Last summer, Maya Souden was watching an episode of Grey’s Anatomy where doctors were performing a heart transplant on a patient. The 17-year-old said she didn’t know exactly what the procedure entailed but picked up from the dialogue that the doctors needed to use surgical clamps to close the heart’s major blood vessels, a vital step in the surgery.

For Souden, that episode became a jump-off point for an idea for a new project. A junior at Oak Park and River Forest High School, Souden turned to teacher Allison Hennings and used her science class to develop a new device, one that would enable doctors to control the blood flow by applying pneumatic pressure. Souden’s idea – which she later turned into a working prototype – won first place at this year’s Illinois BioGENEius Challenge and a spot in next month’s international competition in San Diego.

Souden said she created a cuff that could be wrapped around a blood vessel like the aorta and inflated to compress the vessel and slow down the blood flow. She used a 3-D printer to help mold the device and ran a series of tests to see if the cuff worked, noting all the challenges she ran into with each trial. 

“When you’re dealing with something that large [like the aorta], it’s easy,” Souden said. “If you completely cut off blood flow, a lot of other stuff gets messed up in the body. You have risk for a lot of different kinds of ischemic injuries, which is just a product of tissue not getting enough blood flow.”

OPRF student Maya Souden stands for a photo on Friday, May 13, during class at Oak Park and River Forest High School. | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

Souden shared that most of her work took place in Hennings’ Investigative, Research, Design and Innovation (IRDI) class this past year. Souden was one of 11 students in the class who annotated scientific journals and found gaps in scientific research.  

“One of the things that people often ask is how do these kids come up with this stuff? A lot of it’s just crazy off-the-wall stuff,” Hennings said. The answer is simple.

“They have such unique perspectives because they’re not necessarily experts,” she said. “They’re looking at the world kind of like a child – totally fresh and just trying to play around with things and learning how to really discover new ways of doing lots of different things.”

That’s exactly what Souden did when she developed her surgical device: She just played around. She leaned on her interests in soft robotics, which inspired her to create an inflatable cuff. Through her research, Souden also discovered that a similar device to hers had already been made to accommodate smaller blood vessels, not larger ones. 

“It was kind of promising seeing that worked on a smaller scale because that means hopefully something like this could work,” Souden said.

With her prototype, Souden said she constantly had to remove air bubbles. “The thing about making a balloon,” she said, “is you have to make something really airtight and hollow and stretchy.”

Souden said that’s why she found it important to share her idea at the competitions and break down the point of her project.

“I was essentially trying to show that this idea could work if you gave me a lot more time and money,” she said, laughing.

As Souden reflected on her project, she talked about the work she put in the last year. She shared some insight into the confidence she gained from public speaking and working alongside her classmates, all of whom also entered their own projects in three different competitions. Souden spoke about the support she received from Hennings and being intrigued by scientific research, something she would like to put on hold for now but return to soon.

“I learned that I can do more than I think I can,” she said.

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