Meet undergraduate student Shaharia Ferdus

Shaharia Ferdus
Shaharia Ferdus

Shaharia Ferdus is passionate about women’s health and serving those from underserved populations. She plans to become a family physician but is also considering gynecology and obstetrics so she can give women a voice in their healthcare as well as provide accurate information and dispel the many myths surrounding these issues. When asked what she considers a pressing issue for her generation, she says systemic racism, but she also points out that no issue is solved in isolation. She feels a broad approach is needed that addresses environmental justice and health disparities and encourages children in at-risk communities to study the sciences so they enter careers that promote solutions to these issues. Read more about Ferdus’s experiences as a UConn student.

What attracted you to the UConn College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources?

What makes CAHNR unique (in my humble opinion) is its focus on a comprehensive and interdisciplinary education enriched with practical and experiential learning. Just as modern problems require modern, multi-faceted solutions, none of the subjects I have taken thus far in CAHNR has been taught in a vacuum. For example, I am currently enrolled in SPSS 2100E with Dr. Karl Guillard, in which we study the environmental sustainability of food production systems. Although I know little about agriculture, I am thrilled that I get to learn about an issue that is of great importance to me and to be able to discuss practical solutions whilst acknowledging social, political and economic constraints. In addition to the interdisciplinary nature of the curricula, I am blown away by the abundance of opportunities available to students within CAHNR, from scholarships and leadership engagements, to extension programs, outreach opportunities and research endeavors. Lastly, what I love most about CAHNR is the tireless dedication of the staff and faculty, who do their best to make sure we feel welcome and ready to succeed, whether by making accommodations for students, providing phenomenal advising, or frequently encouraging us to get involved in the CAHNR community. You might also be surprised to hear just how far word-of-mouth recommendations and news can get you (it’s how I came to know about CAHNR Ambassadors and other opportunities)!

Why did you choose your particular major?

My path to choosing nutritional sciences as a major had a lot of detours. Prior to declaring it as my second major during my junior year, I took numerous classes in wildly different subject areas (including Spanish, global health and human rights) and pursued various extracurriculars in the hopes that I could obtain a comprehensive understanding of the world, which I was lacking as a molecular and cell biology major. No matter what I did though, there always seemed to be a disconnect in my studies between the hard and social sciences, and between academics and modern life. I felt like I was picking up a lot of textbook jargon without truly understanding how I could put all that knowledge to practice in the real world. Then Dr. Christopher Blesso encouraged me to look into the Department of  Nutritional Sciences’ Bridging the Gap summer research program. As a participant in the program, I received a stipend to get started on my honors thesis work: experimenting on liver cells with gut-derived bacterial lipids. It was then through the other participants and the program coordinator, my former advisor and instructor Professor Emeritus Hedley Freake, that I became aware of what the department had to offer, from food science/engineering and biochemistry/clinical research, to community nutrition/cooking programs, to the Nutrition Club! So although I transferred into the major relatively late and have to spend my senior year catching up on two degrees, the coursework is everything I have been searching for, the program is flexible and the advisors, faculty and staff never fail to reach out to me and make sure I have everything I need. Truthfully, I could not be happier with my decision!

Which one of your UConn activities, internships or jobs was the most memorable? Why?

Perhaps one of my most memorable experiences at UConn was made through the student organization Huskies for Haiti. I joined the then-new club in spring 2018 as a freshman and participated in many events and fundraisers to raise awareness for the unique health crises in Haiti. Then in May 2019, I traveled with twelve other amazing students to Jacmel, Haiti, for a two-week medical mission trip. During our time there, we collaborated with a team of inspiring Haitian doctors, nurses and healthcare staff to provide care for and distribute medication and supplies (which we purchased ourselves!) to patients across multiple rural and community clinics. It was really incredible (though sometimes sad) to see how the local medical team made decisions on how to manage their available resources within physical and temporal constraints in order to provide the best care they could to their patients.

Multiple times throughout the trip I felt a sense of pride: once when I saw how far Angel Wings International, the charity we worked with, had come since its inception; once more when I was exposed to Haiti’s beautiful geography and climate; and again whenever I was exposed to Haiti’s deep history and rich culture through Flag Day celebrations, art, music and family-style dinners with staff. Finally, one last thing I gained from my trip to Haiti was the friendships I made with the members of the mission team. We had a lot of fun, but from the moment we became stranded in Miami, Florida, on day one, unable to leave the country due to passport issues and being miles from home, I learned that I could depend on my members and trust that we would look out for one another like family. Even now while many of them have graduated, they remain good friends of mine to whom I always turn for advice, support, and a good laugh.

