Communication shapes who we are. It’s a lens for how we see the world and how we navigate people in all areas of our lives. Our upbringing molds our communication style—not hearing “sorry” being said or emotions being discussed candidly can impact us. For a Pakistani-Muslim woman like Zunaira Iftikhar, active communication can stretch the very things that are hushed in her community. That pliability allows these conversations to be explored further and lives are changed for the better. This is something I was thinking about when hearing Zunaira’s story. I was empowered to know that the very things I think about are something she actively explores along her pathway to becoming an obstetrician. Zunaira aims to demystify women’s reproductive health. This Dreams In-Progress interview candidly explores how Zunaira is working toward her dreams: struggling with challenging Biology classes & the volatile political climate, creating methods to center her mental wellness, and having life-changing experiences that strengthen her resolve to become a doctor.
We got so many awesome Instagram Story Viewer Questions. Thank you to Valli S., Rebecca H., Sania I., and Nebat A. for submitting! They can be found throughout the interview in teal. Thank you so much to Zunaira for collaborating on this blog post with me!
Name: Zunaira Iftikhar (she/her)
Born in: Lahore, Pakistan
Raised in: Santa Clara, CA
Degree: B.S. Biological Sciences (Systems Physiology); Chemistry & Political Science minors from San Jose State University
Intended Career: Gynecology and Obstetrics, MD
RECOGNIZING LIMITS & STRENGTHENING PURPOSE | COLLEGE
SA: Tell me about yourself!
ZI: I’m 22 years old, and I aspire to be an obstetrician. I got to this place in my life on a winding route. I didn’t have the most normal upbringing. I immigrated here from Pakistan when I was 10 years old. Ever since I was little, spending time with family has made me happy, but when we moved to America, struggling through the transition process by ourselves was difficult. When you don’t have a strong foundation at home, it relates to everything that you do. So, I was struggling with academics and making friends. We ended up moving houses when I was 12 years old. In middle school, I met the person who got me into Science. My 8th grade Science teacher was the best teacher I ever had, and I’m still in contact with her today. She spent time with me and invested in me. Ever since I experienced that, it’s been part of everything that I do. So, I’m someone who likes to invest fully into anything I do and really let that idea or person know that I’m 100% dedicated.
SA: What kinds of expectations did your family or society have in terms of major & career path?
ZI: My parents are not in the Science or healthcare field. A lot of the support I got from my parents was, “We love you. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, just be in school.” It was strong, emotionally-stable love, but I didn’t have access to resources that a lot of my peers had. As I’m growing older, I realize how many systemic resources people have from generational wealth. That is something I’m building on now; to make sure that my future generations have stable, resourceful support that my parents tried to build for me. As the eldest daughter, it was expected that I set the bar high, but I didn’t know what the bar was. I had to figure everything out on my own. While my friends were enjoying dances and events through club organizations, I was figuring out how my family could survive in America. Figuring out the healthcare and insurance systems as an immigrant who had to support my family, alongside being a high school student, was really difficult.
My parents believe that as long as I was educated, they had achieved the American Dream. They aren’t the kind of people to put education on the back burner. From Day 1, they didn’t want me to worry about the cultural obligations that young Pakistani women have to get married, to be someone they aren’t ready to be. When I started college, they were always pushing me to be where I want to be.
SA: How did you get into the Biological Sciences?
ZI: Junior year of high school, I took a Physiology class, and it was the first semester I got a C. I had never gotten a C before, so I was like, “What the heck, this class kicked my butt! What am I doing wrong?” The next semester, I used all the study techniques you can imagine. So, the next semester, I got a B+, but the grade didn’t really matter to me. What mattered more was the question of why I wasn’t doing well in a Science class. Ever since then, I immersed myself in Physiology and learning about the human body, and it was fantastic. Like, how are we standing up right now? How are your organs not falling down? Things like that are so fascinating to me.
San Jose State University (SJSU) was the only school I applied to that had a Physiology major, exactly by name. In regards to choosing a college, I needed to save money and get a degree. I was able to do that at SJSU. My first year of college was a complete disaster. As a 17-year-old, I was taking Introductory Biology, Chemistry and Physics classes, and it was not the way to go. It really made me learn how I study and the environment I flourished in.
