Erin Oppel ’22 has taken advantage of every opportunity that Smith offered. As she looks back on her college experience, she says the support of her professors has prepared her for what comes next.
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Sara Halili ’22: Driven to Make a Difference
Growing up in Albania, Sara Halili ’22 always had a keen interest in science and research, and she knew she wanted to dive into her interests at a college in the United States. After attending a boarding school in Missouri, she came to Smith, where her interests in science and public health flourished.
“When I was researching colleges, I realized I wanted a liberal arts experience,” says Halili, a biochemistry major. “I’ve loved Smith because it’s a very small and intimate learning environment.”
Smith has become a family affair for Halili—her sister, Sonora, is a first-year computer science major. “Our mother didn’t have access to an education growing up in Albania,” Halili reflects. “Smith is really making her dreams come true by giving us these opportunities.”
Driving Halili’s academic interests is a strong desire to help people, especially those in developing countries that are most impacted by certain infectious diseases. “These diseases affect the world’s most underprivileged populations,” she says. “As an international student, I know how important it is to study diseases that are relevant to countries outside the U.S., which have fewer resources.”
Watching a pandemic play out in real time only spurred Halili’s interest in global health. “Suddenly terms like ‘PCR test’—a polymerase chain reaction diagnostic tool, which my research focuses on—became casual phrases,” she says. “It really highlighted how important this work is. It affects real people.”
The connections she’s made with classmates and faculty members have been a highlight of Halili’s Smith experience. From navigating premed requirements and medical school interviews with the help of Elly Mons, director of the Health Professions Advising Program, to conquering organic chemistry with assistant professor Alexandra Strom, Halili says the faculty connections that Smith has afforded her are invaluable. “They’ve been instrumental to my successes,” she says with a smile. “I will always be grateful to the faculty here.”
Among the most influential professors she’s worked with is Steven Williams, Gates Professor of Biological Sciences. “I’ve worked in his lab since my first year,” Halili says. “I’m also finishing my honors thesis with him—I’m working on developing sensitive and specific molecular diagnostic tools to detect Schistosoma species.”
The ultimate goal, she says, is to aid in the elimination of schistosomiasis, which is a disease caused by parasitic worms. According to the CDC, schistosomiasis is second only to malaria in terms of the devastation such diseases can cause in humans.
This past fall, Halili’s work in Williams’s lab earned her top billing on a paper published in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases.
For Williams, seeing students like Halili soar is incredibly rewarding. “When Sara first joined the lab, I was immediately impressed by her ability to learn new techniques quickly,” he says. “She will be an outstanding scientist and educator. I’m excited to follow her career!”
Heading to the University of Connecticut in the fall with a full scholarship toward a combined M.D./Ph.D. program, Halili is eager to continue building her skill set so she can one day work as a practicing physician–investigator. “It’s a bit daunting,” she laughs, adding, “but I’m very excited. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”