Spotlight Iowa City: UI senior wins magazine mention


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In India, cancer is taboo.

People in rural areas don’t have access to medical treatment that could save their lives. And even if they did, many are too bound by cultural stigmas and personal pride to seek out help.

But Ali Keenan is working to change all that.

On three trips to India in the past three years, the UI senior has worked to establish cervical-cancer screenings for women who had never even heard of the illness, collected data to further her research on a deadly parasitic disease endemic in northern India, and taught doctors how to administer treatment for the disease. She has also worked in Guadalajara, Mexico, at an HIV clinic. With every project she completes, she sees more opportunities.

“The more I do these types of things the more I realize how much has to be done,” she said.

And for her, the number of things she can accomplish is bound only by her will and ambition.

“A lot of times the limitations that arise come from thinking about what is possible and what’s not,” Keenan said. “Your assumptions have to fly out the window.”

The Urbandale native is a triple major — biochemistry, biomedical engineering, international relations — and said her interest in science began when she was 6 or 7, when her family got their first computer. She watched an encyclopedic movie on DNA replication which, even at a young age, she found fascinating and has “wanted to do science ever since.”

Her interest in service also started as a young girl, when she accompanied her father to free flu shot clinics he organized on the East Side of Des Moines. She said the clinics doubled as food drives, and after seeing people from her own community in desperate need, Keenan recalled, “I didn’t understand why this had to be.”

Since then, she has taken an interest in helping others and has put her diverse scientific knowledge to work. And now she’s winning well-deserved recognition.

Glamour magazine named Keenan one of the Top 10 College Women for 2009. She flew to New York to attend the awards ceremony, and Glamour even sent a photographer to India for a photo shoot on the banks of the Ganges River during her latest trip.

But Keenan shied away from any talk of success, seeming almost embarrassed by the attention she’s received.

“Recognition is nice, but it’s not necessary,” she said. “The good that has come out of these things is showing students what they can do with their time.”

Mary Wilson, a UI professor Keenan works with, said despite the attention, Keenan stays grounded.

“She certainly doesn’t let it go to her head,” said Wilson, who described Keenan as very capable. “She’s willing to attack any problem with vigor.”

UI professor Rangaswamy Rajagopal echoed Wilson, using the words “brilliant,” “persevering,” and “hard working” to describe Keenan, with whom he has worked closely in India.

“That consistency and that hard work have rubbed off on a lot of people,” Rajagopal said.

As for Keenan, she hopes to be a mentor for people looking to make their own changes in the world.

“It’s not me. Everyone can do this,” she said. “Everyone can make a difference.”

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