From Moon Rocks to Test Tubes: Arzeena Ali Exemplifies the STEM Pipeline in Action

September 3, 2014

Arzeena Sultana
Chemistry undergraduate student Arzeena Sultana Ali

Chemistry Merit Scholar and Nano@Illinois REU participant Arzeena Sultana Ali has never met a STEM subject—or STEM program—she didn't like. Exposure to science early on piqued her interest, and from then on, she was hooked. "I always knew I wanted to do science from a very young age," Ali admits. So it was just a matter of figuring out which discipline.

It all started when she was a youngster at Chicago's Kilmer Elementary, a NASA Explorer School, where her love for space science was kindled by participating in the NASA program. When she was in sixth grade, her science teacher informed her, "NASA would love to have you as a speaker at the NASA headquarters," to which she responded, "Ok." So her first foray into the world of public speaking was as a NASA poster child, with her "talk" broadcast live on the NASA channel.

"Sixth grader me, I had no idea what was going on," she reminisces. "I'm like, 'Yea, sure, I'll do it.' I didn't realize how huge it was at that time, and now I look back and go, 'Ok, that was kind of a big deal.'"

What did she talk about? She shared about how NASA was a big part of her school and had influenced her. For example, she related that she had enjoyed talking to astronauts via teleconferences, experiencing NASA's planetarium, and examining moon rocks. "Just things like that that got me excited about science," she explains. And for Ali, once her course had been set along the STEM trajectory by NASA, it was just a short journey from moon rocks to test tubes.  

Arzeena Ali at work in researcher Dr. Yi Lu's lab as a participant in the Nano@Illinois REU program.

However, it wasn't a straight shot. After transferring to Chicago Math and Science Academy as a seventh grader, she took a slight detour in high school, where she fell in love with biology in addition to her infatuation with earth and space science. In fact, she had pretty much settled on biology as a career. "But then I took chemistry, and I thought, 'You know what, I like the application more. I just feel like I can build skills and apply myself to so many more things, versus having to memorize."

With her attraction to so many different fields, how did she finally settle on chemistry? She indicates that in her senior year, she faced a dilemma regarding what to apply for, biology or chemistry. So she gambled: "I took a chance. I literally took a chance. I said, 'You know what, I'm going to do chemistry.'" And it paid off.

It turns out she was right about choosing chemistry over biology. In fact, she took a biology course her freshman year and discovered it wasn't for her. "Having to memorize little itty bitty things that I would forget eventually, I didn't find that useful for me," she explains. "I've just always liked applications, analytical thinking, math, and physics, things like that."

And taking organic chemistry last year further confirmed her decision. "I was really excited knowing I was going to be taking inorganic chemistry, after doing a year of organic. So I was like, 'Ok, I chose the right spot.'"

However, it hasn't always been a smooth flight since she made that decision: there was a period early on during her career at Illinois, where she hit some turbulence. However, it was her mentor, Gretchen Adams, the Director of Illinois' Chemistry Merit Program, who gave her the support she needed to stick with it.

Arzeena Ali and Gretchen Adams
Arzeena Ali and Gretchen Adams (right), her mentor (photo courtesy of Gretchen Adams).

"First year here—you know, you're getting acclimated to the college environment—it was hard. I stuck it out. Gretchen supported me through everything. Now, I just love chemistry."

Currently sort of Gretchen Adam's Girl Friday, Ali says her relationship with Adams has impacted her "So much. So much. I always go to her for anything and everything. And now that I'm her TA I'm going to pester her even more."

"I can't thank her enough," Ali continues. "Ever since my two years here, that's the one person that comes to mind as far as all of the support that she's given me, like helping me pull through the chemistry program, just all of the opportunities that she's given me, helping me find research, getting me into the nano@Illinois REU, becoming a TA. I can't thank her enough."

In fact, Ali reports that she's referred all of her friends to Adams too. "If any of my friends ever need something, I'm like, "Go to Gretchen. You need something? Go to Gretchen. You want to get into research? Go to Gretchen. You want to do Merit? Go to Gretchen."

In addition to mentoring Ali and the many friends Ali has sent her way, Adams, besides being Director of the Chemistry Merit Program and a Chemistry instructor, is herself working on a Ph.D. in Chemistry with a specialization in Chemistry Education...and a mother. "She's a Wonder Woman," acknowledges Ali.

However, Ali has yet to see her mentor in one of her most famous roles: a poster child too—Adams is the queen of chemistry demos…and blowing things up.

