March 7, 2018 / All Stories

Helping young scientists become their own role models

Through a unique partnership with Asian University for Women, scientists inspire students across the world see into their futures.

Asian University for Women gives students the opportunity to fulfill their endless potential.

The audacity to dream

Growing up in Chittagong, Bangladesh, Montaha Chowdhury made a solemn promise never to give up her goal of becoming a scientist.

The 21-year-old faced a variety of challenges in realizing this dream: uncles who objected to the idea of her studying because it would “lead to her going astray,” the inability to afford tuition, and pressure from her extended family to marry as soon as she graduated high school.

“My audacity to dream of pursuing a career in STEM has always drawn incredulous looks of concern, especially considering it is relatively new and very male-oriented in my country,” Chowdhury says.

“But my mother always told me that education is the key to freedom. I’d seen her sacrifice her own dreams due to society’s expectations, which is why I knew I had to continue and further my academic achievements in order to be able to stand on my own feet.”

Deftly overcoming every obstacle blocking her path, and more determined than ever to defy the odds, Chowdhury decided to alter the course of her own future. She applied to Asian University for Women (AUW), put in the hard work and earned a merit-based scholarship.

In a part of the world where women are seldom encouraged to seek higher education, AUW – Bangladesh’s first liberal arts institute – creates an opportunity for women like Chowdhury to become community leaders, pioneers in male-dominated fields, and role models who inspire other young women to follow in their footsteps. The university brings together women of diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, who share the common bonds of intellectual curiosity and untapped potential.

“AUW was like a ray of hope for me,” Chowdhury says. “At a time when I felt that my achievements were nothing, this place became a safe haven.”

AUW students proudly show their class work. (Credit: Asian University for Women)

Powerful connections

Not only does AUW provide a rigorous liberal arts curriculum, students can also engage in specialized research, internships and other activities. For those pursuing STEM careers, these supplemental experiences include guest lectures from working scientists from AbbVie.

The lectures are done via teleconference from a small first-floor office on AbbVie’s campus in North Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. In the early morning hours of any given Tuesday, you might catch a scientist speaking passionately about biochemistry or neuroscience to a group of young women half a world away.

Although AbbVie scientists lecture via teleconference, AUW are fully engaged and excited about the diversity of topics. (Credit: Asian University for Women)

Although the lecturer and students do not meet face-to-face, there’s a tremendous impact felt on both sides of the computer screen.

“The lectures from professional scientists enable our students to expand their horizon and see science from a practical point of view,” says A.K.M. Moniruzzaman Mollah, Ph.D., head of the Science and Math Program and associate professor of Life Sciences at AUW. “Numerous female scientists describing their personal scientific career journey and their research work during the lecture serve as a role model for the students. Students realize that sky is the limit, and gender should not be an obstacle to pursue higher education/research career.”

For Ruth Martin, an AbbVie scientist who has been involved in the AUW lecture series for nearly eight years, the ability to connect with these extraordinary students has been equally rewarding.

“I’m grateful we are able to help support a university with students who may not have the access we have,” Martin says. “I often make an analogy using ‘Take Your Child to Work Day.’ My son goes to a high school with an incredible, well-funded science curriculum. If I were to take my son to work, it’s not going to have as much of an impact as he already knows what I do and is exposed to endless STEM possibilities because of where we live.”

"If I were instead to take someone from an under-resourced area with limited access, it would expand their world,” she says. “And that’s what we do with AUW. We’re giving these women eye-opening insights into what opportunities are available, and give them a sense of where their futures could lie.”

A glimpse into the future

Chowdhury credits the lecture series with giving her insight into topics like drug development and protein engineering, which she wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. But the most valuable takeaway, she says, was that the lecturers were female scientists.

“I was so motivated by their progress and accomplishments, and they always shared their entire life history which helps me to identify my future plans,” she says. “They gave advice on pursuing a career in STEM, what we need to focus on to achieve our goals, and gave us a peek into their world for students like me who are still unsure of what to do.”

When Chowdhury graduates, she plans to attend graduate school and pursue a career in science. “I wish to show people, especially in my family, that yes, women can be leaders in STEM,” she says. “I want to become the role model that I didn’t have, for countless other women.”

With students representing different countries and religious backgrounds, a culture of diversity and understanding is the foundation of AUW’s success. (Credit: Asian University for Women)

In addition to an enthusiastic roster of volunteer guest lecturers, AbbVie supports AUW with a grant from the AbbVie Foundation, providing full scholarships for a select number of students per cohort.

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Mary Kathryn Steel
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