Women in Engineering, Interview with Ariel Ash-Shakoor, NSF IGERT Fellow & Bioengineering Graduate Student

PHD Students Panel Discussion  Presenting Research ProjectsThough it was a difficult journey, Ariel Ash-Shakoor was always interested in the medial, health, and science fields. She enjoyed solving problems and creating stories. She is currently a bioengineering graduate student at Syracuse University and a proud alumni of the Univeristy of Maryland, College Park which is located close to her hometown by the District of Columbia. Now that she is pursuing an advanced degree, she hopes to make a large impact in the science and education fields through community service.

Sarah Worsham: What type of research are you doing and what types of impact might it have?

Ariel Ash-Shakoor: I am creating a new material to be used within the body for medical applications. This material can potentially improve material interactions between medical implants and cells. My research will also explore the importance of biomaterial surface topography and chemistry.

Sarah: What do you hope to do after you get your graduate degree?

Ariel: After graduate school, I am open to all opportunities. I took a course on teaching college science and would like to implement the innovative teaching strategies that I learned in my career. I also took a Science Policy class and am interested in reforming STEM instructional design, development, and evaluation. Prior to starting graduate school, I completed a research internship at the Food and Drug administration and was able to learn about medical device regulation standards. With all of these interests, I plan to apply for science policy post-doctoral positions, research positions at government laboratories, and academic positions at research universities. Nonetheless, my current long-term goal is to become a professor.

Sarah: In your entire career so far, what’s been your favorite job or project and why?

Ariel: I enjoyed several undergraduate projects at the University of Maryland, including building an EKG circuit and making a prototype for a breath alcohol analyzer. The highlight of my undergraduate career was winning first place in the senior design competition with my team for creating a novel breath alcohol analyzer. I enjoyed all of my research projects equally for different reasons. Each project taught me something new about biomaterial synthesis, research analysis, medical applications, intellectual property, and product regulations. Collectively, these experiences added to my knowledge and helped me advance.

Sarah: Was there a particular event or moment when you decided to pursue a career in STEM?

Ariel: I decided to pursue a career in STEM in high school. I performed well in all of my high school classes. However, I enjoyed the challenge of science, the idea of discovering new information, and the immediate satisfaction of solving problems. In high school, I was not aware of engineering as a profession and wanted to become a medical doctor. Bioengineering was a relatively new field when I entered college. My parents suggested to learn more about bioengineering before registering for my first semester of classes. I decided to become a bioengineer instead of a medical doctor because I wanted to have a significant anonymous contribution to the health field. Bioengineers have the unique ability to help thousands of people with one successful invention. As a bioengineer professor, I will have the ability to educate the next generation of professional engineers, mentor the next generation of research scientists, create new technologies, and contribute to the existing knowledge within my field. I also hope to have an impact in science education reform and policy. Though I sometimes wonder if my life would be easier or more fulfilling if I had chosen another profession, I pursue my other interests, such as creative writing, in my spare time.

Sarah: Did you have any mentors or role models growing up that led you to this career? How did they influence you?

Ariel: I have a supportive family. I also had very supportive and inspiring teachers (professors) throughout my entire life. I surrounded myself with positive friends with similar education interests. My graduate student research mentor at the University of Maryland was my first science role model. He was very successful and started a business from his research project. I admired his intelligence and ambition. My family, friends, and mentors motivated me to pursue my goals. I think it is important to find positive role models for different aspects of your life to be successful. I’ve had new role models and mentors for every stage in my life.

Sarah: Did you have to overcome any obstacles to get where you are? How did you do that?

Ariel: Yes! I was horrible at math until I took Algebra 2. My Algebra 2 teacher was the first person to show me the patterns of solving math problems; She was very organized. Prior to this class, I thought math was random and would study for hours after school with my teachers. My Algebra 2 teacher helped me understand how to use the correct equations and how to practice math. Once I understood the patterns of solving problems, I became one of the best students in the class.

Also, I think scientists encounter research challenges more often than some people realize. Even if an experiment does not end with the hypothesized result, it is still valuable information that can be used for future experiments. As a scientist, I have to learn from my “failed” experiments to complete a long term research goal. If I make a mistake or an experiment does not go as planned, then I have to understand what went wrong, try another experiment, and try not to repeat the same error.

Sarah: What’s your day-to-day like?

I am a second year graduate student at Syracuse University. On an average weekday, I go to the gym, class, and the research laboratory. On Saturday afternoons, I volunteer at a local high school to help middle school students in the National Society of Black Engineers complete a project for the First Lego League’s Nature’s Fury robot competition.

Sarah: What is the highlight of your day? Why?

Ariel: The highlight of my day is going to my favorite class. I love learning new information, especially if it relates to my research. When I perform well in class on that day, I tend to be more successful in lab later in the day. When my research goes well, then it becomes the new highlight of my day.

Sarah: What was your favorite game or toy growing up? Why?

Ariel: I liked to play outside with my friends as much as possible. I took ice skating, swimming, and dance lessons. I also had a trampoline in my backyard, so I was very active as a child. When I did play alone inside, I liked to play with my Barbies. I liked to create stories. Though Barbie does not seem like the average child engineering toy, I did have to use my imagination to create intricate plots and scenes. Eventually, I enjoyed playing The Sims game, but prefer to have more control of a story plot. I also did not like sitting at a computer for hours. I still enjoy creative writing and creating new things in my research lab.

Sarah: Are there any skills or courses that have been more useful than you initially expected?

Ariel: I was in the Science, Discovery, and the Universe Scholars program at the University of Maryland during my freshman and sophomore years; It is a two-year community-oriented program for incoming freshman. We participated in community service projects at the College Park Aviation museum and were able to work with NASA employees to solve real world problems. We also discussed the differences between astronomy, religion, and astrology. This program helped me learn about the fundamentals of science and engineering despite that it was for the field of astronomy. I was able to learn and appreciate another field of science.

Sarah: What advice do you have to anyone interested in a similar career?

Ariel: If this career choice is truly your passion, then do not let anything stop you from achieving it. There are many opportunities for support to help you be successful in a STEM career, but the willpower has to come from yourself.

You can connect with Ariel at:

A huge thank you to Ariel for sharing her thoughts and experience.  Hopefully you found her story helpful, interesting and inspiring.  If you would like to share your own story, please submit your information and we’ll be in contact soon!

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