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Life-Saving Cancer Screening Brainchild of Chester Native

Maria Young has immersed herself in Ghanaian culture with the hopes of saving the African country's women through a cervical cancer screening.

Maria Young, right, with a Ghanaian midwife. Photo Courtesy Maria Young.
Maria Young, right, with a Ghanaian midwife. Photo Courtesy Maria Young.

This time a decade ago, Maria Young was patiently waiting for Santa Claus to bring gifts, many of which wouldn’t be sought by most kids.

“I’ve always loved math problems,” the Chester native said. “I used to ask for math books, problem solving books as a gifts.”

That problem solving ability has led the now-21-year-old to the brink of a tremendous invention that could help save women’s lives in underdeveloped countries.

Young graduated Mendham High School in 2010 and left northern New Jersey for the University of Michigan where she would embark on a career in the sciences. Heading to Michigan’s largest university wasn’t by design, however, nor was her direction.

“Going to Michigan was kind of on a whim,” she said. “But because of my love for math I became interested in the biomedical engineering program.” It was there Young began learning about medical anthropology and became intrigued by the global health technology field.

Seven semesters later, Young and a student partner are now working on a breakthrough that may save women from cervical cancer thanks to weeks of observation and putting their science learning into action.

Young sat in on a lecture by Professor Kathleen Sienko about “design for maternal health,” and immediately knew she wanted to work with the teacher. After an application process, Young was accepted into Sienko’s study abroad program with four other students.

The group headed off to Ghana in May and June and worked on individual projects by conducting observations and finding potential solutions.

Young and her partner, Julia Kramer of Cleveland, Ohio, conducted observations in local hospitals with medical students. They tracked the problems they saw and came up with a pattern: post-partum women were hemorrhaging all too often.

In their observations, Young and Kramer noticed a lack of cervical cancer screenings. In fact, over six weeks of observation in family planning clinics, they saw none, despite the claim that medical professionals in those centers were conducting them.

Also, because of the African nation’s culture, common obstetrician practices such as the Pap smear were considered taboo and not performed. What the duo learned about was VIA, or Visual Inspection with Acetic Acid. Young and Kramer analyzed the cancer screening method and realized a small number of midwives in the country had knowledge of the system, but it was being rarely used.

The team’s prototype consists of a low-cost cervical cancer screening simulator that will train midwives in Ghana to perform VIA.

While it’s still “in the works,” and Young admits the team isn’t “quite there yet,” both students are headed back to Ghana to work more on the project in March 2014.

Young, who is on schedule to graduate in May, has her sights set directly on making an impact.

“We’re really invested in this now,” she said. “I’ve become very passionate about it.”

Young said the support group behind the project has been immeasurable, as peers have helped to work on the prototype and assist Young and Kramer with the project.

Those years of solving puzzles and math problems have resulted in an equal sign for Young, who is on the verge of finding an answer that could save lives.  

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