Meet Sana Shakir. She’s a rising senior at UWM majoring in biochemistry with a certificate in forensic science. She’s also a student researcher in the Sensory, Neuroscience, Attention and Perception (SNAP) Lab; a former food research and development intern; and she’s also the incoming president of the university’s Muslim Student Association.
Her secret to doing it all, and with aplomb? “I think one of the important things that I learned about myself throughout college … is to be flexible to plans changing,” Shakir said. “I think many times we think we have to have everything set out and that’s the only way it can go. But I have found a lot of comfort and success in giving myself a guideline of what to prioritize, and I go from there. It’s helpful to be flexible so you don’t get locked into a corner.”
Shakir’s life has been all about flexibility and being willing to try new things. Her family migrated from Iraq to America when she was just eight years old. They settled in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where Shakir grew up nurturing a love for math and science. She chose UWM for her college education both for its proximity and its status as an R1 Research University.
When it came time to choose a major, “I was torn between biology and chemistry. I was like, let’s go in between and do biochemistry,” Shakir said. “Then I get the best of both worlds.”
Her work at college began even before freshman classes started. Shakir participated in UR@UWM, a summer research program that pairs incoming UWM students with faculty mentors to assist in their research inquiries. Here, her flexibility started to shine: Despite being a biochemistry major, Shakir found herself under the mentorship of then-psychology professor Adam Greenberg and working in his SNAP lab.
“That was something I was nervous about at first, because I wanted to do something more related to my major. When I tried to find other labs, it just didn’t work out. I was comfortable in that lab,” Shakir said.
She turned it to her advantage, in fact. Throughout her time as a student researcher, Shakir managed to find projects in the lab that aligned with her major. When Greenberg received an offer to teach at the Medical College of Wisconsin, Shakir continued her research with her mentor.
Currently, “I’ve been trying to find a link between the chemical structure of odors that we smell and … how they’re perceived by human behavior, and seeing if those minor chemical differences change how we smell certain things,” Shakir explained. Later this year, the group hopes to do some studies surrounding COVID-19 patients and if and how they recover their sense of smell after the disease runs its course.
That research background has already proved useful. During her sophomore year, Shakir found a job posting for an internship at Wixon, a research and development company that assists businesses in the food and beverage industry with flavor development. For example, if a company wants to make a diet version of a product by eliminating salt or sugar, Wixon will work to keep the taste and flavor of the original product without using those ingredients.
Technically speaking, she shouldn’t have gotten the job. The ad called for a junior or senior to fill the position.
“I was like, I’ll just wiggle my way in. I have enough science and math knowledge to see what they say. I went for an interview and they accepted me,” Shakir said.
For a year, she worked in the flavor development lab, where her boss would often assign her formulas to mix together, after which she would taste and rank her creations.
“Throughout my time there, I worked on a few projects relating to sourness and sweetness and trying to develop the best formulas for that. I was mostly doing the work, but sometimes, when I got more experience, he would ask me, what do you think we could change here? So I got to have a little bit of input as well,” Shakir said.
The experience gave her a taste – pun intended – of the working world. Shakir says that she could easily see herself working in food-related research and development, though she is leaning more towards a job in forensic science.
This year, Shakir is tackling a new experience beyond work and research: Leadership. She is the incoming president of the UWM Muslim Student Association, an organization that provides support, community, and friendship for Muslim students on campus. Shakir served on the MSA’s board as an event coordinator during her junior year.
This year, “I want make things a lot more inclusive in the organization and try to invite some new students,” Shakir said. “I want to reach out to newer freshmen and people who didn’t see themselves in the MSA space before, to find comfort in that and be able to meet new people and find it a welcoming community.”
That includes helping to organize events like dodgeball games, or bringing in Islamic speakers for education and inspiration.
Shakir is still unsure about her plans after graduation. She’s debating pursuing graduate work or entering the working world, hopefully in a forensic science-related field.
Wherever she chooses to go, she’ll jump in with both feet and a lot of flexibility.
By Sarah VIckery, College of Letters & Science