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Alexandra Keenan

Intent on making a difference, a student embraces intellectual, cultural, and professional exploration.

When Alexandra Keenan graduates in two years’ time, she’ll have earned three bachelor’s degrees—biomedical engineering, international studies, and biochemistry. She intends to become a physician and scientist, discovering new treatments and providing them to people in underserved areas, whether in the United States or abroad.

“The professors I’ve met are enthusiastic about their work because they know it’s meaningful,” says the 21-year-old from Urbandale, Iowa. “I know I have to pick areas of study that are meaningful, very meaningful to me.”

With this goal in mind, Keenan is especially interested in diseases that plague developing countries, the sort of problems that pharmaceutical companies tend to overlook. But while she’s charted a determined course for herself, she acknowledges that things haven’t always fallen easily into place.

Keenan found first-year engineering classes challenging and didn’t get any responses from the engineering internships she’d applied for during her first summer break at The University of Iowa. She learned through those experiences to push past her doubts and, when necessary, explore new directions.

“What has gotten me this far is knowing that I can overcome these obstacles, and, if not, that there’s a plan B,” she says. “You always need to have a plan B.”

When Keenan realized a first-year student probably wasn’t going to get a competitive engineering internship, she took a research internship that prompted her to consider a career in pure science. That’s when she added biochemistry to her academic mix.

“The enthusiasm of the other scientists I met at that internship was contagious,” she says. “In research, sometimes you take one step forward and five steps backward, but still, it was exciting.”

Keenan since has spent every winter and summer break participating in internships and research opportunities. They include working at a HIV/AIDS clinic and orphanage in Mexico, conducting research at the Keck Graduate Institute and the University of California at Berkeley, and collecting data at a hospital in India. (Her trips to India were funded by scholarships from the Stanley Foundation and the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates.) During the school year, she works in a University medical lab that’s pursuing a vaccine for visceral leishmaniasis, also known as kala-azar.

She returned to India this summer, but before doing so decided to backpack alone through Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. The experience piqued her interest in Indonesia—she’s added the archipelago of islands to the list of countries she’d like to focus on, alongside Mexico and India.

Keenan’s first real taste of solo travel came during her initial trip to Mexico as a UI student, when she often had to travel rural areas alone. On her Southeast Asian journey, she immersed herself among the locals, listening to Indonesian youths make music or taking shelter from a thunderstorm in a young Cambodian girl’s home.

“I was forced to step outside of my comfort zone and dive into the local culture,” she says.

Even though Keenan is excited about working overseas, it was an experience in Columbus Junction, Iowa—volunteering with the University’s Mobile Clinic—that sealed her interest in helping people who lack proper health care.

She had an epiphany while testing cholesterol and blood sugar levels among migrant workers. “I realized that the people who really needed health care were at my door step," she recalls. "I had the tools, or could obtain the tools, to do something about it.”

Story by Po Li Loo; Photo by Tim Schoon

September 29, 2008

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