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When Kanizeh Visram ’10 was only four years old, her mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Not grasping the gravity of her condition, Visram vividly remembers the upheaval caused by the chemotherapy and its side effects. Even as a little girl, she became fascinated by the drugs behind her mother’s recovery, and science became her passion.
Growing up in Mombasa, Kenya, Visram faced many obstacles: a struggling economy, declining education standards, a financially limited family, and a culture that doesn’t prioritize women’s education. Taking advantage of every opportunity in school, no matter how small, Visram would not be deterred. Despite warnings that “that’s not what young, conservative Afro-Asian women do,” she insisted that with the right education and training, she could achieve her dream of becoming a pharmacist.
“Unlike many American students, I came to learn during my high school years that getting a higher education was more complicated than the admissions process,” she says. “Throughout high school, I strove to stand out among my classmates as one of the few girls passionate about science and math, a career most times considered only appropriate for males. I knew that with excellent grades and high recommendations, I could distinguish myself as a girl motivated to make a difference.”
Due to her family’s lack of financial resources, Visram couldn’t enter a direct six-year doctor of pharmacy program. Inspired and supported by her brothers, Aliraza and Altaf, who were educated at American universities, she came to the United States to study biochemistry at Moravian. She found a nurturing environment that helped her gain acceptance into the best pharmacy program in the country at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).
“Moravian revolutionized my life and prepared me to be a competitive candidate in the field,” she says. “My education was exceptional, providing me with enhanced ways of thinking and tackling new challenges. The mentors, professors, and friends I made encouraged me to pursue my highest potential, guiding me each step of the way. I never felt I was different at Moravian, and I was amazed to learn how open the campus community was about accepting people from different races, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds.”
Under the guidance of Cecilia Fox, associate professor of biology, she studied the effects of selenium on a Parkinson’s disease rat model through Moravian’s SOAR program. It was her first hands-on research experience, and she was hooked. She presented her findings at the 2008 Society for Neuroscience Conference in Washington, D.C.
“Dr. Fox is an exceptional mentor and a fantastic teacher who paved the way for my future accomplishments and acceptance to top-ranked research programs,” says Visram, who completed a research internship at Harvard Medical School’s Stem Cell Institute in 2009. “Dr. Fox is a lifelong mentor and an inspiring role model for me.”
Visram believes her success carries a personal responsibility to help others in situations like hers achieve their goals. Trying to soak up all the medical knowledge she could while a student in Kenya, she volunteered with Kenya’s Red Cross HIV/AIDS counseling and awareness campaigns and malaria and tuberculosis treatment camps, and the Bombolulu Clinic’s intestinal worm prevention projects. That’s when she saw firsthand the need for educated pharmacists. Visram notes that most people envision pharmacists as counting out pills behind the counter, and, while community pharmacies are certainly viable career options, the traditional role of the pharmacist is rapidly changing.
“In rural areas, doctors are rare and unaffordable for lower to middle class Africans, and pharmacists are playing a vital role in administering drugs and diagnosing infections,” she explains. “With my love for Africa, a desire to see a better tomorrow, and a calling for the healthcare field, I was inspired to make a difference in the health outcomes of those who have limited medical resources.”
Visram takes her role as an active community participant seriously. After she completes her doctorate in 2014, she plans on a pharmacy rotation experience in East Africa as well as a two-year residency in pediatric oncology. She also was accepted as a Bay Area Schweitzer Fellow through which she’ll screen elderly patients, many of whom take more than 5-10 medications for multiple diseases, in San Francisco area senior centers for medication risks.
“As a student pharmacist and a future healthcare provider, I make it my responsibility to start now and ensure that these medication errors that kill or injure senior patients are both identified and prevented,” she says.
She also is a founding member and executive board member of the UC Haiti Initiative at UCSF, which is designed to improve health services in the impoverished nation. Visram is a California Pharmacists Association trustee-elect. She’ll serve two years on its board of trustees, working on policy and regulations that affect pharmacy practice and serve as a liaison between the organization and students in her program.
Visram also has participated as a motivational speaker at career events for underrepresented students. She hopes that others, especially young girls, find empowerment through her story.
“Even while applying at UCSF, I sometimes wondered whether I, a student from a small school on the east coast of Kenya, could ever get accepted,” she says. “I caught myself from wondering and believed that I was just as competitive as other top-notch students. I’ve learned from my many experiences that it is sometimes the fear of not achieving what you want that limits many of us from even trying.”
"My [Moravian] education was exceptional, providing me with enhanced ways of thinking and tackling new challenges. The mentors, professors, and friends I made encouraged me to pursue my highest potential, guiding me each step of the way."