2022 Winter University Featured Speaker

Mariam Sayed shared how her role in working in an MSU physiology research lab led to success as a student.

Marian Sayed

2022 Winter University Featured Speaker

Mariam Sayed shared how her role in working in an MSU physiology research lab led to success as a student.

Mariam Sayed grew up in Southeast Michigan and is a Wielenga Research Scholar who has been engaged in research that seeks to broaden access to opportunities and health care for individuals with communication challenges. She majors in physiology and French and hopes to work in communities of underserved francophone regions, as a health care provider someday. She is also a member of the Honors College. In February of 2022, Mariam was one of three students to present about her MSU experience for an audience of donors, alumni and friends at Winter University in Florida. Here is Mariam’s story:

Hello everyone and welcome to Winter University. Although, I will say, coming from Michigan, this looks NOTHING like winter to me. And you all have no idea how relieved I am to be able to perform this in-person. The beach behind me looks so beautiful that I feel like I’m standing in front of a virtual background. Although I will say I miss only having to dress professionally from the waist-up for Zoom meetings. I hope everyone is enjoying Florida as much as I am. I can tell you that I, for one, am in no rush to head back to Michigan. I never thought I’d say this, but I’m really hoping our flight gets delayed!

Weather aspects aside, I can’t express how grateful I am to be standing in front of such an illustrious group of alumni and friends of Michigan State University, alumni who are so passionate about MSU, who, I’ll admit, sometimes know the football scores better than I do. To say the least, I’m honored to have the opportunity to share my experience as an undergraduate researcher with everyone here today.

To give you a little intro to my research, I’ve conducted studies as a project manager for three years, first in a neuro electro physiology lab, which is just a fancy way of saying we study brain cells. We looked at a specific part of the brain known as the LGN and studied possible explanations and cures for diabetic retinopathy, which is a condition in the eye that develops as a result of contracting Type 1 Diabetes. I NOW work in a neuro cognition lab, where we study ways to improve access to health care for marginalized communities like neurodivergent individuals, specifically related to autism, who have an impaired ability to speak. This profoundly affects their access to education, employment, and social opportunities, opening the door to a world of discrimination and prejudice around their intellectual capabilities. In other words, we advocate for individuals who don’t have a voice.

Apart from having research opportunities, the million-dollar question people seem to ask me is why out of all the universities in the country, I chose to attend MSU. To be entirely truthful, no institution has supported my unique career goals as whole-heartedly as MSU has.

No other organization offered me the opportunity to take graduate courses as an undergrad in French and Francophone studies and Public Health to heighten my knowledge in subjects that were pertinent to my career goals. No other institution has offered me as many opportunities to excel and discover my passions outside the classroom the way MSU has, as a teaching assistant, a resident assistant, and an undergraduate research ambassador, offering me platforms as distinguished as the Thomas Wielenga Research Scholars Program and the Dean’s Research Scholars program, in which I have been fortunate enough to have such an enriched experience as a student, scholar, and assistant researcher, combining my education inside and outside of the classroom in a way that impacts humanity and health care tremendously. And I can assure you that NO other university has flown me out to Florida to stay at an ocean resort and enjoy shrimp cocktails, let alone doing it with the president, provost and deans of the school. I feel like a radio winner that won tickets to a meet-and-greet with your favorite celebrities. This journey of representing my university as an ambassador and having an outlet to present my research has not only helped me discover my passion for a career in research, but has also given me the opportunity to connect with a cohort of such resilient and innovative young leaders (like Jorge and Alyssa) whom I learn from every day.

three students in Florida
Winter University student presenters Alyssa Fritz, Jorge Flores Garcia and Mariam Sayed in Florida.

Shortly put, MSU has been there for me. Even when I failed.

I remember the first time I set foot into the lab, and I had to perform my experiment by myself for the very first time, and I had a simple procedure—take the micropipette, put it into a machine, and elongate the micropipette so that you can look inside the cell. I broke so many micropipettes that day… I’m sure that in those six hours alone, half of my PI’s funding disappeared from me trying to learn how to experiment.

And if you think my failures ended there, you are sadly mistaken.

Having a second major meant that I had to fail TWICE the amount of times in order to make the most of my academic experience. As I recall, one time my French professor had asked me to fill up his water bottle in class. He said “Est-ce que tu peux remplir ma bouteille?” and “remplir” is a verb which means to “fill up” which I didn’t understand at the time. And I was already walking towards the recycling bin to get rid of my water bottle, NOT fill it up, and so I assumed since he handed me his, he wanted his water bottle thrown out too. So, in the recycling bin they both went. And 5 mins later into class, he asks “Ou est ma bouteille?” - “Where’s my water bottle?”, and I’m like “Dans la poubelle! In the bin! Don’t worry, I took care of it!”...and he goes up to the board and explains the verb “remplir” which means to “fill up”, not “throw away”, in front of the whole class. To this day, I have never confused remplir with another verb. He also never asked me to fill up his water bottle again.

