Becoming the Best Version of Yourself

October 9, 2017

As a Muslim woman, Ayaat Dahleh, a second-year student in the Doctor of Philosophy in Integrated Biomedical Sciences, or IBS, program at Rush University’s Graduate College, recognizes her actions are often associated with her religion.

Because of that, she feels immense responsibility to be the best version of herself and to discourage the notion that all Muslim women are shy, submissive and uneducated. This sense of duty has driven her since she was a child and continues to push her today both inside and outside the classroom as she experiences life as a graduate student.

Below Dahleh discusses the role her identity has played in her academic life and how her outgoing personality has opened doors of opportunity for her on the Rush campus.

What inspired you to get an advanced degree?

Ayaat Dahleh: When I enter a room or join a crowd, I stand out because I choose to wear a head scarf. Many people might think that because I’m a Muslim woman, I’m oppressed. But that is not the case. My family pushed me to become an educated, independent woman who stands out in a positive way.

My religion has taught me that I can reach whatever goals I set as long as I work hard and have faith in God. Because of this, I have always set my personal expectations high and have always known I’d pursue my education beyond college. That’s why I pushed myself in middle school, high school — I was valedictorian — and at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I earned my bachelor of science degree in biological sciences, minoring in chemistry, in just three years. I thank God every day for all the blessings he has provided and constantly remind myself that anything good that I do always comes from the grace of God.

Why did you choose the integrated biological sciences program at Rush University?

I took a gap year after college, which was by far my best decision because I worked in a cancer lab. This experience helped me realize I wanted to learn more about how things work within our body. By knowing how bodies function, we can find ways to fix or alter mechanisms to improve everyday life.

As a small company, the lab also exposed me to a close group of professionals, and I had the opportunity to see what researchers, doctors and CEOs do. While working in the lab helped me envision myself as a researcher, it also made realize that I wanted to be part of a close community in graduate school.

After a lot of research, I decided on the IBS program at Rush University. It offered me an opportunity to pursue my love of academics and research. At the same time, it offered me a social environment where I could learn from others. Because of its small but diverse student population and how the campus is set up, I felt it would be more of a tight-knit community. We all take classes in the same areas, the same buildings. In this environment, I felt that students would be more united, and I’ve found that to be true.

You are very active in extracurricular activities at Rush University. Tell us about that.

Coming to Rush, I knew I wanted to take full advantage of both academics and the University community. With so much time in the lab, I knew I’d need some social outlets because I’m a very outgoing person.

Within the first year, I was president of the Muslim Student Association and vice chair of the Student Senate. These organizations opened unexpected paths of opportunity for me. I’m involved in event planning and have organized lunch-and-learns on topics such as “Being Muslim in America.” And I participate in faculty searches as well. In fact, I was involved with the search for the dean of the Graduate College as well as the director of multicultural affairs, giving me wonderful exposure to higher-level jobs and opportunities available.

By being involved, I see new faces and hear different opinions, which is very rewarding and a growing experience. I told myself before I came to Rush that I was here for the degree but also here to grow as a person. Engaging in these activities is how I choose to grow.

What academic experiences have excited you?

First-year students typically do three rotations with principal investigators. We choose from these areas of research: cancer, neuroscience, cardiovascular, immunology and musculoskeletal. Based on this experience, we pick an area of interest and start actual research in the second year.

But for me, three rotations weren’t enough. I wanted to explore more options, so I asked for an extension and did a fourth rotation in neuroscience. While I had been leaning toward cancer based on my experiences during my gap year, this fourth rotation has inspired me to seriously consider neuroscience as well.

In this rotation, we worked on developing a state-of-the-art, 3-D animation educational tool intended to encourage people in geographically distant communities to learn about epilepsy. It’s a way to address some of the psychological aspects of the disease and the sense of isolation that comes from it. As part of this project, we’d bring in people with epilepsy, attach various motion sensors to them and ask them to share their stories. The next step is to then create avatars for each one and ultimately develop an interactive, web-based experience that’s accessible to people around the globe who are affected by epilepsy.

Where do you see yourself after graduate school?

At some point, I can definitely see myself teaching or in an administrative position at a university. I enjoy helping people figure out life, so I would like to be in a position to mentor others.

What advice would you give a new student?

The freedom you have in graduate school is bigger than what you experience as an undergraduate. No one decides how you want to live your graduate life but you. You choose what you want to make time for and what is important to you. Here, you make what you want from the experience.