Bulldogs of Butler: Paola Ariza

Senior Paola Ariza promotes the value of DEI through art while on the pre-med track. Photo by Grace Hensley.

EVA HALLMAN | STAFF REPORTER | ehallman@butler.edu

Members of the Butler community are achieving extraordinary things, both on and off campus. From first-years to alumni to administrators and back, each Bulldog has a story to tell. Read on to discover the next of our Bulldogs of Butler through a Q&A style interview.

From daytime scientist to nighttime resident assistant and artist, senior biochemistry major Paola Ariza is making her brushstroke here on Butler’s campus. Ariza’s work was featured in the dedication of the Levinson Family Hall and will soon be permanently featured on the third floor. Her journey as a POC in pre-med is expressed in her art as she hopes to inspire the Butler community on the importance of POC representation in STEM.  

The Butler Collegian: As a current Butler student, share with us your Butler journey. What brought you here, what made you stay and how do you remember your time here? 

Paola Ariza: I came to Butler because my stepdad actually went here, so Butler was already on my radar. I’m a big believer in fate. Butler was persistent with their emails. I got [a] scholarship statement, and they wanted to interview me. I couldn’t believe it. Later, [Butler] told me I got aid from the Morton-Finney scholarship. Then I was admitted into the Honors Program. I was like, “This is like meant to be.” I’m getting all these signs, and I came to Butler here, and I met a lot of really good people.

[When] I was in high school, I didn’t get the chance to be super involved or anything. When I came into Butler, I was like, “I’m gonna do everything that my heart desires.” In my first year, I was super involved. I became a tour guide, and I’ve been one ever since. I also was involved in student government. 

I had always been an artist in high school. When I was still in my original [health science] major freshman year, I wanted to do a neuroscience minor and still be involved in art. With my major, [my academic advisors] were like, “No, you’re not going to be able to [be involved in art.]” I switched my major to biochemistry. When I [switched majors], I started to get more involved in my art because then I could take art classes. I could do my neuroscience minor and everything that I wanted to do. 

TBC: Tell us about your experience on the pre-med track.

PA: I grew up in Mexico, so I saw the issues at the border. Then I grew up in the Midwest so I came [to Butler] knowing I wanted to be a doctor. After COVID-19, I actually worked at a clinic and did COVID research on the access to vaccines of different immigrant populations.

I’ve been doing physical [complementary and alternative medicine] research with Dr. Hopkins here at Butler, since my sophomore year. Then that summer, I did research at the University of Michigan. I did cardiology research. Into my junior year, I did more research and went to the American Chemical Society Conference that March. 

Throughout my experiences like being in STEM, there’s a lack of diversity. I think my artwork has always been merging science and art. After being in science for so long, I realized my three passions were art, science and diversity efforts. 

This past summer, I worked at Eli Lilly, but I also decided to apply to [Butler Summer Institute] because you could do an art advocacy project. That sort of finally culminated all the experience that I had either at Butler, the University of Michigan or Eli Lilly into a single project. 

I think just having these opportunities is what has kept me here. Whenever I talked to other POC scientists, there’s always a point in our career here at Butler, “Should I transfer? Should I go somewhere more diverse or something?” I think the continued opportunity to do projects showed me that Butler is committed to promoting DEI efforts.

What shifted my pre-med journey while I’ve been at Butler is my shadowing. It fortified that I wanted to do pre-med, but also I think I want to do an M.D.-Ph.D or an M.D.-MPH [dual] degree. That’s what’s really changed being here at Butler, realizing that I don’t just want to be a doctor or a physician — I want to be a scientist too. 

TBC: Your work was recently featured in the newly renovated Levinson Family Hall. Tell us about that process. 

PA: In my junior year, I encountered many POC first years that came into pre-med. They were faced with a lot of backlash from advisors. I even received some comments from faculty saying, “Oh, it’s going to be too hard for you. Maybe you should look into nursing and stuff.” This was my first semester, and it made me really mad and upset. When I talked to other pre-med students who weren’t POC, they weren’t receiving that feedback. It instilled this passion in me. 

At that point, I met an artist who had done BSI the past summer, and they did an art advocacy project, showing Latino faces at Butler. When I saw her project and heard the feedback from my mentor students, it made me really want to propose a project. I think it’s a really big issue because even as a POC [in] STEM throughout my career at Butler, [it] has been very isolating. 

With this project, I wanted to inspire the new students that are coming in and educate faculty and administration. I was really nervous because I don’t have a minor or major in art. I was like, “Are they even gonna accept me in this project?” I proposed the project and my portfolio through the support of [the art department] and my mentor Dr. Peter Wang. Plus, part of the project was [that]I want it installed [in Levinson], and I’m not going to stop until it’s installed. I got accepted into BSI. I have talked to the dean and professors, and they’re like, “Yeah, we want this installed.”

This led to other opportunities. One of my paintings was given during the commemoration of Levinson Family Hall. They also want to show some of my artwork at the grand opening of the whole complex next semester. It’s like jumping on other small little opportunities if that makes any sense. We’re working on hopefully getting [my work] installed permanently, but there are just so many processes to go through.

TBC: How are you balancing your artistic endeavors while pursuing rigorous academics as a STEM major on the road to pre-med?

PA: I didn’t always think that this was going to happen. Some people read or play music, and art has always been what I do. I didn’t always sell my artwork, especially during the first couple of years that I was at Butler. It was more of a de-stressor, almost meditation.

I got involved in more DEI efforts with my project. I interviewed POC in STEM, and through the project, there was one doctor I interviewed, and she was like, “You’re really talented. I don’t think you should just be a physician; you should continue on this art path and figure out a way to incorporate it.” I’ve looked at medical illustration programs and different things to do in combination with pursuing an MD so that I don’t have to choose between them.

TBC: What are your plans post-Butler?

PA: My ultimate goal is to go to medical school. I am taking a gap year next year, and I’m in the process of figuring out what [to do in that] gap year. I got an offer from Eli Lilly, but I’m looking to do more research. 

I think that my focus has changed into going a little bit more into public health and addressing public health issues and public health concerns in regard to POC and immigrants. After [my gap year], I’m going to apply to medical school. Hopefully, I’ll get in.

TBC: What advice do you give current and future Bulldogs looking to pursue their artistic dreams while focusing on academics? 

PA: I think you can do anything that you want to do; it’s all time management. I hate when people say, “Oh, you can’t do it.” It makes me mad. Listen to people’s advice, but when you know, you know. 

If I had always listened to what my advisor said freshman year or listened to the many people, I would not be where I am. Sometimes you have to follow your gut feeling. Tell yourself, “I’m going to do it and we’ll figure it out.”


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