Montana State University

Spring 2012

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Mountains and Minds

Raima Amin, left, said her parents Ruhul, an MSU mechanical engineering professor, and Shadmani, lab coordinator in MSU's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, strongly motivated her and aided her drive for excellence.

An All-American girl April 30, 2012 by Evelyn Boswell • Published 04/30/12

Raima Amin is as Bozeman as 'The M' and Sweet Pea
Raima Amin has always stood out.

Throughout her 22 years, Amin, who is now a first-year medical student at the Montana WWAMI program, has set herself apart academically, in public service, and in research. In fact, in all of her education in the Bozeman Public Schools, and then at MSU, which she attended on a Presidential Scholarship, she has never received a grade lower than an A.

Yet, people are often shocked to
learn that Amin was born and raised in Bozeman. That's largely because of the
hijab, or headscarf, that she has worn since she was in eighth grade in respect for her devout Muslim faith.

"There are many international students on campus from Muslim countries, and I am always asked by them where I'm from, just like everyone else in Bozeman asks me," Amin said. "They are usually surprised to hear I'm from Bozeman, but in that regard they are no different from the locals who ask me the same questions."

Despite traveling to Bangladesh, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and New Zealand and studying Japanese, Arabic and Spanish, Amin said Bozeman is where she feels most comfortable.

The only obvious Muslim of the 20 students who entered the Montana WWAMI regional medical program in 2011, (WWAMI is a cooperative program of the University of Washington School of Medicine and the states of Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. Montana's program is based at MSU), Amin tells the curious about her Bozeman roots. If that doesn't satisfy, she explains that her parents came from Bangladesh, where her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all live. In fact, she spends at least every other summer in the capital city of Dhaka, where she fits easily into the culture because she looks and sounds like a native. Since Bangladesh is largely Muslim, she is also part of the majority religion rather than the minority.

Blending in is refreshing after a lifetime of fielding questions, but it isn't everything, Amin said. Despite traveling to Bangladesh, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and New Zealand and studying Japanese, Arabic and Spanish, Amin said Bozeman is where she feels most comfortable. And even though she misses Bangladesh when she leaves, and may someday use her medical training to benefit the country, she expects to settle in the United States. She may someday return to Bozeman to practice medicine.

"Bozeman is still my home, even though I might not look like I fit in," she said.

Amin is as Bozeman as it gets. She was born in Bozeman Deaconess Hospital, just a few blocks from where she and her parents now live. It's the same hospital where she worked as a phlebotomist while applying to medical school and the same place where she shadows doctors and interviews patients as a first-year WWAMI student. Her father, Ruhul, is a professor of mechanical engineering and a Fulbright scholar who has taught at MSU for 23 years. Her mother, Shadmani, earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in microbiology at MSU and is now lab coordinator in MSU's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Raima's older sister, Ruhani, earned her bachelor's degree in microbiology from MSU.

Raima attended day care on the MSU campus, just a few blocks from where she now takes classes as a medical student. Attending Bozeman public schools, she graduated from Bozeman Senior High School in 2007 with a perfect 4.0 GPA and as a National Merit Scholar. She won a Presidential Scholarship that covered her tuition and gave her a stipend to attend MSU. The Presidential Scholarship is MSU's most distinguished academic award, recognizing scholastic achievement, leadership and unique personal qualities. In 2010 she graduated summa cum laude from MSU in just three years.

"She is an exceptional individual, and I have no doubt that a brilliant future awaits her," said Ilse-Mari Lee, director of MSU's University Honors Program. "She is highly motivated to succeed and deeply cares about her fellow man."

As an MSU undergraduate, Amin majored in cell biology and neuroscience with a minor in biochemistry. She also conducted research in professor Gary Strobel's laboratory in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology. Strobel--who searches the world looking for exotic plants that may contain beneficial microbes and receives international attention for his discoveries--said he welcomed Amin into his lab because she graduated at the top of her high school class.

Conducting original research in Strobel's lab, Amin isolated and characterized a new endophytic fungus from an Australian plant. The fungus has a wide spectrum of antibiotic activity, and Amin published a paper about it with Strobel in the journal Mycology.