At that time, I was also taking public transportation to get to school. That was when Donald Trump started campaigning, with strong rhetoric against People of Color, Muslims, and marginalized communities. It was really hard to be in public settings while wearing a headscarf. On public transportation, people shouted demeaning comments and made hand gestures that made me so uncomfortable. My 30-minute ride to school felt like forever. I realized that I was struggling in so many areas of my life—this wasn’t going to be one of them. So, I invested in a car. That helped me invest in my future and change my mental health.
SA: What were some significant experiences that shaped your pathway?
ZI: In the beginning of college, I had this big cloud over my head that said, “I want to be a doctor.” I had no idea how to get there, I didn’t know what the MCAT or clinical experience was. I was struggling with my academics so much that I didn’t think about the details of how I was going to become a doctor. That leads into my second year, where both of my parents got the flu at the same time. As someone who’s dad is always working and my mom who was working and a homemaker at the same time, it was like the society in my home stopped. Because my parents were sick and resting for 2 weeks, that was my moment to be like, “Alright, I have 2 younger siblings, who both have to go to school. I have to make sure my parents have what they need. I have to do this.” But I felt like I couldn’t do it all on my own. It made me recognize not only how important my parents’ health is, but also how important I am as well. I started recognizing what my limits are and how to surpass them. Your limits don’t have to limit you—they’re something for you to recognize and to keep going. I picked up prescriptions at Walgreens, and I didn’t know anything about how a pharmacy worked. When my parents got better, and I started getting better grades, I was like, “Okay, I can handle getting a job.” As I mentioned, I like to think about what I’m putting myself in and make sure I’m 100% dedicated to it. I realized that I wanted to work in the pharmacy.
I joined Walgreens as a customer service associate and told my manager that I was interested in working in the pharmacy. It’s not the experience of working in a hospital, but Walgreens was the way I got into medicine in the first place. When you’re looking into an opportunity, you should think about how you’ll be able to grow in that role. I worked in customer service for about 8 months, and for 4 of those months, I studied really hard for the pharmacy technician exam. With zero confidence, I walked into the testing center, took my exam—and I passed! Passing that exam was the largest boost of confidence I experienced to that date.
Sophomore year, I found out about a program through SJSU called Global Medicine Brigades. It’s basically where they choose a country approved by the organization where they send a set of 25 people on a medical brigade to help a triage clinic for 4-5 days, build water systems, and help with general public health. Money was always tight and that program costs around $3,000 to participate in. The only way I could have the opportunity to join the Global Medical Brigades was through my earnings at Walgreens. It goes to show that no job is too small. My experience with the brigade changed my life. The summer of 2017, I went to Nicaragua and worked with a gynecologist there. And that’s what completely changed my perspective of global healthcare. Healthcare is affected by whatever is going on in the country. That’s the first time I recognized that.
SA: That’s amazing. What eye-opening things happened while you were in Nicaragua?
ZI: I was struck by the fact that the general healthcare and dentistry stations had nice rooms, but the gynecology clinic was in a small room made of cement—it was dark and secluded. When I looked at the resources given to those different stations, it opened my eyes. Why is the women’s health area in a darkly lit room? The gynecologist was basically performing cervical exams and general vaginal health exams in the dark. Once, a pregnant patient arrived. The gynecologist, in Spanish, instructed me to make the letter C with my hand and insert it on top of the belly. I thought, “That’s crazy,” but I started feeling a baseball-like shape. And the gynecologist said, “Cabesa.” That was the fetus’ head. I took a step back and realized that it doesn’t matter what resources or instruments you have, in your situation, you can use anything to help a patient. I used a stethoscope to listen to the baby’s heartbeat, and I thought that so many things had to go right for the mom and the baby to be okay and to make it to full-term. That moment changed my life. I knew that this was it. I wanted to provide equal healthcare access to women.
SA: Oh my goodness, that must have been a lot to process. What was it like coming home?
