When an estimated 1,300 endocrinologists, cardiologists and gastroenterologists gather for the annual meeting of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinology in San Diego May 12-14, first semester SDSU freshman Sarah Pi will be there with them.
Pi, a human biology major from Baku, Azerbaijan, will be giving a poster presentation on work she did before she even enrolled at SDSU in January.
Among the 400 hundred posters and oral presentations at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront will be one presented by Pi, whose work was selected in February. “Yeah, I am honestly (nervous). Everyone is a physician there and that is what I want to become. They’re what I want to become. They’re professionals and I’m just an undergrad,” Pi said.
She is taking a premedicine track at SDSU, but the case study that was accepted by the endocrinology association was written while she was still living in Azerbaijan, which is south of Russia on Caspian Sea.
“In September 2020, I started to email professors and physicians whose research I had studied and found interesting, asking if I could work with them. Some of them accepted, but because I wasn’t in the U.S., or in one case Sweden, I couldn’t have access to that data.
“However, a physician at Howard University (Washington, D.C.) invited me to join her and I started in December 2020,” Pi said.
Learning about rare disease
Pi’s case study involved a patient with Fahr’s syndrome, a disease so rare that only one in a million people are afflicted, she said. Symptoms include deterioration of motor functions and speech, seizures and other involuntary movement, headaches and vision impairment. Because dementia also can be a symptom and it has characteristics of Parkinson’s disease, Fahr’s also is hard to diagnose.
The case study Pi wrote about is based on a patient the Howard physician had a few years ago. The patient experienced the disease’s symptoms for 10 years, but her condition wasn’t diagnosed because a CT scan wasn’t ordered, Pi said.
In the case study, “We suggested if a patience has a brain calcification (when calcium is not absorbed normally but rather is deposited in the brain), a CT scan should be done,” Pi said
Pi met with her Howard mentor weekly, and later daily, via Zoom, conducted online research about Fahr’s syndrome and provided an explanation of how to diagnose cases based on patient information. She started to write the case study in May 2021. When the study was selected for presentation at the endocrinology meeting, her Howard mentor deferred to Pi present because she had been the lead author, Pi said.
Developed early interest in medicine
She has had an interest in neuro-psychiatric medicine since she was age 8. It was an interest stimulated by having “many people in my family suffering from psychiatric disorders,” Pi said.
“Medicine was the thing I always wanted to study, but family issues prevented me from studying that. I tried to study something else and forget about medicine, but I couldn’t,” said Pi, who studied economics and engineering for three years of college in Azerbaijan. Then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and her family moved. Pi didn’t complete a degree.
She also didn’t give up on going into medicine. In late October 2021 Pi attended an online college fair put on by Education USA and saw an SDSU presentation.
She had never heard of South Dakota before, but she found SDSU offered a human biology major, was reasonably priced and, unlike other schools she considered, wouldn’t make her wait until fall semester to start.
Creating new life in US
She arrived arrived in the United States for the first time in January. “In the Chicago airport, I met a couple from Brookings. I knew Brookings was a small city, so there was no subway, but I thought there was probably a bus (to get her here from Sioux Falls). They said, ‘There’s no bus.’ I didn’t expect there to be no bus,” Pi said. A shuttle van from SDSU sent for international students spared Pi of a potential dilemma.
Now, a few months into her first semester, Pi, 24, is “trying to create a new life. I am studying what I want, and I’ve started to do what I wanted,” she said.
Pi enrolled in the Van D. and Barbara B. Fishback Honors College and hopes to graduate in three years by taking an aggressive course load—17 credits this semester. Next step will be medical school.
She already has made positive impressions on the SDSU campus.
Rebecca Bott-Knutson, dean of the honors college, said, “We first met Sarah during the honors informational session at international student orientation. She approached us after the session and it became clear that she was a special student bound for extraordinary things. We are thrilled that she has chosen SDSU and that she is part of our honors community.”
Pi met with Daniel Scholl, vice president of research and economic development, regarding her trip to San Diego.
“She is so focused and full of initiative. I am watching for great things to come out of her career’s work. What strikes me is the exceptionally high degree of passion, combined with initiative and hard work, and the willingness to step outside of her comfort zone to create and pursue opportunities to make a difference,” Scholl said.
Pi is counting on that zeal to learn and the passion for the knowledge she has already gained to carry her through anxious moments at the endocrinology conference.
“I just want to be prepared and see how this could help my career,” she said.
Image for Van D. & Barbara B. Fishback Honors College
Image for Human Biology (B.S.)