Rugaya Abaza in a Biology Laboratory at SPSU
Rugaya Abaza in a Biology Laboratory at SPSU

For this post I wanted to continue to explore the sciences, specifically those taught at Southern Polytechnic State University (SPSU). Degree programs in Biology (2001) and Chemistry (2007) are relatively new to SPSU while the Physics program already existed when I was hired at SPSU in 1999.  What makes Biology stand out as different from most programs at SPSU is that the number of female students has rivaled the number of male students in the program.  According to the SPSU Fact Book data from the fall of 2011 (the most recent data in the book), females outnumber males in the program:  there were 126 students in the program.  64 of these students were female and 62 were male.

Rugaya Abaza, an honors student majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry, is one of those 64 students.  She is on the Pre-Professional track in Biology.  I sat down to talk with Rugaya concerning her choices in her education.

NR:  Rugaya, I know you began your education at SPSU as a Joint Enrollment student and that you decided to continue your education here as a full-time college student.  Why did you choose SPSU for your education?

RA:  I chose SPSU for Joint Enrollment mostly because dad works here as a professor. I was able to commute here with him.  My choice worked out well because classes are offered at a number of different hours—Kennesaw didn’t have this degree of flexibility. I applied to Emory and was accepted there, but I didn’t like the big school feel.  It cost a ton of money but students don’t get a ton of attention. Plus there wasn’t as many opportunities to do research or teaching assistant work since graduate students receive most of the opportunity there.

NR: What kind of opportunity have you received at SPSU?

RA:  Opportunities here have been great.  I have acted as a research assistant in biology and chemistry and I have worked as a lab assistant.

NR:  What kind of research have you done and with whom?

RA:  I am working with Dr. Rajnish Singh and Dr. Peter Sakaris on some research in biochemistry. We will be measuring the level of cortisol in fish exposed to predator water.  I’m also working with Dr. Sakaris and Dr. Mark Sugalski concerning animal physiology. We’re measuring oxygen consumption in fish with long-term exposure to predator water. As a lab assistant I generally prepare the experiments by setting up materials and I sometimes help professors set up for research.  I also tutor in the ATTIC in biology and chemistry.

I think this experience will help out for med school—lab experience is really important.  Time spent in lab for medical school will be really helpful. Plus, my research with fish has connections with humans since cortisol is also found in humans— this work will polish my resume nicely.

NR: Why are you working in both the biology and chemistry fields?

RA: I’ve got a good grasp of chemistry because I’ve been working as a tutor. Chemistry is really important to medicine since physiology depends on chemicals.

NR:  When will you graduate and what are your plans after graduation?

RA:  I’ll be graduating in the spring and I hope to go to medical school at Emory, but I’m looking out of state as well and at Morehouse as well.  I applied to 14 universities—that’s the average.  It’s what most people do.

NR:  From what you understand, how well have SPSU biology graduates done after graduating from SPSU?

RA: Pretty well—I have two friends in medical school, two in pharmacy school, one in physical therapy school, one studying for her PhD, and some other friends in the workforce and in graduate schools for master’s degrees. All have had no problems getting into graduate school—getting lots of experience here has helped them to find work or graduate programs.

NR:  Do you consider any of the faculty members in the Biology program as mentors?

RA:  Definitely Dr. Singh and Dr. Jennifer Louten.  These are people I would like to model my academic career after.  What I like is their level of involvement and ability to keep up with research.  They make themselves available to students by asking about research interests and they have a ton of ideas.  Dr. Singh does not drag her feet on things and she offers to help with letters and so on— she’s involved in the department as well.

NR:  What kind of support have you received from your family?

RA:  I’ve been really fortunate to have parents who understand the importance of academics.  They both went to rigorous universities and graduated from them.  They want to ensure that I do not need anything so that I can focus on my studies.  Mom insists she will take care of cooking and cleaning—so there are no reasons for me not to be successful.  This has been very important in helping me to take so many classes and to graduate early by two years. I also was able to take Advanced Placement classes.  I focused these classes mainly in the humanities since I attended a humanities magnet high school for international studies.  I’ve pushed myself to complete my studies early partially because I know it’s incredibly difficult to have a family while in graduate school.  It’s hard to balance both especially for a medical degree since it’s all consuming.