ZI: There were a lot of people who helped me gather funds for the program. When I came back, I made a card for everyone who helped me get through this process. I was able to tell them how my trip changed my life. If I didn’t have those funds, I wouldn’t have had that moment, and I don’t know where I’d be right now. I had such a positive response. Hand-delivering a letter to my 8th grade Science teacher was such an emotional moment for me. From getting D’s and F’s in primary school, to realizing that I wanted to become a doctor, it was confirmed in my head that this is where I’m supposed to be. This is what garners the happiest Zunaira you can imagine.
There was a female reproductive physiology lab on campus, and it was a very competitive laboratory to join. I really had to think again: is this something I can handle? Even so, I really want to do it. After not getting an initial response from the professor, I emailed her again a couple of months later, which resulted in an interview. Eventually, I got into the lab and started working there in August 2018. I loved it! In the project I led to completion, we were looking at how a high fat diet affects follicular distribution and overall fertility. In ovaries, there are different types of follicles, and through histological experiments, we determined how fertile the organism was. My first task in the lab was to perform vaginal smears on mice. Every morning for 6 months, I woke up really early to do these vaginal smears on mice. Towards the end of my 6 months we started ovarian transplants. We had 2 sets of mice: one set was a younger age and one set was an older age. We wanted to see if the ovaries of young mice could affect how long the older mice could live.
I was moving physically, but I didn’t have time to emotionally or mentally think about what I was getting out of it. I didn’t get time to reflect—I was always on the go. It was a cycle of working at Walgreens, working in the lab, doing homework, and repeating. That was when I started having back problems. My upper back problem was mostly stress induced. I didn’t get to enjoy spending time with the people I cherish the most. Sure, the research and work was fun, but I couldn’t hang out and watch a movie with friends. That is when I started keeping my mental health in-check.
We have to talk about how the brown community doesn’t understand what mental health really is. My parents were super proud like, “Oh, my daughter is doing research and working at a pharmacy and has this great degree that she’s working on.” They really didn’t understand the physical and mental toll it took. Social media has a part to do in that—the way that we keep tabs on, “So-and-so is doing this, and so-and-so is doing that.” You try to hustle more, grind more, and do more to make yourself feel better. At the end of the day, I was not in touch with myself. I needed to take a step back to process my emotions. I was trying things out to make myself feel better and be okay with myself. I began typing whatever I was thinking and noticing where my anxiety was coming from. I started recognizing a pattern, and slowly I started working on controlling it rather than letting it control me.
One of the greatest pieces of advice that a professor gave me was: Sit down once a week and write down what you’re doing that week and how you’re planning to become a doctor. I realized that my fear was coming from doing too many things and not planning accordingly to my timeline. I started figuring out that my friends are my greatest support system. Any time I had anxiety about the MCAT, I’d call a friend and they would reassure me about all the things I’ve accomplished. You are your harshest critic, but the people who love you and support you remind you of what you’ve forgotten.
I delayed my graduation to winter of 2019. That was a personal decision I made, because I wanted to do so many things, which included completing a Political Science minor. I wanted to set myself up for success. My closest friends graduated in the spring/summer of 2019, and I was able to be part of their graduations, and it was a full-circle moment. They make every milestone so much better. They know what it’s like, because they saw me struggle through classes and work to get to where I am now. I met one of my closest friends because I wasn’t doing well in Genetics and we studied together. Even in our lowest moments, I realize that Allah (SWT) is there for us. For people who don’t necessarily have a religious compass: even at our lowest moments, something will come along that will make you realize that you deserve whatever you’re going to get.
Valli S. asks: What inspired/motivated you to pick obstetrician over another medical career?
ZI: I wanted to make sure that I loved my career. After hearing so many stories about unhappy work experiences, I chose the field where I could make the most difference.
“I’m someone who likes to invest fully into anything I do and let that idea or person know that I’m 100% dedicated.”– ZUNAIRA I.
BREAKING THE CULTURAL CEILING | POSTGRAD
SA: Tell me about your early moments of postgrad. What was it like applying to jobs?
