft lip palate.

Sraavya Undurty

Hometown: West Des Moines, Iowa

Areas of study: Biomedical engineering

Expected graduation: May 2015

About Sraavya:
She speaks three languages other than English: Hindi, Spanish, and Telugu, the language of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana states in India

She is an Indian classical voice teacher for children who takes singing lessons herself

She is a UI Presidential Scholar and has made the Dean's List each year she's been at the UI

Her major is in the College of Engineering, where 22 percent of undergraduate students are women — above the 17 percent national average for engineering

“When she was born, I was just old enough to understand what was going on,” Undurty said. “I kind of knew what she was going through, and what her family was going through and that made me interested in learning more.”

In the lab, Undurty sequences genes from affected people in the Philippines and Puerto Rico, to better understand which genes are causing the disease in each population and whether genetic mutations could be responsible for clefting in certain groups.

The experience underscores her interest in children, and in helping people generally. Undurty has applied to medical schools, including the UI, and plans to be a pediatric physician.

“I’ve really liked the hope,” she says of her interest in children. “There’s kind of a resilience that I didn’t see as much with maybe the adult care intensive units that is there with children, so I’d really like to be able to work near that.”

She has volunteered since her sophomore year in the cardiology unit at UI Hospitals and Clinics and for a mobile clinic, run by the UI Carver College of Medicine, that provides weekend patient counseling and care to needy residents in Iowa City, West Liberty, and other nearby communities. Undurty mostly translates for native Spanish speakers, helping them feel more at ease with complex terminology in an unfamiliar language.

“She’s done it enough times that it’s like second nature to her,” says Neel Patel, a junior from Bettendorf who helps organize the clinic’s runs.

Between academics and volunteering, it’s a small wonder Undurty found time as a freshman to restart a South Asian a cappella group called Agni that composes music rooted in American pop songs and Bollywood. With help from freshman year roommate and Agni co-founder, Lyndsey Van Loh, the group has grown from a handful of female singers to 17 coeds.

Van Loh, who’s from Sibley in northwest Iowa, credits Undurty with inspiring the group’s revival, including advertising, recruiting members, and holding auditions.

Oh, and she can sing pretty well, too.

“I am astounded by Sraavya’s voice,” says Van Loh, who has studied classical and jazz and sings in the UI choir. “She’s very accurate, and I think honestly beautiful. She sounds great when she’s singing in Hindi or English, with different runs of music.”