Developing better ways of diagnosing disease at intersection of disciplines

Ph.D. candidate creating new kind of microfluidic device to test for respiratory diseases

Editor's note: This story is part of Meet a UChicagoan, a regular series focusing on the people who make UChicago a distinct intellectual community. Read about the others here.

Growing up in a family of engineers, Susan Okrah often felt as if she didn’t have any other choice but to become an engineer herself. 

While both her parents and her grandfather are electrical engineers, she said, “I knew I wasn't going to become an electrical engineer.” She considered a career in medicine, but when she took chemistry in high school, she was hooked. “It was really easy for me to pick it up, and then I realized there was so much you could do with a chemical engineering degree,” she said. 

During summer research experiences at universities across the country, she studied everything from synchronization to bacterial flows to pluripotent stem cells. She wasn't sure how these varied interests could translate into the next step, but at an academic conference, she heard about the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering. 

“I’m a chemical engineer interested in biomedical engineering and materials science; I chose UChicago's Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering so that I could pursue my diverse interests,” she said. 

One device to test for several respiratory diseases 

Now a PME graduate student, she conducts research in the lab of Prof. Savas Tay, developing a new kind of microfluidic device to test for respiratory diseases. Microfluidic devices can analyze fluids, using tiny channels to process samples and test for diseases like COVID-19 and influenza. But Okrah is working to make these devices even better. 

“Most microfluidic devices can only do one part of the process, but we hope to create a device that can do everything: sample collection, extraction, and processing,” she said. Such a device could also test for multiple diseases at once, which could ultimately lower the costs of diagnostic tests. 

Creating devices like this requires knowledge of biology, chemistry, and materials science—all the fields she's interested in. But when Okrah runs into an issue she can't figure out herself, she knows she can turn to her lab mates and professors. 

“I’ve had phenomenal support and resources from the beginning,” she said. “That’s important, especially when you’re a Black student, and you experience things that make you question whether you should be here. But you just need to remember that a group of people looked at your application and thought that you would make an excellent researcher. You’re meant to be here.” 

Taking time to mentor next generation 

Okrah co-founded the UChicago chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers and she continues to serve on a national level through various committees. She participated in the Science Communications Program, using her newly found skills this fall at the South Side Science Festival, which brought science demos and experiments to kids and families in the area. Last summer, she even took time to mentor a high school student in her lab. 

“This all helped me explain my research, to help others learn what I have learned,” she said. 

And, though she does not yet know which career path she will pursue, she says her parents aren’t upset she didn’t continue the electrical engineering family tradition. 

“My dad is just happy that I’m getting a Ph.D.,” she said with a laugh. 

This story was adapted from the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering website