The award frees Jamil to study neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, and helps lay the foundation for her to join the ranks of women scientists doing research in that field.

Zahra Jamil, a chemistry major in the Brooklyn College Scholars Program, has been awarded the 2021 Belle Zeller Scholarship. For Jamil, the funding means the autonomy to pursue her dream of entering the medical field and continuing her research without financial constraints.

A visit to her pediatrician’s office after immigrating from Pakistan at the age of 10 sparked Jamil’s passion for medicine. Jamil saw a door of possibility for herself open when she observed a woman in the important role that she had previously only seen occupied by men. She later sought ways to get involved in the field. In high school, she conducted an independent study on myopia, or nearsightedness, and competed in science competitions.

During her freshman year at Brooklyn College, Jamil was introduced to epigenetics in a General Biology course. After taking the class, she reached out to Mariana Torrente, assistant professor of chemistry, who invited Jamil to join as a student researcher in her lab on neurodegenerative diseases. She has spent the past three years gaining practical experience studying diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

“The experience of being in the lab opened my eyes to the representation of women, especially women of color and Muslim women, that is needed in research,” says Jamil, who is passionate about increasing representation in medical research.

Last summer, Jamil interned at The Tisch Cancer Institute at New York University, participating in studies in the cancer lab at Mount Sinai hospital and gaining critical clinical experience. She has also completed an internship with NYU’s Neuroscience Department at Mount Sinai, where she studied the usage and effects of opioids and cannabidiol (CBD).

Belle Zeller, professor emerita of political science and a recipient of the 1980 President’s Medal, taught at Brooklyn College for more than 40 years. She was the founding president of the Professional Staff Congress/CUNY (PSC), a union for CUNY’s instructional staff. In 1979, the PSC established the scholarship in Zeller’s honor. It is awarded each year to CUNY students with outstanding academic achievement and service to their community. The awardees receive $2,500 twice yearly until they complete 120 credits, so long as they remain a full-time CUNY student, maintain a 3.75 GPA or better, and continue their community service.

The scholarship is further motivation for Jamil.

“It gives recipients the freedom to pursue things that will benefit us without the hindrance of financial worries,” she says.

Jamil plans to complete an M.D.-Ph.D. after graduation and become an example for young women considering a career in health care. “I aim to overcome disparities in medicine both locally and globally,” says Jamil, who intends to travel to rural and underserved communities to promote education. “There is a need for conversations in communities that do not have access. I want to work toward the affordability and accessibility of medicine. Health care should not be a privilege of the few, but a basic human right that’s accessible to everyone.”