Listening, learning, leading

CATEGORIES: News, Students


Durga Sritharan pictured by the “Breaking Barriers” sculpture at the entrance to Jack Trice Stadium. Sritharan led a session on Trice at this spring’s ISCORE event. (Alyson O’Hara/Iowa State University)

Durga Sritharan (’23 biology) grew up with a severe peanut allergy and has always appreciated her positive relationship with her allergist.

“I’ve seen him since I was a kid,” she said. “Now that I’m older, he not only treats me as a patient but also as a future medical student. He will explain what’s happening, why, what we know and next steps to investigate what we don’t know.”

Those interactions helped spark Sritharan’s interests in health and medicine and her desire to one day provide similar support to others. At Iowa State, she’s pursuing her ambitions in health and medicine through research and leadership experiences focused on connection and community.

Building relationships through research

Sritharan was eager to do undergraduate research at Iowa State that would allow her to gain exposure in the field of clinical research. She was intrigued to learn that Elizabeth Stegemöller, an associate professor in kinesiology, studied the relationship between group therapeutic outreach initiatives and motor symptoms in persons with Parkinson’s disease.

Sritharan joined the Alternative Medicine and Music for Parkinson’s Disease Laboratory two years ago and now helps host its singing and dance outreach groups for community members with Parkinson’s disease. Each week, she welcomes participants, builds relationships with participants and student volunteers, and collects data on participants’ motor symptoms before and after outreach group attendance. A few favorite tunes of the group include “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” and “Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night.

“Before taking song requests, we do vocal warmups to focus on articulation and breath control,” she said. “Parkinson’s disease can also affect swallowing, so our goal is to get the soft palate and other muscles moving.”

Sritharan also had an opportunity to conduct Parkinson’s disease research in a traditional lab environment at the Kanthasamy Laboratory through National Student Exchange. She attended the University of Georgia for a semester, which allowed her to study away from her hometown of Ames, spend time near extended family, and gain additional research experience in preparation for medical school.

Opening doors through ISCORE

One of Sritharan’s other transformative research experiences came as a surprise.

During her first year on campus, Sritharan shared a poster presentation at the Thomas L. Hill Iowa State Conference on Race and Ethnicity (ISCORE) as part of the George Washington Carver Scholarship Program and Academy.

“I knew immediately after the conference that I wanted to stay connected to it in some capacity, but I didn’t know what was possible,” she said.

Durga Sritharan. (Alyson O’Hara/Iowa State University)

She’s since become a true student leader for the conference. Sritharan has presented research all four years at ISCORE on topics such as music and activism, health disparities, and the ongoing legacy of Jack Trice. Additionally, she will be presenting at the NCORE (National Conference on Race and Ethnicity) for the second time in June. Sritharan also served on this year’s ISCORE Planning Committee and even contributed to the creation of the NCORE-ISCORE Scholars and Ambassadors Club to continue the growth of relationships and encourage mentorship between alumni and current scholars. In 2023, she received the NCORE-ISCORE Brenda Jones Change Agent Award for her leadership and commitment within the initiative.

“The ISCORE office is basically where I spend a lot of my time,” she said with a laugh.

“Growing up, I didn’t really have too many conversations about race and ethnicity as a person of color,” she added. “I went to a predominantly white, K-12 school. Coming here, I had no expectations, but ISCORE was overwhelming in the best way possible. You have the space to engage in dialogue regarding race and ethnicity, and people will listen to you and welcome the sharing of your experiences and perspectives. Then you have the opportunity to do the same for others.”

Sritharan experienced the importance of those conversations after she presented her lyrical expression, “Thoughts of The Little Brown Girl,” at last year’s ISCORE. The poem, originally written for a class assignment, shares her perspective as a Sri Lankan-American student.

After the poem was published in the academic journal JCSCORE (Journal Committed to Social Change on Race and Ethnicity), shared on social media, and featured in the Iowa State Daily, Sritharan began receiving grateful comments from across campus.

“My former professors, peers, and even individuals I didn’t know at Iowa State emailed me and expressed their gratitude for my vulnerability and willingness to share my experiences publicly,” she said. “The overall experience opened a lot of doors for me, and I have felt a lot more comfortable sharing my perspective on issues pertaining to social justice. It was very rewarding knowing that people could understand and relate to what I was saying.”

Learning and leading

Sritharan also serves on the LAS Pulse and SVPSA Student Advisory Boards, and she is a mentor for both a local elementary student and her peers in the biology learning community. She said her favorite part of teaching and mentoring is learning new things from her students, and she hopes to continue learning and leading as a future professional in the health care environment.

“Not only do I wish for my future patients and their families to learn from me, but I also want to learn from them,” she said. “I want to be more than just a physician for them. I genuinely want to help both inside and out of the clinical setting, and I aspire to form interpersonal connections with individuals from all walks of life.”