Ali has, however, experienced Adams in action obliquely: "I remember once I was walking by her class, and I heard a loud explosion, and I was like, "Geeze!" I told her, "You nearly gave me a heart attack! That was pretty loud."

Chemistry's Don Decoste and Gretchen Adams (right), as she ignites a gas-filled balloon during a recent chemistry demo.

Gretchen Adams isn't Ali's only source of support: the chemistry junior also credits the Merit Program itself as helping her to succeed in Chemistry at Illinois:

"Merit helped me stick it out through the chemistry program. The thing is, I was able to meet people with similar interests as me. In addition to that, just having additional time to study chemistry, building skills for how to prepare and study for exams, that's basically how Merit helped me…I'm pretty sure if I wasn't in the Merit program, I probably wouldn't have stuck it out."

Another benefit of being a Merit Scholar is, of course, financial. Her scholarship, via the National Science Foundation's S-STEM (Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) program, has helped with tuition, purchasing textbooks, and covering her living costs. "Yea, the financial through the program has been very helpful. It's provided a lot of relief from the financial strain as far as my family goes." (Her brother is a freshman on campus this fall,)

According to Ali, mentoring and networking are also additional benefits of being a Merit Scholar. She was assigned a mentor (in addition to Adams), Dr. Yi Lu, who also happens to be her research professor.

"So that's been helpful, because I've been working in his research lab, and Dr. Lu knows me really well, and whenever I need something, he responds to me right away."

Ali indicates that she's actually taking an inorganic chemistry course with Dr. Lu this semester. "That's really funny, being in his class now, and all of his TAs are the grad students that I know. So I'm sitting there going, 'Hey, guys!'"

Have those relationships garnered her any special perks so far—such as better grades, for instance?

"No, not yet. I mean, class just started. Hopefully. We'll see."

She also rattles off a list of Chemistry professors she's met via Merit that reads like a Who's Who in Chemistry. "So getting to know other professors…I just think that's really cool. So networking has been great, actually."

Ali presenting a poster on her research in nanomaterials at an undergraduate research poster session in Spring 2014.

Reinforcing the notion that she's never met a STEM subject she hasn't liked, Ali even ventured north of Green Street this year to take physics, and is liking it. "Which is insane, because I've always been scared of physics," she admits. Plus, this being a top engineering school, everyone was warning her off, like physics was the holy grail: "Gasp…physics?" So in trepidation, she signed up for the class, thinking: "It's going to kill me over here." However, for her, after wading through organic chemistry, taking physics was like being on vacation.

"Yesterday, sitting through the lecture, I was going, 'I like this!' Because after a year of doing orgo and having no math, I missed the math. And I'm sitting there, 'You know, this is actually nice. It's relaxing.'"

Besides never meeting a STEM subject she hasn't liked, Ali has never met a STEM program she hasn't liked either. Of course, it was her early exposure to NASA's program that got her hooked. But in addition to Merit and its Merit Scholars Program, this past summer Ali participated in the Nano@Illinois REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates), where she worked for Dr. Lu, continuing the nanomaterials project she has been doing in his lab.

Dr. Yi Lu and Arzeena Ali, whom he is mentoring (photo courtesy of Dr. Yi Lu).

Ali says participating in the REU with its classes, 10 weeks of continuous research, a paper due at the end, an oral presentation, and a poster presentation was intense: "It was a lot of work...I was stressed out," she admits. But despite all the hard work, she liked it; plus, it gave her a taste of what graduate school would be like.

"But when I look back at it, I had a lot of fun. I can't say I didn't have a lot of fun. And that research aspect, presenting my research, I enjoyed it a lot. So graduate school is one thing I'm strongly considering."

With her wide-ranging interests in science, what has Ali settled on as a career? She'd like to be in industry or teaching. What would her emphasis be? Ali hopes to meld the new with a little of the old: so nanomaterials, and—just shy of doing a complete circle back to earth and space science, which was her first love—the environment.

"If I can apply nanomaterials in the environment, global warming, something like that, I would love to intertwine those two sciences."

Story and photos by Elizabeth Innes I-STEM Communications Specialist.
More: Chemistry, STEM Pipeline, Student Spotlight, Women in STEM, 2014

Chemistry junior Arzeena Ali (left) and Li Huey Tan, a graduate student in Dr. Lu's lab who has helped mentor Ali.