Archive for September, 2020

Student Spotlight: Islamiyat Lawal

September 21st, 2020 No comments

Describe a little about yourself?

My name is Islamiyat Lawal and I come from a family of seven in Nigeria. I have an elder brother, but I’m the first female child and this comes with a lot of responsibilities. Most of my education was in Nigeria in my hometown of Ibadan. I grew up in Ibadan and went to university there to study chemistry for my undergraduate education. I’m also married! I’m married to an upcoming optometrist who lives in New York; our anniversary is coming up in November.


What program, research group, and year are you in?

I’m a 3rd year PhD student at UVM in the chemistry department. I’m in Matthias Brewer’s research group and I do research in synthetic organic chemistry where I synthesize small molecules that are possible therapeutic drugs for chronic pain.


What is your dissertation about?

My dissertation is about synthesizing small molecules for PAC-1 receptor. In layman terms, I’m trying to synthesize small molecules that can be a potential therapeutic agent for chronic pain. We work with two other groups, and the project is highly interdisciplinary. We work with Prof. Jianing Li, who is the computational chemist on the project, and Prof. Victor May in the Neuroscience department, who does the biological assays. My role is to synthesize the molecules that Prof. Li predicts to be good targets, then we send it to Prof. May who determines how biologically active they are.


How does your research have a broader impact?

One of the reasons I love this research is because of the broader impact it’s going to have, that is, development of a medication that would help with chronic pain. Currently, many people rely on opioids for chronic pain, which are addictive. Hopefully, this will help those people to stop using opioids and other addictive medications. Since the abuse of opioids is prevalent all over world, I feel like developing a medication that combats this is important.


What do you find most challenging in your research?

I have a list of compounds to make but some compounds are challenging to prepare; I can spend months trying to synthesize one compound. For example, I do a lot of troubleshooting to figure why a reaction isn’t working, why alternative transformations are occurring on my compound, and how to make alternative connections in a compound. For the compounds I’m currently working on, I’ve been trying to synthesize a sulfonyl chloride in one of my targets, and after multiple attempts it has not been productive. There is another simple connection I’m trying to make using reductive amination, but after testing over 10 conditions it’s still not working. These challenges are part of the research though! Additionally, it’s common to spend weeks on something that may not be biologically active, but that’s also part of the research.


As someone who is entering their 3rd year of graduate school, what is your advice for newer graduate students who are currently deciding on a research advisor?

My advice to incoming graduate students, especially in the first semester is to take it slow and focus on classes, making friends, and getting to know people. In the second semester, gradually transition to research. Another thing is search for lots and lots of opportunities that are out there. As an international student, I can’t apply for some opportunities because you need a US citizenship, but I see that they are out there. The NSF grant, for example, is a great opportunity to apply for if you are a US citizen. For international students, there are opportunities out there that you can apply for as well! The Philanthropic Educational Organization (P.E.O) has an international peace scholarship for people who are involved in volunteer work and are passionate about female education. Women’s education and education of young girls is something I am passionate about; I feel every girl should be educated and have access to education. Other scholarships include the AAUW international scholarship, so there are lots of opportunities for international and US students. When you’re applying for things like that, you might think you won’t get it, but there’s no way to find out if you don’t apply.

When it comes to choosing an advisor, ask senior graduate students lots of questions to get a feel for the advisor. Is the advisor pushy, do they put a lot of pressure on their students, are they understanding, does their pace align with yours? Picking a good advisor is extremely important for your academic success and mental health. Also, for incoming students, have a day of the week that is just for yourself. No research, no schoolwork, it’s just for you. Take care of yourself, go for a walk, hang out with friends, watch a movie, cook, whatever you like doing. Make sure you have a time specifically for yourself and your mental health, so you don’t burnout after a couple of years.


You touched on your passion in educating women and girls, can you expand on that a bit more?

I was part of a non-governmental organization in Nigeria, Building Nations Initiative, where I was the VP for 2 years and the project coordinator for a year. What we do is reach out to rural high schools to donate books and textbooks to them. We didn’t have a lot of funds, so we put dropboxes in strategic places in the city for people to donate books. We would collect, clean, and then take them to rural high schools to stock their libraries with books. Some of these libraries can be so bad, they don’t have chairs or desks and a lot of time, this is coupled with leaking roofs, so we raised funds to renovate these libraries.

We also gave students career talks, encouraged college education, and enlightened them on how to apply for funding opportunities, as many stopped at a high school level. For the young girls, they would not go to school during their menstrual period because they don’t have access to sanitary products. They might miss 5 days of school during this time, which can add up to missing 20 days a semester, that’s almost a month! This takes a lot of time out of their education, so we supplied them with sanitary products.

Female education is something with low priority in rural parts of Nigeria, I remember during my mandatory one-year youth service, one of my students got married and dropped out of high school. This prompted my colleagues and I to put together a program that can prevent these occurrences. The main issue we discovered is that parents would push their daughters into an early marriage thereby cutting off their access to proper education. We organized a 2-day seminar where we enlightened the parents on why it is important that all children, not just males, should be educated. To attract parents to this seminar, we supplied them with a free medical checkup, mosquito nets and some other household items. In the seminar we discussed why educating female students is important and why they should allow their female children stay and complete school before getting married. The following semester, the school principal told us they had an increase in female enrollment for that year, knowing we had that impact pushes me to work toward doing more and doing my part in making sure proper education is available to all children.


What advise would you give to yourself when you first started the program?

Start applying for funding opportunities earlier. There are opportunities I can’t apply for now as a 3rd year, but that I could have applied for as a 1st or 2nd year. Get as much extra funding as possible, it will go a long way in helping your career. Another advice I would have for myself is to ask for as much help as possible, don’t be shy to ask for help and don’t be shy to talk to people.


Are there any statements you would like to make?

Imposter syndrome is real, so always believe in yourself and know what you do is enough!



Information for the scholarships Islamiyat discussed can be found at the following links:

P.E.O. International Peace Scholarship:

AAUW International Fellowship:

AAUW Fellowship for US Citizens:


Interview was conducted/Article was written by: Magenta Hensinger

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