Zarinah’s Michigan Answer: Helping Graduate Students to Overcome Obstacles

The pressure on a biomedical scientist in training can be intense. The unending knowledge they must capture and comprehend along with the years they must invest in order to prove the merit of their ideas can understandably feel like a heavy burden. After all, their goal is to eventually help others live healthy and full lives.


I’ve always been attracted to helping others develop their full potential.

But who helps these scientists achieve their goals? The answer is people like Zarinah Aquil.

“I’ve always been attracted to helping others develop their full potential,” says Zarinah, program administrator of the Graduate Program in Immunology at University of Michigan Medical School, part of Michigan Medicine.

After spending the first six years of her career teaching language arts to middle and high school students, Zarinah was inspired to take her teaching aspirations to a bold new level —transitioning to higher education administration in 2005.

“More than anything, I love the lightbulb moments when a student understands a concept for the first time. I really wanted to take my career to a new place by helping adults to do the same thing,” reflects Zarinah. 

And what could be bigger than helping someone to become a scientist? That’s what Zarinah asked herself when she joined the Michigan Medicine family. The doctoral students’ research work in their laboratories includes a variety of immune aspects related to cancer, obesity, aging, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, severe allergies and infectious diseases. “In fact, our university president, Dr. Mark Schlissel is an immunologist, too,” touts Zarinah.

Zarinah gets to help grad students navigate the often challenging waters of not only grad school course work, financial aid, requirements and personal matters, but also advise them on how to reach their milestones in advancing research and gaining employment. She also plays a pivotal role in bringing suggestions for program improvement from faculty and trainees to life.

“I really love knowing that I can assist in developing this next generation of scientists and guiding them in achieving their passions, commitments and dreams,” says Zarinah. “From the time they start until the time they graduate, I manage countless interactions and really get to see them grow and go.”

In addition to the mental and emotional toll of graduate school, another great challenge students report facing is the enormous time commitment required for study and research. Zarinah appreciates the impact of being able to be with them in the hardest of moments to offer optimism and connect them with support resources. 

“It’s really challenging to be a doctoral student. And as a result, I consider it my job to be a dependable member of their support infrastructure, to see them through the arduous doctoral process and to never let them give up, no matter how long and grueling the hours are in the lab or how tough it is to keep up on the reading of scientific literature and publishing their own research,” says Zarinah. 


I believe service to others is important inside and outside of one’s career, and as a result I relish playing a leading role in championing causes that I think make us all better.

In addition to working with graduate students at the medical school, Zarinah also assists the university in fostering many initiatives that will enhance the employee experience, including participation in the university’s Women of Color Taskforce and Anti-Racism Oversight Diversifying the Workforce Subcommittee, among many others.

“I take pride in playing my part in trying to level the playing field,” shares a passionate Zarinah. “I always endeavor to work toward finding solutions. I believe service to others is important inside and outside of one’s career, and as a result I relish playing a leading role in championing causes that I think make us all better.”

The common thread across much of her work is a desire to help support the ability of faculty and learners at U-M to be wall-breakers and bridge-builders, people who find ways to collaborate across units and find solutions to make the workplace better for all.