Dia Shah is an oncology prodigy. The 16-year-old Jericho High School senior has been spending her past couple of summers working in a lab at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in The Bronx. Her research has her working with a novel cancer therapy called low intensity focused ultrasound. Shah’s work not only found her winning the Focused Ultrasound Foundation Global Scholarship Award, but earned her the chance to present the upcoming Focused Ultrasound Foundation Annual Symposium in Virginia at the end of the month. The incredibly dedicated Jericho resident was inspired to tackle this formidable challenge after her paternal grandfather was diagnosed with multiple myeloma two years ago.
“I was always interested in medicine ever since I can remember. But my grandfather’s diagnosis came as a great shock to us because he would still be working if the cancer had not been found. He was very active and would take walks every day. Out of nowhere, it just happened and we were struck with this tragedy because you don’t know how this happens to people who are so active,” she recalled. “That really kicked it off for me. I come from a family of non-physicians. None of my parents or grandparents are either physicians or doctors. I always wanted to be one, but the cancer part was really kicked off by that because I needed to be part of something. In the future, even if I’m not the person in 10 or 15 years [curing cancer], I want to know in my heart that I had some role in that.”
Shah’s drive and determination is something that carries over to a number of other facets of her life. Having skipped a grade in elementary school, academics have always proved to be a passion of hers alongside a lifelong love of dance. In the former, she’s not only accelerated up the ranks in numerous Long Island Forensics Association (LIFA) tournaments after joining her school’s debate team as a freshman (she’s currently the president), but her love of science has found her thriving in the heady environs of AP Biology and AP Physics. It was her indefatigable spirit that led her to take both classes simultaneously in her junior year, a feat not for the academically faint of heart. It was a particular challenge given the fact that she didn’t take any preliminary courses to prep her for the rigors of AP Physics.
“AP Physics was the hardest class I’ve taken in my high school career. I went to AP Physics with no knowledge. I didn’t even know what a vector was. It was like a different language to me. But I was very excited to take it. I thought it was cool,” she said. “I started out the first quarter with grades that I’ve never seen in my life before. But I wasn’t down about it. My mother was probably more concerned about it than I was. She told me to drop the class and said it would be fine because I already had AP Bio, which was my one AP science course. I told her I was a little crazy, but I was going to keep it. It was okay. I ended that class with an A-. My first quarter grade was not an A-. Had I not gotten the first quarter grade, I could have gotten either an A or an A+. I prefer what happened.”
Not only did she put in the hard work that enabled her to conquer the class, but she developed a close relationship with physics teacher Karen Engelhardt, who initially told Shah that it would be okay to drop the class. The junior’s adamant resolve to master the class found Engelhardt putting in extra hours to help this extraordinary student earn top marks.
“One of the things that resonated with me about Dia was that she embraced the struggle that physics oftentimes presents to students who’ve never had to struggle in a class before,” Engelhardt said. “She could have taken the easy way out and dropped the class but chose to stay and work through the difficulties and therefore the success she finally reaped was that much more rewarding.”
Shah proudly shared that in school she’s known for three things—debate, research and dance. The latter is something she has embraced since she could walk. This zeal has translated to her becoming the captain of the Jericho Jayettes, choreographing the huge end-of-year production Choreo and being part of a classical Indian dance organization that will be part of a “Kathak+” showcase at Manhattan’s Symphony Space on Nov. 4. It was Shah’s love of dance and the close relationship she had with her maternal grandparents in India that led her to create a dance program for seniors going through physical therapy.
“My whole idea was to combine my love for dance with my love for medicine. In a sense. I wanted it to serve as a therapeutic thing,” she explained. “I started out at My Home Senior Day Care over in Hicksville. No one is sick there, but I was able to incorporate this into going to a nursing home Cold Spring Hills Rehabilitation. So I did that program there and people really seemed to enjoy it. People who worked there said I needed to continue it.”
Shah’s most recent endeavor came over the summer, when she was picked to serve a highly selective internship at El Centro over in Deer Park and Brentwood teaching English to members of the Hispanic community. The 10-week course found her working 12-plus hour days in the Bronx and then heading out to Long Island to co-teach a 6:30 to 9:30 beginner’s class. Despite the rigors, it was an experience that resonated deeply for her.
“Throughout the summer, during the day, I was working in the lab. So I would have to go from the lab in The Bronx. I’d bring my change of clothes and lesson for the night, and in between, during incubation periods, I’d be working on lessons with my co-teacher and then I’d go straight to Deer Park,” she said. “It was longer than a work day for me. Everyone was tired. We were tired and our students were tired because they’re coming from work. It was a very rewarding experience to see the smiles on their faces when they learned something. I think it really completed my experience of helping people and improving their general well-being.”
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