UA Little Rock grad ready to take next step in research, community, and med school

Photo of Arooba Ilyas by Ben Krain.

With a father as a doctor and an older sister in medical school, being a doctor would seem the obvious choice for Arooba Ilyas, a recent graduate of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with a bachelor’s degree in biology. 

“Ever since I was little, just seeing how happy my dad, a pediatric nephrologist (kidney doctor for kids), is and how many people he gets to help is inspiring,” she said. “Ever since I was little, I thought I would be a doctor. When I get into high school, something about marine biology piqued my interest.”

Choosing UA Little Rock was an easy choice for Ilyas. She was familiar with campus since she conducted research with UA Little Rock professors in high school. Her older sister graduated from UA Little Rock and was a member of the Donaghey Scholars program. Ilyas was thrilled when she was also accepted to the program, which covers her tuition, fees, computer, housing, and study abroad experience.

“UA Little Rock really stood out to me,” she said. “In high school, I worked with faculty from the Chemistry Department, and I got to see how willing UA Little Rock is to promote research in youth. That is something I am very passionate about, since I think it is important to expand young minds. Since my sister was in the Donaghey Scholars program, I know that they really help students to become who they are during college.”

Ilyas started at UA Little Rock in fall 2015 as a biology major with no plans to enter medicine, but those plans quickly changed.

“I came into college saying I’m not pre-med, but I really gained a passion for medicine working as a volunteer in the UAMS Emergency Department,” Ilyas said. “I realized that I didn’t want to be a doctor just because I wanted to be like my dad.”

While at UA Little Rock, Ilyas has been passionate about educating the public about world cultures and developing services in the Muslim community. Ilyas’ parents are from Pakistan, and she is a first-generation American college student.

As part of the Muslim Student Association, she helped organize the World Hijab Day celebration on campus as well as a multicultural fashion show.

“World Hijab Day is Feb. 1, and we encourage people to wear scarves to step into the world of a hijabi woman. I put on the hijab in ninth grade, and I remember getting so many stares when I was walking down the hallway,” she said. “If people are looking at me, I realized I can be an example of what a Muslim is instead of what Muslims are perceived as. And the multicultural fashion show is a way for us to get in touch with different cultures on campus.”

In the community, she volunteers with the Islamic Center of Little Rock as part of a team that is working to bring counseling and therapy to the mosque.

“The Islamic Center of Little Rock want to start implanting counseling services and couples therapy. Muslim couples have been turned away from other places for counseling because they are Muslim,” Ilyas said. “My team is also trying to get counseling services for high school kids. I’ve become a mentor for a lot of the younger Muslims that I know. They often tell me that they feel like they don’t’ fit in or have to conform to things that don’t fit with their religion. Having a therapist who is Muslim or who understands the Muslim experience is helpful to these kids.”

Now that she has graduated, Ilyas is taking a gap year to focus on her research and volunteer work with the Islamic Center of Little Rock as well as study and take the MCATs (Medical College Admission Test) and apply for medical school.

At UA Little Rock, she received a Signature Experience Award, which provides $1,000 for a student to conduct a research or creative project, to study how renewable resources can be used to purify water with Dr. Noureen Siraj, assistant professor of chemistry.

“I’m using consumption waste materials, such as used tea leaves and cigarette buds, as a green chemistry source to purify water,” she said. “I walked around campus with little baggies and gloves and picked up the old cigarette buds. Why not use something that is littering the world and put it to better use?”

She has even come full circle by mentoring high school students that work in Siraj’s lab during the school year, just like she did in high school.

“I could have just done a baking soda volcano for a high school science fair project, but the fact that I got to work in a real lab was very cool,” Ilyas said. “I’ve got to help high school students in Dr. Siraj’s lab, since I want to encourage students to pursue their passions at a young age.”

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