Aiza Bhuiyan was just 6 years old when she realized that medicine would be a major part of her life.
When she showed up for class one day at her school in Bellerose, Queens, without gym clothes, she had to sit it out in a room that happened to have a diagram of a heart on the wall.
“Another one of my friends didn’t have gym clothes, so she also had to sit out too, and I was looking at the diagram, and I was like, ‘I’m going to teach you the parts of the heart,’ she said.
“I said, ‘This is the right ventricle, this is the left atrium, this is where the SA node is. My teacher came over and said, ‘How do you know all of this?’”
A Focus on Public Health
For that, she credits her grandfather Osmond Quiah, M.D., a psychiatrist in Brooklyn who was a cardiologist in his native Bangladesh. Quiah schooled her in the intricacies of the heart, and today, Bhuiyan is on the pre-med track and pursuing a bachelor’s degree in anthropology at Fordham College at Lincoln Center. She plans to earns a master’s degree in public health and hopes to earn an MD so she can specialize in cross-cultural psychiatry; she wants to help cultural institutions better respond to mental health crises.
Bhuiyan’s minor in environmental science has allowed her to work on public-health-related research with Guy Robinson, Ph.D., lecturer in biology, on research related to public health. Before the pandemic, she was working on a method to detect microscopic bits of plastic and tire rubber amid the dust particles that get collected at the Lincoln Center aeroallergen station. When the lockdown last spring made that unfeasible, Robinson tasked her with analyzing 20 years of pollen records from the Calder Center to see if the lockdown had any effect on the weed pollen in the air last spring.
“Our reasoning is that mowing of highway verges, ball fields, and parks was much reduced, with a resulting increase in grass and weed pollen,” Robinson said, noting that the research also involves calling municipalities and landscaping companies to find out how much their work was delayed.
An Eye-Opening Trip to New Orleans
Bhuiyan said the fact that a major increase in pollen, which is an allergen, could precipitate a public health emergency, is what drew her to the project. In the spring of 2019, a trip to New Orleans with Global Outreach gave her a first-hand view of how the environment, health, and politics can collide in devastating fashion.
“We learned about how the introduction of the [man made]Mississippi River gulf outlet led to a devastation of cypress trees, which increased the surge during Hurricane Katrina, and how that devastated out the Lower 9th Ward, which predominantly consisted of people of color. I just saw how everything that was going on was so interdisciplinary,” she said.
Robinson said Bhuiyan’s experience as the sports and health editor at The Observer student newspaper has proved invaluable in their research.
“Aiza has been great to do research with; she takes initiative and thinks about her work expansively. Her journalism experience makes her really good at explaining things and knowing the right questions to ask,” he said.
As part of her anthropology work, Bhuiyan is also working on a senior thesis, “Navigating Colorism in Bengali Communities in NYC.” She said she was inspired by her own experience growing up in a community that is grappling with ideas of race and ethnicity.
“I am darker in complexion than a lot of people, especially my family. There were things that I had to hear, and that affected my mental health,” she said.
“It made me more cognizant of my own identity, and how I choose to present myself, and I thought it would be something really interesting to research further.”
Yuko Miki, Ph.D., an assistant professor of history who got to know Bhuiyan through her class Slavery and Freedom in the Atlantic World, called her a force of nature.
“She brought so much positive energy to our class while also dedicating herself to helping others,” she said, citing Bhuiyan’s role as co-coordinator of the Fordham College at Lincoln Center chapter of Peer Health Exchange, a group that offers health education to ninth graders in public schools.
“Students like Aiza have truly enriched my experience as a Fordham professor, and I think she will do great things in the world,” said Miki, who has focused much of her own scholarship on issues of race and ethnicity.
Finding Ways to Maintain Connection
Bhuiyan said the pandemic has made her senior year very difficult, and although she’s had more free time since she only commutes from home in New Hyde Park in Long Island once a week, she’s felt more disorganized and busier than in the past. The silver lining, she said, has come from the ways she was able to maintain relationships from afar. Starting in the fall, for instance, she and her Peer Health Exchange colleagues held weekly workshop group meetings where they were free to discuss any and everything on volunteer’s minds.
“It’s been amazing finding ways to retain my relationships with family, friends, and people I work with, and trying to find a way to keep some sense of normalcy going,” she said.