NEWS RELEASE, 05/06/98
UC Berkeley's top senior, 20-year-old Mekhail
Anwar, graduates May 22 with his life already mapped out
BERKELEY -- With a maturity beyond his years, Mekhail Anwar, a graduating senior at UC Berkeley, has already sketched out his life plan. First medical school, then a PhD in electrical engineering, followed by research and teaching in the area of bioMEMS, and to cap it all, a start-up biotech firm to "put my ideas on the drawing board."
Ambitious plans for a 20-year-old. But Anwar has the focus, talent and modesty to make it happen.
"He's got these goals that, if it were anyone else, I'd say, 'Cool it a bit!'" said neurobiologist W. Geoffrey Owen, a UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology who has supervised Anwar's honors research for the past year. "But I'm absolutely sure Mekhail will meet his goals."
Anwar is this year's recipient of the 1998 University Medal, since 1871 the campus's top honor for a graduating senior. As the new medalist, he will deliver an address at the all-class Commencement Convocation on Tuesday, May 12, at 4 p.m. in Zellerbach Auditorium.
With a GPA of 3.974, Anwar graduates on May 22 with a B.S. in physics. At the moment he is considering an offer from Harvard and MIT, where he would get a PhD in electrical engineering at MIT and then transfer into Harvard Medical School. He also is interested in the MD/PhD program at UCLA, which he hopes will allow him to pursue a PhD at UC Berkeley.
Wherever he lands, he leaves behind a string of accomplishments at UC Berkeley. Using physics as a springboard, Anwar conducted research on silicon wafers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory during his sophomore year, helped design memory circuits at Texas Instruments one summer, and
subsequently got involved in neurobiology and developed an interest in MEMS devices - two fields he hopes to merge.
Microelectromechanical systems or MEMS are microscopic sensors and actuators with many potential applications, such as "implantable pumps to deliver insulin to diabetics, or blood pressure sensors that will release antihypertension drugs when a person's blood pressure gets too high," he said.
"I am convinced that clinically related research in neurobiology, for example prosthetic components for the nervous system, could lead to some of the biggest miracles of our time," he wrote in the essay he submitted in applying for the medal.
As preparation he worked in Owen's laboratory studying nerve cells in the eyes of salamanders, trying to discover how signals are processed in the retina and brain. Physics, though, was the foundation that prepared him to tackle these fields.
When he came to UC Berkeley in 1994, fresh out of Westminster High School in Orange Co., Calif., physics was the last thing he wanted to major in.
"My father teaches physics at Cal State Long Beach, so the only thing I knew I did not want to do was physics," Anwar said. "But when pre-med courses weren't what I wanted my father said, 'Why not give it a try?'"
He did, and found that he loved the camaraderie of the students, particularly among the 30-some honors students who tracked through the same courses. He ended up working as a teaching assistant for several undergraduate physics courses.
"That was one of the most fun times I've ever had," he said. "The thing I'll remember most about UC Berkeley are the people - my friends and fellow students, and the faculty who have been both mentors and friends."
Some of these friends also helped put him in touch with his heritage. Of East Asian descent (his father Zahur is from Bangladesh), he lived in International House his junior year and met a diverse group of students from around the world.
From this emerged a greater interest in his Bangladeshi ancestry, first sparked when he visited Bangladesh with his father in 1995. Last year he organized a display of Bangladeshi food, clothing, music and art for the I-House's Annual Springfest. Anwar also volunteered with a group called ASHA, which raises money to start rural education programs in India.
"Sharing my culture and learning about others has been one of my most colorful and enjoyable experiences at Cal," he wrote
Of mixed ancestry (his mother Mary is of European descent), Anwar admits that "my parents have had to adjust more than I have" to differing cultural attitudes. Though his parents originally met in the United States, they had planned to live in Bangladesh, then East Pakistan. But when violence broke out in 1971 as the region fought for independence, the two fled through the American embassy and settled in Southern California.
Anwar seems to have inherited his mother's spirit. A former physics student herself, she now teaches medical statistics at California State University, Long Beach.
"One of the people I really admire is my mom," he said. "She instilled in my sister and me that you have to be focused and not let anyone divert you from your goal, you have to be independent.
"But, like my mother, I always try to keep a balance with who is important in my life."
Anwar's sister Shamena, 18, also is a UC Berkeley student, majoring in economics and statistics. Her sights, too, are set on a PhD.
From both his father and mother he inherited a love of teaching as well, hence his plan to become an academic.
"I enjoy a variety of things, so I couldn't see myself doing just one thing with my life," he said. "I want to be involved in the whole process, from laboratory work to working with patients and developing a real product.
"I can see my life starting to come together," he said, "and this award helps me build up steam, it gives me a strong push to go forward."
As for the Berkeley experience, Anwar said, "it's is a real center of intellectual and political discussion, as well as cultural. I've seen Jessie Jackson and Jerry Brown. I even met Al Gore at Strada Cafe. I wouldn't have chosen any other place."
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