Engineering Solutions to Heal the Heart

Saif works in the lab on co-op.
Saif works in the lab on co-op.

For Zikria Saif, a fourth-year materials science and engineering student at Drexel University, the path to improving human health is paved with polymers. Zikria, who hails from Islamabad, Pakistan, was drawn to the field by the realization of how critical materials are to any design or engineering project. "I was always intrigued by how big a part materials play as a whole," he explains.

But Zikria 's ultimate goal has always been to work in biomaterials, where he can make a tangible impact on people's lives — a mission that holds deep personal significance. "My father suffers from cardiovascular diseases," Zikria shares. "My grandfather, the ones before him, suffered from myocardial diseases of the heart. So it's like a lot of emotional investment."

Watching his father manage a complex regimen of 12 daily medications has fueled Zikria 's determination to engineer more patient-friendly solutions. "I want to help people through my research," he says. "My goal is to impact humanity in a way where I provide something valuable to generations to come. Working for the welfare of people has been my only dream."

Through Drexel's co-op program, Zikria has already made significant strides towards his goal. His first co-op was at the polymer company Arkema, where he worked on developing novel polymers for additive manufacturing techniques like 3D printing.

For his second co-op, Zikria translated this polymer chemistry knowledge to the biomedical realm as a Biomaterials Scientist at Secant Group. There, he worked on two major projects: developing softer PGSU material coatings for cardiovascular grafts and creating an oral drug-loaded gastroretentive implant.

The cardiovascular graft project aimed to help children with a rare disease that requires their pulmonary artery to be replaced every 7 years. "With our new formulation, these implantable grafts are made softer to help children not suffer an open-heart surgery every 7 years," Zikria explains.

The gastroretentive implant offers a novel drug delivery system. "The idea is to develop a long-lasting, slow-release, and sustained release system for the patient and give them the ease of not taking frequent medication again and again," says Zikria. "I worked on formulation chemistry to make this implant with the right dosage of drug and the required degradation times."

Zikria credits Drexel with giving him the platform to pursue this dream, even as an international student. He appreciates the university's commitment to providing equal opportunities for all students, regardless of their background.

"I'm thankful for the equal opportunities that I've gotten," Zikria reflects. "There's no discrimination if you're from Pakistan, if you're a U.S. citizen, if you're from Nigeria, if you're from Kuwait. Your primary identity is 'Drexel student,' and that's what [employers] want. And if you have the potential, you can excel in any co-op that you take on."

Looking ahead, Saif plans to continue working in research and development in industry, with the eventual goal of starting his own company. "I want to bring to the world a novel solution to make lives better for humans," he says. With the foundation he's built at Drexel and the deeply personal motivation driving his work, that dream seems well within reach.