U-M BME alum credits family, education as inspiration for decision to attend Medical School

BME alum cites family health experience as inspiration for his career path

Devak Nanua (BSE, MSE) entered the world at Michigan Medicine and credits the life-saving leukemia treatment his mother received there while pregnant with him as part of the foundation for his desire to pursue Medical School. 

Nanua, whose parents emigrated from India, described the excitement with which his father and mother arrived in Ann Arbor and their joy in planning to start a family. However, they would encounter serious challenges to fulfilling their dreams along the way. 

“My mom was, unfortunately, diagnosed with leukemia in her late 20s,” Nanua said. “For a 27-year-old to be given that moment of facing her own mortality, it had to be so hard for her, especially having just come to this country.”

During his time as a student at U-M, Nanua was able to learn about his mother’s medical journey through the research notes and firsthand accounts of physicians and medical personnel who had provided her care two decades ago. 

“She was given two options,” Nanua noted. “If she did start the traditional drug treatment at that time, it would have meant aborting me. It was a challenging decision. My parents had said that the best news they received that week was that they were expecting a child. My mom knew that her fertility would be limited down the road once starting treatment. Having newly immigrated, it was especially daunting to be facing this and having to make such decisions. At Michigan Medicine, she had a great team of physicians and oncologists. I read the story of my parents and how I came into the world. Everyone here worked with her and supported her. The only curative modality was for my mother to have a bone marrow transplant from my younger aunt, who was only a teen at the time living in India.”

Nanua’s mother successfully had the bone marrow transplant, and eventually recovered. “She was able to have me without complications,” Nanua said. “My mom got a second lease on life.”

Nanua added that as a child, he did not initially know or understand the magnitude of the health issues his mother had faced. “Throughout my years of growing up, there was a feeling of gratitude and a feeling of thankfulness toward the medical system that I picked up on from my mom,” he said. “I knew the relationship my mom had with her caregivers and the trust she placed in them. Even as a young kid, I was inclined to think about medicine in general terms as a possible career.”

When Nanua entered college, he ended up studying BME for his undergraduate and master’s degrees. “One thing that stuck out to me during my time in BME was my experience in our undergrad senior design project,” he said. “It was this great opportunity to work with a diverse team of clinicians and engineers to solve a problem at the hospital. I realized I ultimately wanted to work in a space where patients can have the opportunity to experience an easier journey to health, despite their terrible ordeal.” 

Nanua enjoyed the challenges that BME offered. “I had fun being an innovator on the engineering side, but it was only through meetings with clinicians, where they were able to point out important design considerations, that I saw issues from their perspective,” he said. “I felt like I needed a clinical experience background to become a more efficient engineer in order to innovate in the space that I wanted.”

Nanua said U-M’s BME program offers students a rich curriculum. “I really appreciated the variety of courses that I got to take as a BME student,” he said. “By the time students are in their senior year here, they have studied aspects of the human body through the perspectives of mechanical engineering, materials engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering and computer engineering. By learning about the human body through the lens of different disciplines, it gives you enough tools to be creative and participate in many research projects or biomedical device design projects.”

As part of Nanua’s desire to make an impact through his work, he recently returned from a medical service trip to Rwanda. “As a medical student, I am a part of the Global Health and Disparities path of excellence,” he said. “Through this elective, I am able to learn about and discuss topics of health inequities and disparities in a global and domestic setting along with my peers and faculty who work in these spaces. At the end of our first year of medical school, we have a six-week break where students can take some time to do whatever they want. I was always curious about the challenges of practicing medicine in an international and low resource setting. While being a part of this path of excellence, I had the pleasure to meet Dr. David Bradley, who is a Pediatric Cardiologist at Michigan who had been recently working in Rwanda. While meeting him, I was incredibly inspired by the work that he was doing, and this encouraged me to travel to Rwanda during my break.”

Through Dr. Bradley’s guidance and grant funding from Michigan Medicine, Nanua worked at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Kigali (CHU-K) for several weeks. CHUK is the primary teaching hospital in Rwanda. During his time there, he participated in short clinical rotations where he primarily shadowed doctors in pediatrics, pediatric surgery and general surgery.

“I was surprised that even after just completing my first year of medical school, I knew a lot more than I thought and was able to keep up with the pace of being on the wards,” he said. “I was able to learn a lot about clinical concepts through the rich discussions that I’d have with doctors, residents, nurses and other medical students who I worked with. It was also incredible to experience what life looks like in another culture – specifically what healthcare looks like in a primarily low-resource setting. Having lived in Ann Arbor for the majority of my life, I’ve been incredibly fortunate and privileged to obtain care from and now train at a hospital where there are no shortage of resources, opportunities and highly trained physicians who I am lucky to call my mentors. While a lot of the care at CHU-K is still limited by its resources and a lot of the clinical presentations I saw were influenced by living in poverty, it was incredibly inspiring to go to work with a team of doctors who continued to try to do the best they could by their patients despite being aware of the limitations. It’s this attitude and energy for service that I hope to carry with me as I continue my medical education.”