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Pratt Students Honored for Work in Community

Duke University may seem like the Ivory Tower to some, but it is located in the real-world city of Durham, North Carolina. While many Duke students are doing their part to make the city a better place, two Pratt School of Engineering students have been recognized for their singular efforts in improving the Durham community.

Lauren Kottis, a senior mechanical engineering major, and Navid Pourtaheri, a graduate student in biomedical engineering, were two of five members of the Duke-Durham community selected as 2011 “Sammie” award winners for their volunteer work in the Durham community.

The award is named for Samuel DuBois Cook, former Duke political scientist, educator, human rights activist, and the first African American faculty member at Duke.

Kottis was cited for her efforts in making housing in Durham more affordable to low-income families through Habitat for Humanity, while Pourtheri has developed programs to stimulate young Durhamites to become interested – and maybe pursue – a life in the sciences.

A native of Naperville, Illinois, Kottis was an active participant in Habitat for Humanity while in high school and stayed involved during her four years at Duke. For the past two years, she served as co-president of Duke’s chapter of the non-profit developer of affordable housing. After working on house construction in Durham as a freshman, she spent her sophomore year as volunteer coordinator “setting up opportunities for tons of Duke students to get involved in the life of Durham.”

Her passion for helping others through Habitat for Humanity started while at Naperville North High School.

“Every summer I’d travel with my church group to Clarksville, Tennessee, to help build houses there,” she said. “We’d go back year after year, and it was really exciting and gratifying to see how the experience affected the people there, as well as me.”

Her experience with Habitat inspired her future life choices -- she has applied to architecture schools with an eye toward being involved in developing affordable housing and working on sustainability issues.

“Durham is a really exciting place if you embrace it,” Kottis said. “There is so much to do here. I just feel I should help Durham out while I’m here because it’s been so good to me. Everything that we have accomplished with Habitat wouldn’t have been possible without the support of Duke and the people who are so passionate about the same things I am.”

Pourtaheri, who came to Duke after earning his undergraduate degree at Tulane University, New Orleans, originally planned to pursue advanced training in electrical engineering. But plans changed. He is now a graduate student in biomedical engineering and is also in his third year of medical school. Duke’s medical school allows third-year students to pursue research interests of their choice.

Though not an “traditional” M.D./Ph.D. student, Pourtaheri finds that a biomedical engineering and medicine combination best fits his true passion – specializing in ear, nose and throat medicine and surgery.

“I like working with kids, so I plan to pursue otolaryngology, which has a good mix of patient contact and technology” Pourtaheri said. “Cleft palate is an especially important problem for children worldwide – I would like the opportunity to make them smile like other children.”

He currently is researching blood flow in the brain by measuring the movement of water using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The goal is to map exactly where in the brain such events as pain and seizures occur.

While his research interests revolve around technology, his true passion is inspiring children to pursue the sciences, as well as promoting healthy lifestyles. As a first-year medical student, Pourtaheri started the Duke Elementary Med program, which initially brought Durham students to the medical center for lunch to talk about science.

“Now the program is more formal, with more than 100 volunteers,” he said. “We pay for transportation and food to bring in students from six Durham schools for hands-on experiences. It’s so uplifting to hear students say that coming to Duke to learn about medicine was one of the best field trips they ever had.”

Through the program, Durham students are now learning about how to keep their heart healthy by studying diet, nutrition and exercise. For this work, he recently received an Albert Schweitzer Fellowship – a gift of support meant to help sustain such health-related service projects to underserved communities. He has also been active in the BOOST program, funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which develops strategies for making science more fun for youngsters.

“I’ve always been interested in community service,” Pourtaheri said. “Duke is a very nurturing place for students with ideas, by supporting us not only financially, but with encouragement.”

Pourtaheri is on schedule to receive his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering next year, and his M.D. in 2013.

The Cook Society, which made the awards to Kottis and Pourtaheri, was founded in 1997 to recognize and celebrate the African American presence at Duke.

The other winners were: Kevin McDonald, the president and CEO of Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers (TROSA), Duke history professor Raymond Gavins, and Deborah Wahl, associate director of the Undergraduate Research Support Office at Duke.