ZI: I studied for the MCAT for a month and decided to take it in January 2020. In my opinion, studying for the MCAT is a “life is bleak” moment. Even in my sleep, I was dreaming about amino acids talking to each other. In February, I started applying across the spectrum to possible occupational positions. I applied to 2 fertility clinics, in addition to many biotech companies for my parents. Working at a fertility clinic is a dream job for me. I think a lot of people go to their job and might not necessarily like it—the commute, the stress, the 9 to 5 time frame, all of that. For me, those were like the Bio-Tech positions I was applying to. I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I was offered an opportunity and I took it!
So, I joined a fertility clinic in San Francisco, and I commuted there every day for a month. I was a Patient Navigator who helped women along their journeys with fertility treatments. Due to COVID-19, I was laid off. That really sucked. I had put my all into something, and I didn’t see the results I wanted. That made me recognize that even if I put 100% into something, sometimes things change—that 100% can totally be overlooked by a global pandemic.
While I was working at the clinic, I was still working in the pharmacy at Walgreens. I had 2 options after that: 1.) I quarantine and not do anything and 2.) I work. While I was contemplating on what to do, my dad got laid off from his job. So, the only person working would have been me. I don’t want to be in a position where we don’t have money again. They say that not everyone is dealt the same cards, and now that I had some cards in my hand, and I didn’t want to fold. So, I went to work. Currently, I’m working 4 to 5 days a week, where I’m giving people their medications and working with insurance companies to make sure we’re implementing the best safety precautions for our patients.
SA: How have you been keeping yourself grounded during postgrad?
ZI: I realized that I hadn’t spent quality time with my mom in a very long time. Also, my sister moved to UC Santa Cruz when she started college, and I didn’t see her a lot either. I was always immersed in my busy lifestyle. I had all this free time, and I was like, “Oh my god, what can I do?” My mom and I started going to the gym, exploring workouts like yoga, and more spontaneous activities like hiking at Shoreline Park. A lot of my break postgrad was spending it in Santa Cruz with my sister and mom. It was amazing; coffee, donuts, and Thai food became our thing.
SA: You mention cultivating a relationship with the women in your life. What’s it like navigating reproductive health in the Desi-Muslim community?
ZI: As a woman, there’s always a glass ceiling to break. On top of that, I have a cultural ceiling to break as a Pakistani woman. From my culture, there’s a lot of: “This is what a Pakistani woman does,” or “Zunaira, you should be getting married and learning how to cook.” With every decision, I’m breaking that cultural ceiling. I don’t think we put enough value on it. As an immigrant Pakistani-Muslim woman, that cultural ceiling is always there. It’s an everyday battle.
In 2015, someone very close to me had her first reproductive surgery. Throughout this silent process, I realized how misinformed I was about female anatomy. In 2018, she had another surgery but this time it was different. I took charge in this situation. Her first appointment was 6 to 8 weeks out. To be in pain for 6 to 8 weeks, what does that tell you about the kind of healthcare we have for people who are not in a high-income bracket? So, I accompanied her to doctor’s appointments and ultrasounds. I explained a lot of Physiology to her, by drawing out the uterus and the ovaries on a big white board. We talked about it extensively, in terms of what was going to happen in her procedures. That was a very eye-opening experience. I began to validate her reasons for seeing the doctor and explained to her why she needed to get the surgery. In many Desi-Muslim households, communication is lacking about visiting the doctor. Many times, people close to us have trouble vocalizing their fears—many people are afraid of visiting their primary care physician. Seeing someone have first-hand experience shows me that doctors must recognize how their patients got to their examining room and what barriers almost stopped them. Being able to communicate with someone who isn’t in the Science or medical field is crucial.
After obtaining my B.S. in Biology, I was more conscious of how the healthcare system operated, the terminology physicians were using, and what processes needed to happen for certain surgeries. When I was vocal about it, everyone was more vocal about it. If not you, then who? This cultural gap is going to be there forever. I have to continue to communicate with my loved ones and others that they deserve 100% of healthcare. You shouldn’t have to be shot to think you need to go to the hospital. Routine visits should be normal. When I get closer to my dream, I want that to be a more prominent thing. If anyone is going through something related to physical or mental health, to be able to talk to me about it.
