Alumni Profiles

Naira Ikram

Campus: Duke
Hometown: Austin, TX
High School: Westlake High School

I hold the (unofficial) world record for the number of scarves owned—287. As a Muslim-American female, I’m associated with hijab. I apply hijab’s definition of modesty to an American context. How I wear my scarves—wrapped around my neck—integrates my Islamic faith with my American upbringing. My high school experience has been a scarf, uniting contrasts. One unification is between my left and right hemispheres—between science and the humanities, rationality and creativity.

When I was six, my mom was diagnosed with lupus, a chronic, autoimmune disease. Since then, I’ve constantly inquired about the disease. My simple questions have transformed into complex ones that are the foundation of my research on the role of B cells in lupus autoimmunity. I hope to help cure lupus in the future, possibly even during college.

However, understanding lupus through a scientific lens is different from understanding the isolation of people with lupus. Volunteering for the Lupus Foundation of America has been therapeutic, as I promise to provide victims of lupus with the support my mom lacked. As a rheumatologist, I will not only be at the forefront of lupus research; more importantly, I will be a friend to my patients and foster long-term, meaningful relationships.

I hope to introduce a humanistic approach to medicine in which patients aren’t treated as statistics but as unique stories with backgrounds and potential that need to be voiced. Creative writing achieves an understanding of a diverse spectrum of people, and it has instilled perceptiveness and empathy in me. Ultimately, the thought of being involved in every step of the healing process, from researching and developing a drug or treatment to one day delivering it to my patients, is indescribably inspiring.

Besides the interplay between science and the humanities, my passions exhibit a paradox between science and religion. My identity as a Muslim-American female is as important as my aspirations in medicine. I’ve devoted myself to creating Hejab and promoting a global culture of open-mindedness. I’ve reaped the gift of dual citizenship to two fascinating worlds, and I hope to convey that to the emerging generation of Muslim girls. Between Duke and UNC, there are so many initiatives aimed at promoting diversity and cultural appreciation.

I hope to break several stereotypes, and serve as an example that academic writers can write creatively and that scientists can have faith. I’m excited to see how my goals and passions evolve throughout college and the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program!

What drew you to the Robertson Program?

I love helping people rediscover their self-worth. The Robertson Scholars Leadership program jumpstarts this mission because of the unconditional funding, backing of so many genuine people, spirit of collaboration between Duke and UNC, and encouraging community.

The common thread strung among the scholars is the emphasis on championing empathy. Each summer strives to uplift the marginalized—women, minorities, the homeless, refugees, the underserved. We each are dedicated to a certain population, and we collectively promote inclusivity and understanding. College typically does not facilitate leadership, yet this program is dedicated to it. I gained the impression that being a Robertson scholar revolves around a unique form of leadership, in which leadership means being the best, most genuine version of yourself.

With the backing of this program, I don’t have to convince people that I’m genuinely passionate about causes and ideas. Unlike high school, being part of this program implies that you are deeply invested, avoiding the first step of persuasion. The financial backing is additionally valuable, and I have so many dreams that can finally come to fruition thanks to this truly incredible program.

While students have the opportunity to engage with nearby schools, this program presents the best of Duke and UNC in an approachable way. Each school has its own set of strengths that I can access. For instance, there’s a particular human rights professor I’d love to work with at UNC while Duke offers a special global health program. At UNC, the Thurston Arthritis Center is a pioneer in lupus research, and I hope to build upon their research and study genes involved in menopause to demystify the role of female hormones in lupus. At the same time, Duke’s Lupus Clinic leads lupus treatment and innovates patient-doctor communication networks and new procedures that regularly appear in leading scientific journals and even mainstream news. The Robertson Scholars Leadership program facilitates everything I ever wanted to accomplish.

It’s an understatement to say that the people of this program are simply amazing. From the warm staff to the passionate alumni to the welcoming scholars, everyone uplifts each other. I will always remember when I lost my earring in the bathroom of the Carolina Inn all the finalists in addition to Alaina helped me search for it. They all were sincerely invested in helping me, someone they barely even know. Even though I didn’t find the earring, I emerged from Finalist weekend with friends that I will always stay in touch with. Finalist weekend was the best three days of my life, and I can’t imagine how rewarding the next four years will be!

Robertson Scholars, Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, at Duke University’s Smith Warehouse in Durham, N.C.  

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