Biology major Alaina Tabani ’20 is eyeing a career in nutrition or as a physician’s assistant. Her internship at UMass Medical School and her research experiences with Clark professors are helping shape her path. When not in the lab or classroom, the native of Karachi, Pakistan, copyedits the Scholarly Undergraduate Research Journal, dances in the International Gala, serves as secretary for Alpha Epsilon Delta (the pre-med society), and cooks for friends. Below, she tells us about her time at Clark and plans for the future.
What do you like best about being a student at Clark?
From an academic standpoint, I enjoy the small class sizes and hands-on learning experiences I’ve been lucky enough to have. I also think I’ve been blessed to have a great group of supportive friends. Because it’s a small school, it’s easier to socialize and find people who have similar interests to you.
How has your time at Clark prepared you for your experiences outside the classroom?
A lot of the classes I’ve taken at Clark have given me the knowledge to understand how the microbiome can affect health and disease outcomes in theory. Working in the lab at UMass and now at Clark has allowed me to test these theories and hypotheses. It’s a different way of learning that emphasizes all the concepts I’ve studied in my classes — microbiology, the human genome, anatomy and physiology, and biochemistry.
Describe your internship.
I worked at UMass Medical School with a nutritionist, Barbara Olendzki, in her clinic and laboratory. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I shadowed her in clinic, watched her advise patients, and I was allowed to provide input. Other days, I spent half of the day reading scientific literature about nutritional interventions and its relation to the gut microbiome. I worked in her research laboratory that collected stool samples from the patients she was seeing in clinic. Her patients were all suffering from IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) and had been placed on a specific diet that was helping with their symptoms.
How might this experience help you with your post-college goals?
This was the first experience I had in a health care setting where I was actually seeing patients and talking to them. It was very reassuring as it made me realize that patient care is something I enjoy and can do well. Post-college, I would like to go to physician’s assistant school or get a Ph.D. in nutrition — fields where I can work with and advise patients.
What about other research experiences?
I currently work in Nathan Ahlgren’s lab in the Biology Department at Clark. I work with Drosophila (fruit flies) in his laboratory to assess the heritable basis of obesity. I grow flies on regular diets and high-fat diets and conduct numerous physical and chemical tests to analyze differences in their behaviors.
Can you describe a memorable learning moment at Clark?
During my grant writing class, we visited different nonprofit organizations and got to choose one that we wanted to work with. We worked closely with the organization to write a $5,000 grant … to implement an afterschool program for refugee children who needed extra help with school work and mental health counseling. It was a really rewarding experience.
What makes your major at Clark unique from other colleges or universities?
Because Clark is small, I feel like it’s easier to grab opportunities. I have been lucky enough to do summer research that I have continued on throughout my senior year, and I don’t think that’s as common for students at bigger universities. Most of the professors I’ve had in my major are really approachable people who genuinely care about how you’re doing in classes and life in general, and I don’t know if I would have found that if I went to any other university.
Who are your faculty advisers and how have they helped you?
Professor Patrick Derr was my adviser until I declared my biology major. He got me in touch with Barbara (and hence, the internship) and played a pivotal role in developing my passion for public health. He’s also a great person to talk to for life advice. Professor Justin Thackeray is my major adviser. He is really good about making sure I have all the classes I need for my major and concentration to graduate in time. He’s also a great professor. I have learned a lot from working in his lab and taking classes with him.
Do other professors serve as mentors?
Professor Ahlgren is a great mentor. Working in his lab and having him as my faculty sponsor for my internship has taught me a great deal about time management and work/life balance. He is a very approachable person and is really patient when things don’t go as planned in the lab.
How has Clark helped prepare you for your next endeavor?
I have had great advisers and professors who have guided and advised me. Clark also has provided me with resources to explore potential career options through all alumni networking events. Talking to alumni about their careers has been helpful. In March, I hope to shadow an alum who is a PA to get a better idea of what the career entails before I completely commit to it.