As an MSU undergraduate, Amin was a driving force behind the Muslim Students Association and a board member in MSU's award-winning chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB). One of her contributions was helping create EWB Eye Clinics to provide eyeglasses to Kenyan students and serve as a complement to EWB sanitation and hygiene projects in Kenya.

Since their childhood, we wanted them to be aware of their roots. People who forget their roots miss a large portion of their lives.

Community service, whether it be in the United States or Bangladesh, is important to her and emphasized by her parents, Amin said. She and her sister have volunteered with several Bangladeshi organizations, including "Rays of Hope," a shelter for destitute children. Earlier this school year, Amin and the rest of her WWAMI class organized a drive to collect books, warm coats and food for the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana.

"I found these (and other service projects) were more motivational to me than simply achieving A's in all my classes, and they provided the perfect outlet for me to spend time away from the books," Amin said.


Amin decided to attend WWAMI, in part, because of its reputation. WWAMI is widely considered the best academic model in the nation for training and placing physicians in underserved communities. It is part of The University of Washington School of Medicine, which has been ranked as the top primary-care medical school in the country since 1994.

Amin also enjoyed the fact that WWAMI allowed her to stay in Bozeman for another year. WWAMI students from Montana take their first year of medical school in Bozeman, then move to Seattle for their second. They complete their third and fourth years in hospitals around the WWAMI states.

Amin's father added that MSU is a family tradition.

"I tell my students I practice what I preach," said Ruhul Amin. "I tell them to go to MSU, and in my family, everyone went to MSU.

Raima Amin answers questions about representing Islam, excellence and the meaning of home
"Bozeman is a very nice community. I mean it," he said.

While Raima said there have been a few occasions when she has been subjected to slurs in Bozeman, there have been more occasions where she has been met with caring and interest.

"It's comforting to know that for every intolerant bigot in the world, there are countless others who are the opposite and who work to combat such prejudice in our world," Amin said.

Amin added that no one she knew personally in Bozeman ever made fun of her for wearing a hijab, even on the first day of eighth grade when she started wearing one. The first comment she heard came from a friend who said, "'Raima, I love your new scarf.'

"It was the best compliment I ever received, and I know I must have lit up with relief and gratitude," Amin said. "After that, I didn't care if people were whispering and pointing. I knew I had made the right decision and that I would never look back."

Ruhul said he and Shadmani consciously raised their daughters to fit into both American and Bangladeshi cultures.

"Since their childhood, we wanted them to be aware of their roots," he said. "People who forget their roots miss a large portion of their lives."

Fitting into Montana, the family fished and hiked around Gallatin County, floated down the Madison River, and sometimes gave in to cravings for pizza. They discussed school work and academic paths. ("I remember always being encouraged by my parents to work hard and be at the top of my class," Raima said.) Preparing for their summers in Bangladesh, Raima and Ruhani spent every day after school and many weekends reading, writing and speaking Bengali.

Ruhul said he and Shadmani realized early on that if they tried to teach their daughters English, the daughters would speak English like their parents--with an accent. As a result, the family only speaks Bengali at home. The parents decided to have their daughters learn English outside of the home, so their first lessons in English came from their friends at the ASMSU Day Care Center.

It was a wise decision that helped his daughters slip easily between cultures, Ruhul said. The ability to communicate in Bengali helped Raima obtain an internship at a Bangladeshi hospital and research center for diarrheal and infectious diseases last summer. At the same time, it led to her becoming an unofficial liaison between the Bangladeshi doctors and patients, and visiting medical students from Texas.

"She felt very much at home when she was doing that," Ruhul said.

Raima also seemed at home this fall while interviewing an elderly patient about why he was admitted to Bozeman Deaconess Hospital. The exercise was part of her training as a WWAMI student.

"She is going to be a great doctor," Dr. Luke Omohundro said after class ended for the day.

"She is someone who is very perceptive. She seems to, in a short amount of time, be able to have a really good feel for what someone's issues are. That's kind of a rare skill that is very helpful when you are a doctor because you must quickly assess where someone is coming from and quickly formulate a plan for how to help them."

That sort of social IQ is "something you can't teach," Omohundro said. "It's hard to learn."