NR:  Tell me a bit more about your family.  I know your father, Dr. Hussein Abaza, works here at SPSU as an Associate Professor in the Construction Management Program. What about your mother?  Do you have siblings?

RA:  My mom currently stays at home, but she has a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Economics.  Her degree helps her to run the household smoothly and helps her to juggle family accounts.  I have four siblings—three brothers and one sister. The oldest is sixteen and is a Joint Enrollment student here at SPSU. The others are eleven, seven, and four.  All are interested in academics. My oldest brother is also interested in medical school—My sister thinks maybe pediatrics. My family members are mainly science and math people.  I have three uncles in medicine.  One is a cardiologist.  For as long as I can remember I have wanted to be a doctor.

NR:  What kind of medicine would you like to practice?

RA:  I would like to study to be in the Maternal Fetal Neonatal field.  I want a career where I get to see new people and where I do not have to do the same thing all the time. For school I shadowed a doctor who mainly did one thing.  I don’t want to do that. Maternal Fetal Specialists have no two patients who are just alike—they are specialists who are called in for difficult cases.  I want to be challenged—I don’t want a routine in which I do the same thing over and over again.

NR:  How did you learn about Maternal Fetal Specialists?

RA:  I went with my mother to a doctor’s appointment and one came in because my baby brother was not in the right position for the ultrasound pictures.  He quickly maneuvered the baby around in my mom’s womb externally and was able to do in about five minutes what the ultrasound technician had taken a half hour to attempt to do –and he was successful. I was fascinated and thought, “Oh my God, that’s so awesome!” I was sixteen at the time.

NR:  As you know, female students make up only about 22% of the student body at SPSU.  How has this affected you?

RA:  Although it seems like a downside to have mostly men, the university offers mainly STEM fields and they are predominantly male at this time so it teaches you to take what’s yours. You need to be strong and to express your needs.  Since the STEM workplaces tend to be male, it’s good to learn to be strong in college.

There’s no reason that says men are inherently better at science.  It’s not a guy thing because you just have to be smart and a critical thinker—the field is a lot more complicated than what it seems. It’s not about gender; it’s about being quick on your feet—having strength of mind and that’s all it is.  You also need to keep organized and so on.

When I take girls on tours I don’t try to hide the fact that we have such a large number of males: it’s a statistic:  it’s just that.  It reflects the field because of the cultural stereotype of who goes into STEM fields—It shouldn’t actually hinder women from doing so.

Rugaya’s experience is important, as is the experience of the female professors who model success in the sciences and who teach in the programs at SPSU.  While I was the Director of the Honors Program, I had the opportunity to meet and to work with many of SPSU’s women of science, and I loved the experience.

When I came to SPSU in 1999, no female science faculty members were to be found.  My first opportunity to work with a female science faculty member was when Dr. Rajnish Singh was hired to teach Biochemistry.  She directed the first honors thesis in the sciences.  Since then she has guided research for numerous students in the biology program.   Dr. Kisa Ranasinghe,

whose research concerns the physics of glass science and technology, was the next woman to be hired in the sciences.  I had the opportunity to get to know Dr. Ranasinghe when she worked with honors student Jennifer Black.  Jennifer had been prepared to leave SPSU for more fertile grounds when she learned of Dr. Ranasinghe’s research.  She stayed, studied individually with Dr. Ranasinghe, and is now pursuing a PhD at the University of California Santa Cruz.

I have since had the opportunity to work first with Dr. Wei Zhou, who analyzes the chemical composition of latent fingerprints, lip marks, and forehead skin residues as a method of forensic analysis, and second with Dr. Louten, who taught the Honors section of Biology Principles One a couple of years ago.  Both Dr. Zhou and Dr. Louten have worked individually with honors students on research projects. Lecturer Dr. Marcia Hesser, Laboratory Coordinator Krista Surovec (Biology), and Laboratory Supervisor Dr. Stephanie McCartney (Chemistry) also are women of science for SPSU.

SPSU has benefited greatly from the addition of these women mentioned above.  Their teaching, laboratory word, and research have helped the science programs to grow.  Like Rugaya, these women show that “strength of mind” is what creates success.

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