During her time at American University, Irena Volkov has taken advantage of every opportunity — she excelled academically as a neuroscience student, designed her own personalized minor, launched a successful medical technology company, earned a spot in the Harvard-Amgen Scholars Program, led AU’s BRAIN neuroscience club, and served as captain of the university’s equestrian team.
Volkov, who is graduating with a BS in Neuroscience and a personalized minor in Bioentrepreneurship this semester, has been accepted into the prestigious Medical Engineering and Medical Physics (MEMP) PhD program, a joint venture between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard Medical School.
“Irena was the youngest applicant by several years and chosen from about 50 finalists (many of whom already have master’s degrees and/or years of professional experience) from around the world. She was selected after four intensive days of interviews at MIT,” said Bill Bellows, Executive in Residence at AU’s Kogod School of Business and co-director of AU’s Entrepreneurship Incubator where Volkov has worked.
As Volkov prepares for graduation and moving on to graduate school, she says she feels grateful for her time at American University and all the opportunities it gave her. "To me, AU means a tightly-knit community of ambitious and gracious individuals who want to see you thrive. My accomplishments mean little to me without the help and support of my advisors, professors, and classmates who have continuously encouraged me to push my boundaries and be the best version of myself, no matter how outlandish my goals may have seemed at the time.”
Even as a young child, Volkov was interested in how things work. She jokes that she and her parents disassembled everything from wristwatches and car engines for fun. In high school, she was selected to Harvard’s Secondary School program, where she took Intro to Psychology and Principles of Physics: Mechanics.
She arrived at American University as a psychology major, but when she discovered neuroscience, she realized that this interdisciplinary major combined all of her interests: psychology, biology, and physics. “I was always interested in the brain and fascinated by its complexity and how it determines what we do,” she says.
After taking a biotechnology course named Disruptive Innovations, taught by Bellows, Volkov knew she wasn’t interested in research for the sake of publishing. She was more focused on exploring the practical applications of research — and she realized she wanted to work in the biotech industry. She worked to create her own unique minor, Bioentrepreneurship, that would allow her to focus on biotechnology and entrepreneurship.
As a College of Arts and Sciences student, Volkov has taken advantage of every opportunity to stand out in her field. She will graduate with a 3.96 GPA. She was a biology research assistant to Professorial Lecturer Wade Kothmann. She worked as a business and research intern for MicroInvestigate, which builds viable molecular assays for use in a diagnostic station that detects infectious agents and antibiotic resistance via a saliva sample. And she conducted field research for the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases to commercialize vaccine prophylactics and therapeutics for hantavirus.
Last summer, Volkov was accepted into the prestigious Amgen Scholars Program, which awarded her a grant to participate in a 10-week biotechnology research program at Harvard University and attend the Amgen Scholars Symposium at the University of California, Los Angeles. At the Wyss Institute, her research focused on the Lungs-on-a-Chip project, a chip that is lined with living human cells and mimics a real lung. “You can run blood through it, you can pump it with air, and it will fill just like a lung” Volkov explains. She worked to infect the “lung’” with Influenza A and test various promising drugs. She identified one promising drug and suggested a second one with an even more robust response.
“Irena is an outstanding student,” said Mark Laubach, director of AU’s Behavior, Cognition and Neuroscience PhD Program. “She is interested in pursuing a career in the biopharmaceutical industry, and her participation in the highly selective Amgen Scholars Program will help get her started.”
During her time at AU, Volkov established her own LLC, Surgicure Technologies, through the Entrepreneurship Incubator and in collaboration with the US Army Medical Research and Materiel Command. Her company was the winner of a 2018 Robyn Rafferty Mathias Student Research Conference Award and a part of the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program.
Surgicure Technologies launched a bite block and medical tube securing device, which was patented. It ensures that airways remain open during surgical procedures or healing processes without causing damage to fragile skin or teeth. The device will be developed via a scanning software to 3D-print custom-fit devices for patients.
For the last year, Volkov served as the president of B.R.A.I.N., AU’s neuroscience club. The club helps neuroscience majors obtain research opportunities, allows them to volunteer at expos, and helps raise awareness for neurological disorders. Volkov is also captain of American University’s equestrian team and a classically trained pianist who was a member of AU’s orchestra for several semesters.
“Irena is exceptional in the truest sense of the word,” says Bellows. “I believe her intellectual curiosity, dedication, leadership, and desire to work in challenging new areas required to support the future of science, innovation, and entrepreneurship makes her an outstanding young mind who undoubtedly will have a positive impact in shaping the world of the future.”
Volkov says she has always been very interdisciplinary and that it could be challenging to combine her seemingly disparate interests “Most of the time, I trusted my advisors and just kept moving forward,” she explains. “Having the honor to be a part of the Harvard-Amgen Scholars Program and now being accepted into a very clinical and entrepreneurship-based PhD program at MIT, I proved to myself that my dreams could become a reality and I was thrilled to find that the perfect programs that combine all of my interests do exist.”