Olga Brazhkina signed on to Dr. Morten Jensen’s Cardiovascular Biomechanics lab in her first year at the U of A and soon came up with a way to study how venous valves, which help to push blood back to the heart, begin to fatigue and malfunction over time. She built an apparatus from scratch that uses syringes, circuitry connected to a motor, and a computer to push saline through five vein segments with valves. In her senior year, she’s still tinkering: “All three components were separate challenges, but now we have the equipment made – it’s plug and chug at this point,” she said. Using this apparatus, researchers can model the impact of fatigue upon venous veins in days to weeks instead of years, and that’s important, Olga stressed. “When venous valves fail, blood pools in the arms and legs, and that’s dangerous – it can lead to deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolisms.”
The end goal? Provide mechanical information that can improve device design, which is currently limited to compression stockings and prosthetic valves that typically wear out within five years.
It’s an ambitious project, one that cinched the coveted Goldwater Scholarship for Olga, but she’s quick to credit her team, which includes a mix of graduate and undergraduate students. They meet every two weeks with Dr. Jensen but he is available anytime a bigger issue pops up. “He’ll suggest what to look into next, but he doesn’t hand it to you on a gold platter – that really shaped me to be an independent thinker.”
Thanks to her Honors College fellowship Olga has packed in plenty of study abroad in her four years at the university, exploring topics from art history and economics at the U of A’s Rome Center to human and animal interactions in New Zealand and Australia. “Here on campus, I’m very focused on research,” she said. “Study abroad allows me to get away from that for a sec, appreciating earth as it is, people as they are – and then I can go back to nerding out.”
Olga will continue studies in biomedical engineering in a joint program at Georgia Tech and Emory University. She’s interested in designing devices for use in pediatric cardiovascular disease. “The challenge there is, kids grow – how do you get past that moving target? It’s a puzzle, and I like puzzles.”