Extraordinary Odyssey

Ariunaa Bayanjargal

Ariunaa Bayanjargal. Photo by Micki Leventhal

Biological Sciences junior Ariunaa Bayanjargal first came to the U.S. from Mongolia in 2008 for a summer work program that left her without job or residence. Since that time her determination, intelligence, resilience, and positive attitude—as well as the inspiration of her mother—have served her well as she journeyed from her first unhappy experiences to her success at UIC and a future as an MD/PhD cancer researcher and oncologist.

“I have always dreamed of going to medical school and at UIC many doors have opened up,” she said. “On paper it looks like I’ve done everything myself, but there are many people who have helped me. Beth Powers, in the Office of Special Scholarship Programs, is my number-one go-to person. She always has time for me and is a huge supporter. Biology advisor Tricia Stark has been great. There are many opportunities at UIC, but you have to take the initiative.

“I want to encourage people to be proactive. You learn about many opportunities that way,” said Bayanjargal, who is the recipient of a number of scholarships and grants for research and study abroad.

Back in 2008, as an 18-year-old dental school student, Bayanjargal arrived in Florida with other Mongolian students only to find that the employment they were expecting was a sham. “We had one contact phone number and this person came and brought us to a small apartment already filled with 15 other students,” she said. “He showed us a corner we could sleep in—after we purchased a mattress from the local Walmart. There were no jobs. We were pretty panicked.” 

One member of the group had a friend in Chicago, who advised them to head for Chicago immediately. After working with the Chicago Mongolian community to obtain housing, Bayanjargal got a job in a nail salon. Her next project was to improve her English skills, so she applied for a permanent student visa and began language classes.

Realizing that her best options for a quality higher education would mean staying in the U.S. long-term, Bayanjargal turned to her mother for advice.

Bayanjargal and her mother (left)

Ariunaa Bayanjargal (right) with her mother Bujidniaa. They met in Turkey during Bayanjargal’s 2014 study abroad; they had not seen each other for six years.

“She told me it was time to make my own decision and build a life,” Bayanjargal explained. “She has had a very hard life—working for 20 years as an electrical technician in the coal mines in our rural town in Mongolia, surviving domestic abuse, losing four children to disease—she did not want that life for me. She could have easily pushed for me to come home—I was her only living child and she was alone—but she did not do that. It was a very big liberating moment. My mom is my best support system and the best possible role model and parent.”

Bayanjargal enrolled at Oakton Community College, completing her associate degree in liberal arts, with high honors. Along the way she was granted refugee status and permanent residency. This change in status allowed her to enroll at UIC for fall 2012.

One of her first classes at UIC was Biological Sciences 100 with Associate Professor Robert Paul Malchow. “I saw that he is a very passionate person about science research and also loves to teach undergraduates,” she said. “I had heard that there were opportunities to do independent research at UIC and I got up the courage to approach him.”

Malchow was receptive to her interest and took her on for an independent study to prepare for working in his laboratory. Bayanjargal then learned about the LAS Undergraduate Research Initiative (LASURI). She and Malchow applied for and won funding for a project doing basic research on the modulation of retinal glial cell shape by osmolytes and neurotransmitters. This research is essential to gaining knowledge about visual perception and its role in how we are able to think, feel, and perceive the world around us.

“Many people who are not in the sciences don’t really understand what ‘basic research’ means and how important it is,” she said. “If you really want to fix a problem, you must understand every detail of what is happening at the molecular level—every interaction, every pathway. Without building from the basic research, you can perhaps treat symptoms and you might even stumble into a cure—but that is luck, not knowledge. The research skills I am honing under the mentorship of Dr. Malchow—right now discovering essential factors in how the brain functions—are research skills that are applicable to all my future work as a scientist/physician.”

Bayanjargal in Copenhagen

Bayanjargal in Copenhagen.

While working on the LASURI project with Malchow, an opportunity she couldn't refuse emerged. With guidance from Albert Miliauskas in the Study Abroad Office, she obtained a spot in the Medical Practice & Policy program at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad. With assistance from a number of grants and scholarships, Bayanjargal spent spring term 2014 in Copenhagen where she took classes and did field studies in hospitals in Denmark, Sweden, and Estonia, learning about various countries’ health systems.

“I talked with some great doctors who donated their time working with illegal immigrants in Sweden,” she said. “I also took a class called ‘Complexity of Cancer’ which allowed me to learn more about both the clinical side of oncology and as the molecular mechanisms of cancer. That’s what started me thinking about doing cancer research.”

Not one to let a learning opportunity escape, Bayanjargal participated in the summer 2014 SUCCESS program, hosted by the Medical Scientist Training Program at Ohio State University College of Medicine. She researched a protein that shows promise as a biomarker in breast cancer. “This program was wonderful,” she said. “It is designed specifically for undergraduates considering the MD/PhD track and exposed us to the work to help us decide if this is really where we want to go with our education.”

packing books

Bayanjargal volunteering at a book drive.

In August, Bayanjargal returned to UIC to continue her coursework and her volunteering—which includes tutoring science and shadowing a physician at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center—and to pick up on her LASURI project.

“To have enthusiastic students like Ariunaa working in the lab, learning to answer questions in a scientific framework and beginning to see science as a vibrant, lively, and engaging endeavor—rather than the accumulation of facts in a textbook—is a wonderful thing,” said Malchow, who is now director of the UIC Laboratory of Integrative Neuroscience.

“My dream, once I finish my schooling, is to spend 30 percent of my time with patients and 70 percent doing research,” she explained. “You cannot really ‘cure cancer’—that is a false statement because there are many different kinds of cancers with different molecular mechanisms—but making a contribution that would help elevate the condition of patients, that would be wonderful.

“This career cannot happen in Mongolia, but once I am a working professional—probably by the time I am 40,” Bayanjargal laughed, “I would like to make a contribution to my home country by helping to reform the medical curriculum there, or developing summer programs for Mongolian medical students.

“And, I would love it if my mom could come here, if even for a visit. It would be nice to have her by my side.”

Photos courtesy of Bayanjargal unless otherwise indicated