Vinu Ilakkuvan: Using Technology to Improve Public Health

May 11, 2009 — As she completes a double major in biomedical engineering and economics, Vinu Ilakkuvan looks back on four years that gave her not only broad academic experience, but also plenty of opportunities for research, scholarship and fun.

"Students here are given the opportunity to truly invest themselves in the University, and that makes this place all the more special to us," she said.

Her U.Va. experience has prepared her for graduate work at Harvard University, where she plans to focus on health communications. She will be working toward a master's degree in Society, Human Development and Health.

"With a graduate school education in public health, and health communications specifically, I will be able to contribute to the overarching effort of capitalizing on modern communication technologies to motivate individuals to change their health behaviors," she said. "Given that so many of today's leading causes of death are preventable by altering health behaviors, this kind of work can have a significant impact."

Ilakkuvan, of Glenn Allen, Va., believes the comprehensive education she received – from the Engineering School as well as the College of Arts & Sciences – will serve her well.

"I have taken a lot of classes outside of the E-School, through my econ double major and also through courses in religious studies, anthropology, sociology and English," she said. "It's nice to balance out the E-School technical courses with courses that emphasize reading, writing and discussion."

Ilakkuvan's academic achievements have been recognized by numerous honor organizations. She was a Rodman Scholar, the Engineering School's honors program for the top 5 percent to 6 percent of each class. She is a member of the Omicron Delta Kappa Leadership Honor Society, received Intermediate Honors and was elected to both the Raven Society and Tau Beta Pi. She is an Elsie Cabell Endowed Scholarship recipient and was a U.Va. nominee for the Truman Scholarship. This year, she also received the Engineering School's Outstanding Student of the Year Award.

Ilakkuvan's diverse resume of leadership and service activities includes serving as the publicity chairwoman and co-president of the Hindu Student Council, associate editor of the Life section of the Cavalier Daily and the outreach co-chairwoman and vice chairwoman of the University Guide Service.

"Being a University Guide has really given me an appreciation for U.Va.'s history and traditions, and the way they have both evolved and remained the same over the years," she said.

In summer 2007, she participated in the Science and Technology Policy Internship Program, which is organized and run through the Engineering School's Department of Science, Technology and Society. As a part of her internship, Ilakkuvan worked at the Center for Science, Technology and Congress at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. There she wrote a paper that examined the impact of various countries' political systems, cultures and other factors on human embryonic stem cell policies.

The next year, she won one of U.Va.'s prestigious Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards, which enabled her to travel to Chennai, South India, to investigate the dietary compliance of diabetic patients.

As part of third- and fourth-year bioengineering design courses, including a year-long capstone project, Ilakkuvan worked with fellow undergraduates to develop a mechanical clamp for the treatment of uterine atony, a condition in which the uterus fails to contract properly after Caesarean childbirth.

The group secured $16,000 in funding for the project from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance and was a finalist in this year's Engineering School Undergraduate Research and Design Symposium.