Name two other experiences that have enriched your studies.

I mentioned earlier that I am involved in metabolic disease research in the Blesso laboratory. Dr. Blesso has been a mentor for me dating back to high school, when I shadowed some of his students in the lab as a participant in UConn’s Mentor Connection program. Since then, I have been shadowing other students in the lab, picking up lab skills in order to help support their projects, and now working on a project of my own! I am thankful to be in the care of wonderful student and faculty mentors and to have received a lot of hands-on experience and exposure to both cell and animal experiments. It has given me a greater appreciation for researchers and their research methods. It has also made me more excited to study nutrition in depth and other lab sciences, because it’s exciting the more I come to understand how the research I am doing on the action of gut-derived bacterial lipids on liver cells fits into the greater context of metabolic disease research. It’s like finding another puzzle piece!

Another major activity that has enriched my studies is my involvement in the Rowe Scholars program. I joined the program last year, around the same time that I joined the Department of Nutritional Sciences, and like the latter, it has exposed me to a lot of really interesting people, resources and issues. As a new Rowe Scholar, I took UNIV 3174, in which I engaged in thought-provoking discussions on health inequalities with my peers and our instructor, the pre-medical advisor Dr. Sanford. I also attended numerous guest lectures in which we were introduced to incredible physicians, faculty, medical students and medical/administrative staff from various fields. Getting to hear their stories, engaging in conversations about healthcare rights and having the support of those in the Rowe Scholar program has definitely complemented my pre-medical experience and made my time as a first-generation college student more meaningful.

What has been the biggest challenge in your UConn career?

My biggest challenge during my years at UConn has been to understand and respect my own limits and aspirations. Coming out of high school, I was used to being ambitious and successful, and I imagined college would be no different. As an honors student, I was constantly surrounded by incredible peers who at their tender ages were already doing so much, which led me to believe that I needed to take on more responsibilities in order to keep up. I learned the hard way that not everyone should go at the same pace, that we all have different strengths, weaknesses and aspirations and that it is okay if I need to take my time or travel a different route. Although it is hard not to say “yes” to every opportunity that comes my way, I find myself getting better with time and that I enjoy deeply the experiences that I am involved in.

When do you expect to graduate? What then?

I plan to graduate in May 2021, after which I intend to continue working as a patient care technician at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford while assembling my medical school application. Although my undergraduate years were have been lively, I hardly ever dedicated enough time for myself and the things that I enjoy. So, in the period between graduation and medical school, I plan to spend lots of time reading the books I have been wanting to read, spending time with family and casually volunteering, in addition to working and preparing for medical school. (Even as I write this, it seems like a lot, but I’ll go at my own pace.) My ultimate career goal is to work as a primary care physician serving underserved populations like the ones in which I grew up.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your studies or research?

I am fortunate that my studies and research activities have not been too greatly affected. Although my work in the lab was delayed when we switched to remote learning in March, I will still be able to finish my honors thesis come spring. Special thanks to Dr. Blesso, the Department of Nutritional Sciences and the Margaret Ware Research Excellence Scholarship fund, as well as the CAHNR scholarship committees for making it possible! Additionally, while I miss the in-person experience of college life (anatomy labs are not the same online, and I miss my friends), in some ways, remote learning has made it easier for me to ask questions and be more engaged in class while also forcing me to be creative in how I stay involved with friends and the community. My professors have been very kind and accommodating as well, which I greatly appreciate.

Is there anything else you would like us to know about you?

I never really learned how to swim despite originating from a country (Bangladesh) with one of the largest river networks. That did not stop me from jumping into the 75-feet deep waters of Bassin Bleu in Haiti, a memory that is equally terrifying and thrilling. Maybe one day, I’ll learn how to swim and return to those places (maybe during my gap year, though it is doubtful given how much I’m struggling) … Until then, thank goodness for life jackets!

By Kim Colavito Markesich

This article originally appeared on CAHNR Newsroom.