The beauty of balance: Biology major, poet pursues scientific and artistic passions at UA
“I think the world needs a balance of everything.”
Above all, Pooja Dayal – a pre-medical biology major who writes and performs poetry– seeks that balance within herself.
“Especially a balance of science and art,” she says. “I can’t live without either.”
To Dayal – a junior in the Williams Honors College (WHC) at The University of Akron (UA) – science and art, rather than being opposed, are two lungs filled with the same breath, the same inspiration: the desire to discover the heart of things – that which pulses in poems and makes the stars burn and bodies move.
“An artist is always asking why,” she says. “I know many may perceive science as simply fact after fact, but in the greater view, a scientist also asks why, and how can I gain an understanding of the world in a way that makes sense, and maybe even in a way that will benefit those around me? What may seem to contradict between the scientist and the artist are actually ravishingly similar.”
The University, Dayal says, has given her the opportunity to answer those why and how questions by “channeling both energies,” scientific and artistic – whether it be preparing for the MCAT with her pre-med advisor, studying the brain as vice president of the Neuroscience Club, playing piano in the Honors Complex lounge or composing free verse in an Advanced Poetry course.
“The University is always supportive when it comes to exploring your different interests,” she says. “Your opportunities are endless – you can pursue anything you want. Whether you want to become a doctor, an artist or both, you can do it here.”
This self-directed academic exploration is at the heart of the WHC, says Dr. John Huss, interim dean of the WHC and professor of philosophy.
“Pooja, majoring in biology and writing award-winning poetry, perfectly embodies what we treasure in our Williams Honors Scholars: their willingness to go beyond classroom learning, and to follow their curiosity and creative drive wherever it may lead,” he says.
Dayal, a salutatorian from Gallia Academy High School in Gallipolis, Ohio, says she has long been interested in health care, since both of her parents, immigrants from India, are health care practitioners.
“I saw how much of a difference they were able to make in the lives of others, which I resonate with a lot,” she says. “I see it as a role of empowerment and healing – we all need each other to get better, and I would be playing a vital role in that by ensuring my patients are living stably and making the best out of their everyday lives. What is more fulfilling than that?”
Thus, the opportunity to secure a seat at the Northeast Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), as early as her sophomore year, through UA’s Early Assurance Pathway (EAP) program, Dayal says, made the University a “perfect match” for her.
She was admitted to NEOMED her sophomore year and hopes to someday treat a variety of patients, especially those needing care for mental health and addiction.
“I’m interested in so many areas of medicine, but the opioid crisis and mental health are such huge issues right now, especially in the Akron area,” she says. “With medicinal practice and therapy, I know I could help significantly. But I’m interested in seeing how my artistic abilities could somehow be utilized in my practice as well. … How can I heal you physically with the art of medicine, but how can I also unravel everything from within with the medicine of music and art?”
Healing with art
Indeed, art is therapeutic, she adds, because it is vital: “The world would not exist without it.”
For Dayal, the passion that animates art is also the “blood” that vivifies the practice of science, infusing with meaning and quality what might otherwise be mere quantities of “fact after fact.”
“I think it’s the best thing when I can go into a science class and bring that passion into it,” Dayal says.
She found that passion in one of her Honors Colloquium courses, where, in addition to learning about health care, she and her peers ventured out of the classroom to volunteer at nonprofit organizations, such as the Battered Women’s Shelter, the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank and the Ronald McDonald House of Akron.
Dayal also found that passion, that vitality, in her professors, such as Dr. Catherine Konopka, visiting assistant professor of biology.
“She was so passionate about her job, which I connected with, and which made the class really interesting to me,” she says. “She really inspired me to continue pursuing science even more. … She had the best interest for her students too, which I saw as a very motherly instinct at times.”
That “motherly instinct,” an instinct of that most exalted passion called love, is what Dayal celebrates in her poem, “Mother,” which won the Literary Art Juried Grand Prize at the 2018 High Arts Festival in Akron last fall.
The festival, sponsored by Peg’s Foundation and the Ohio Arts Council, and made possible by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts Challenge, is a 23-day showcase of local visual art, music, film and literary art, with more than $32,000 in cash prizes awarded by public vote and juries of local artists, professionals and academics.
Dayal learned about the festival through the University’s weekly electronic newsletter for students, Zipmail, and submitted her application to Heather Pollock, the festival’s literary coordinator and UA education abroad coordinator and visiting instructor in the WHC.
Dayal performed “Mother” live at Nightlight Cinema, moving audience members to tears as she described her mother, in the words of the poem, as a “true work of art” and “eternal lover.”
“I had never performed a poem before, and I was kind of nervous, but when I was telling this story about my mom, I just let go of everything, I felt free – I never felt that free before,” she says. “I was telling her story from my heart, and as I was telling it, I wasn’t aware of what was happening around me. After I was done, a lady came up to me, and she said, ‘Did you realize that people were tearing up?’”
For Dayal, born in the West and daughter of the East, the poem is another balancing act, a looking back into her ancestral past while looking forward to generations of women to come.
“Out of all the women in my ancestry, I am the most privileged,” she says. “I have the most opportunity in front of me, so I need to use my voice and tell their stories as much as I possibly can. Not only will this help me be a voice of representation for women like my mother, but also women around me.
“Since coming to UA, I’ve found a very diverse group of women whom I consider to be my sisters. They support, uplift, empower me, and I love being able to do the same for them. My goal as an artist is to instill pride and power in being a woman – something I feel every girl should grow up knowing and believing.”
Williams Honors College
Students in our prestigious Williams Honors College live in the Honors Residence Hall with other high-achieving, self-motivated students. They can apply for additional scholarships, and gain leadership experience through student organizations and through the Honors Leadership Summit. Further, students in the Williams Honors College design their own research focus, and get personal attention from faculty advisers.