10 to Watch: Tojan Rahhal, Ph.D. of Engineering World Health

Tojan Rahhal, Ph.D. is the President & CEO of Engineering World Health and is part of the current 10 to Watch Class from United Way of the Greater Triangle. Tojan shares about her role at EWH and providing equitable access to STEM education for youth. Tojan is a 2021 Leadership Triangle Goodmon Fellow.

“One big takeaway I am utilizing daily with my team is the importance of providing clarity — I may see something one way, but the beauty of our minds is each person has their own perspective, each of which is valuable.”

Owen Jordan: What’s your story?

Tojan Rahhal, Ph.D.: As a minority in STEM myself, I experienced firsthand how limited exposure to STEM as a child affected my opportunities and how dependent my family was on scholarships and free community programs. For this reason, throughout my career, I have made efforts to provide free STEM experiences for underserved communities and catalyze change to help engineering students from underrepresented populations overcome historic barriers.

It made sense for me to join Engineering World Health; in this role I can support local, national, and international communities by promoting a STEM “pathway” with engaging activities for all stages of students’ lives. The hope is multifaceted: 1) to provide students access to STEM learning that encourages them to pursue a STEM career and 2) to see beyond our four corners and be responsive to the needs of the global community.

Prior to being appointed President & CEO of Engineering World Health, I served as the Assistant Dean for Inclusive Excellence and Strategic Initiatives at the University of Missouri’s College of Engineering, where I actively worked to create a culture of inclusive excellence, with efforts focused on recruitment and retention of faculty and students traditionally underrepresented in engineering.

I also served as an adjunct assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Missouri, where I developed several award-winning programs and curriculums to address diversity and inclusion in STEM. Another way that I fulfill my passion for creating a more inclusive world is through my consulting firm, Alliance Professional Development, which received a 2021 Leaders in Diversity award from the Triangle Business Journal.

I have a degree in Biomedical Engineering from North Carolina State University and have a Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Sciences from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I worked on engineering therapeutic nanoparticles for pulmonary delivery alongside clinicians.

Owen Jordan: Can you tell us about your role with Engineering World Health?

Tojan Rahhal, Ph.D.: As President & CEO, I work with an amazing team to ensure that our projects and programs fulfill our mission to inspire, educate, and empower the biomedical engineering community to improve healthcare delivery around the world. I am constantly thinking of innovative ways to engage the community on different levels, to not only provide services to those who need them but create a long-term pathway and sustainability within communities.

EWH is a dynamic global organization serving engineering students, healthcare professionals, communities around the world and, most importantly, patients in need. Under my leadership, EWH has prioritized equitable access to our programs and made strides in facilitating opportunities for a more diverse range of students. Examples include creating new partnerships with organizations that have a similar passion for STEM education, continuing the expansion of our scholarship funds to provide financial aid to students from program host countries to participate in EWH’s virtual programs, and securing funds to provide free engineering education activities to students in Title I schools in North Carolina.

Owen Jordan: What’s a moment from your work that felt like a big success for the mission?

Tojan Rahhal, Ph.D.: I started with EWH in August 2020, during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of EWH’s work has historically centered around in-person experiences and travel abroad, so the pandemic presented significant challenges to me as the new CEO and forced the team to reimagine our work.

Instead of simply waiting for things to change, our team found incredible new ways to achieve our mission and even reach a whole new audience of students around the world. We launched several successful virtual exchange programs for high school and university students, as well as an initiative to provide free, hands-on engineering education to students in Title I schools in the US. Collectively, these programs have reached thousands of students around the globe that we wouldn’t have been able to engage with previously.

Owen Jordan: What brought you to 10 to Watch?

Tojan Rahhal, Ph.D.: Engineering World Health is truly a global organization, but we have strong roots in the Triangle. We’ve worked extensively with universities in the area in the last 20 years, but a goal of mine has been to be much more involved with the local community, including K-12 students. Via 10 to Watch I am able to connect and collaborate with other leaders in the area to see how we can best serve our students, provide high-quality STEM opportunities, and engage them with the global community we’ve created.

Owen Jordan: What’s your dream for EWH and healthcare delivery in the developing world?

Tojan Rahhal, Ph.D.: Ultimately, my dream is to be able to serve as many countries as we can and to shine a light on the importance of being global thinkers and good global citizens while in training to become engineers and healthcare professionals.

Sustainability is critical. In the past, EWH created BMET training programs in 6 countries, teaching local public hospital workers and students to become fully qualified biomedical equipment technicians. Each program was specifically designed to fit the needs of the local population, and we even trained future trainers to take over the program, with the ultimate result being that we leave the countries we work in with a sustainable source of well-trained BMETs. Several of these programs have continued to exist in a self-sustained model. I would love to expand on this concept so that we not only provide engineering students the opportunity to think outside the box and gain international experience during our country visits but also provide those we are serving the opportunity to grow in their own offerings.

Owen Jordan: What were some big takeaways you took from Transforming Leaders?

Tojan Rahhal, Ph.D.: Transforming Leaders really provided me with the time to look inward at my own leadership style; something that tends to be overlooked as we get into the day-to-day of working and running organizations. One big takeaway I am utilizing daily with my team is the importance of providing clarity — I may see something one way, but the beauty of our minds is each person has their own perspective, each of which is valuable. If I am able to lead with clarity and intention, then share that with others, the outcome and our impact will be more fruitful.

If you’d like to support Tojan and Engineering World Health’s mission, send her an email at rahhal@ewh.org or visit their website https://www.ewh.org/.

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Leadership Triangle builds leadership capacity and promotes regionalism across the separate communities of the Triangle (Chatham, Durham, Orange, Wake County).