SA: Being someone who wants to be that access point to talk to people about their health is so awesome. We need those people in our lives.
ZI: Honestly, what solidified my parents being open to the female reproductive world in the first place was my fertility clinic job. Just saying the word “fertility” to them, was huge. That’s what I want to wake up for everyday—women’s health. My mom would say, “Why can’t you just be a general doctor?” It’s all about seeing your Muslim, hijab-wearing doctor working at the hospital. A lot of Muslim women want to be seen by female gynecologists, so I want to make sure that each patient receives the greatest quality of healthcare. I have to break that cultural ceiling every step of the way.
Rebecca H. asks: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
ZI: I plan to be a practicing OBGYN in a hospital that primarily serves underserved minority populations.
SA: What has the pandemic been like for you? What have you been realizing?
ZI: What I’ve learned is to do what makes you the happiest you. Don’t wait to do things. Don’t let other responsibilities stop you. If you have a dream to go to Machu Picchu and be at the top stairs and look at the sky around you, do it. The quarantine has taught me that. We’re at home all the time and realizing all the things we can’t do right now. Post-quarantine, I’m sure we’re going to travel more and do what makes us happy. For me, if I like something and it makes me happy, that’s the only reason I need to do it.
In terms of wanting to be a doctor, the pandemic has really made me think about it. Did the doctors even sign up to be part of this? They were just handed a situation. They prepared for it, but it’s a lot to emotionally process that you’re on the frontlines of a pandemic. That made me think that if I’m part of that care team, I have to be that brave. There would be no time for me to think about whether I can put my 100% into it, I have to be able to adapt. In a month, the healthcare teams have totally turned things around.
Sania I. asks: What activities are you doing while in quarantine?
ZI: I am baking!! So far, I’ve made cinnamon rolls, double chocolate chip cookies, and brownies.
SA: What advice do you have for young Millennials & Gen Z-ers who are going through uncertainty right now?
ZI: A lot of my shortcomings have come from my own limits. Or what I thought were my limits. Somehow, I started thinking differently. My advice is that you can’t change your past, but you can change your future. It’s okay to say, “Yes, I made this mistake in the past, and it happened, but I have to look at the future.” You can only learn from the past. It’s really draining to put your energy into thinking about that past, when that energy can be used for the present. The past shows you how strong you are, but you can’t change it.
Nebat A. asks: If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?
ZI: Be kind to yourself and give yourself healthy breaks.
SA: What are 3 things you’re looking forward to after the pandemic calms down?
1. I’m looking forward to being in the same room as my friends and having a game/movie/snack night. And when I mean snacks, I don’t mean carrots and hummus dip—I mean, we’ll be having a popcorn bar. I’m ready to be with them. It’s a time to recognize the people around you and how much energy we feed off of each other.
2. Hanging with my mom. We haven’t been able to go to the gym, so we’ve been doing home workouts, but it’s not the same. I miss putting the window down in the car after we workout and just feeling good and refreshed.
3. Going on a boba run and drinking the boba at the boba shop. Especially now, it’s really rushed—just order, pick up, and go. Teaspoon is my favorite spot near my house, but overall, I really like TiSane in San Jose. I’m a simple person when it comes to boba: I either get something chocolatey or brown sugar milk tea.
ZUNAIRA’S TOP 5 FAVORITES:
- Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn
- A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini
- Becoming by Michelle Obama
- I know why the caged bird sings by Maya Angelou
- Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Areas of Science:
- Female Reproductive Physiology
- Human Genetics
- “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” —Maya Angelou
- “What has reached you was never meant to miss you, and what has missed you was never meant to reach you.” —Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)
- “Success is to be measure not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which [she] has overcame.” —Booker T. Washington
- “When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.” —Malala
- “If not me then who?” —Malala
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“It’s all about seeing your Muslim, hijab-wearing doctor working at the hospital.”– ZUNAIRA I.