But the point is, MSU has shown me that to grow in life, you need to: 1. Constantly place yourself in situations where your intellect is challenged and then 2. Have confidence in your ability to flourish in those situations, because failure is exactly where success is born. In fact, majority of the “progress” in a research lab is based on failures, and some of the greatest research discoveries in the world were awarded Nobel Prizes for their failures. Take Eduoard Benedictus, who was experimenting with cellulose nitrate in 1903, when he accidentally dropped the flask he was working with. It broke, but didn’t shatter—which meant that he had just discovered shatterproof glass—which is the foundation of almost every single car windshield today. Now, if I broke a flask in my lab—shatter or no shatter—I don’t think I would win a Nobel Prize for it.

But I can say that my persistence in the periods of failure I’ve been through as a student and individual have defined who I am today. This university has never put a limit on our ability to succeed as students, allowing us to pursue our passions in whatever direction they might take us. You might have noticed that I, for one, am double majoring in Physiology and French, two majors that seem totally unrelated, but in my case, are inseparable for my career. Having grown up with a single mother, an Indian immigrant who had to struggle for years to survive, to support herself, and her children—a mother who learned the hard way how many barriers stand in the way of an uneducated Indian woman, were the catalysts I needed in my life to realize how priceless an education is. Education is a tool that gives women a choice. An education gives women financial independence and creative freedom, an ability to decide for herself what her future will look like, which was something my mother didn’t have for more than 40 years.

What I found, interestingly enough, was that she wasn’t alone in this experience. I discovered how similar the women from the francophone world I studied were to myself and my background, even though our experiences took place on opposite sides of the globe. Women of the francosphere from Western and Northern Africa, continue to suffer silently from a lack in women’s access to education and societal pressures around a woman being single, unmarried, and independent.

The first time I witnessed this up-close was when I traveled to Ghana through a program known as MSU Medical Brigades, where I had my first opportunity to function as a medical volunteer in a Sub-Saharan community that had no access to hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, or any type of health care provider within a 50-mile radius. I can say without hesitation that this experience changed my life forever—not only because I had met a group of people that were so kind, so hospitable, so open to enriching me to their culture, and welcomed the challenge of having limited access to some of the most basic necessities to survive with a contagious smile, but also because it opened my eyes to how few women were able to pursue an education and serve their own society as physicians.

In Ghana specifically, I found that many of the Akan women, who were unable to receive a secondary education, were subjected to abuse and were dependent on their spouse to survive. And seeing these women have no access to the female physicians they preferred for their sensitive medical needs harnessed my desire for a career in women’s health and education. A career that would allow me to encourage women to become independent forces who are able to support themselves and contribute back to their society by pursuing careers in STEM and in health care. A career that would allow us to collectively work towards the reversal of a traditional woman’s role in society.

And that’s why today, I hope to carry what I’ve experienced in my undergraduate career to pursue an MD/PhD, where I would be able to take advantage of my knowledge of physiology and research, make use of my interest and passion in francophone nations, and carry my life experiences to minorities in the under-resourced francophone world, to advocate for the education of young women and help fill the gap between female physicians and patients in these communities. Similar to the way I helped marginalized populations like neurodivergent individuals who have often been misdiagnosed, misrepresented, and under-resourced, increase their access to health care and become autonomous, by developing new augmentative and alternative communication devices. I aspire to do the same with young women in francophone countries, a population I will be better prepared to serve when I return as a health care provider, hopefully representing an international medical humanitarian organization like Médecins Sans Frontières, otherwise known as Doctors Without Borders.

And so, I’d finally like to dedicate the last moments of this speech to thank all the donors, the alumni, the friends of MSU, and the entire staff that made this experience possible. For investing in students like me, supporting me through my academic endeavors, and helping me pave the way to later serve in under-resourced francophone countries as an informed physician and educator, embodying compassion, intellect, and perseverance—everything I’ve learned from my time at MSU—to pursue my passion of supporting women in becoming powerful contributors to closing the gender disparity in education and health care someday, to ensure that no woman in an underprivileged region from a traditional background is left behind the way my mother was, to ensure that every woman ALWAYS has a choice. I want to end by saying that every student is a mosaic of the experiences they have and the individuals they meet, so thank you, each and every one of you, for impacting my journey as an MSU student and allowing me to have a mutual exchange of knowledge I will carry with me in my journey to becoming a culturally-sensitive physician. Thank you.

Read on for Alyssa Fritz’s and Jorge Flores Garcia’s Winter University presentations. Also, hear from Dr. Thomas Wielenga on what supporting students has meant to him.

LEARN MORE about support for students by contacting the Advancement Office in your college, unit or region, or by contacting Senior Director of Development for Scholarships and Fellowships Jennifer Bertram at bertram9@msu.edu or by calling (517) 432-7330.