Student of the Year

Aishwarya Iyer bioAishwarya Iyer

School of Medicine and Graduate School
MD/PhD Student

As Aishwarya Iyer’s thesis advisor, Katia Kontrogianni, PhD, has seen firsthand the impact of her mentee’s academic efforts, research pursuits, and extracurricular activities. In fact, in reviewing her credentials and nominating her for the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s (UMB) 2022 Founders Week Student of the Year Award, Kontrogianni was left a bit awestruck.

“Going through Aishu’s curriculum vitae, I felt an immense, almost overwhelming pride for this humble, unpretentious, compassionate, energetic, self-motivated, multitasking, hardworking, and inspired young woman,” said Kontrogianni, professor, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM). “She not only is a superb student and researcher, but also an outstanding citizen of our school who is driven by a genuine passion to ‘give back’ and ‘pay it forward.’

“Aishu has demonstrated superb leadership skills, aiming to positively impact her immediate and broad community and advance UMB’s diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice values and priorities, and she does it in an unassuming manner without seeking personal praise.”

Kontrogianni’s nomination was persuasive, with Iyer being selected as UMB’s Student of the Year to add to her impressive list of accolades and accomplishments. Iyer learned of the honor in a phone call from Roger J. Ward, EdD, JD, MSL, MPA, provost and executive vice president, UMB, and dean of the Graduate School. Showing off her trademark humility, Iyer thanked her teachers and collaborators for making the award possible.

“After Dr. Ward shared this news, I was flooded with a mixture of emotions including gratitude, honor, and disbelief,” Iyer said. “The way I see it, this recognition is not about me, but it is truly a reflection of the collaborative efforts among students, staff, faculty, and departments who work every day to enrich the community around us.

“Gratitude can’t even begin to describe how I feel, especially to my mentors and support system, who have unconditionally encouraged me in my journey.”

Iyer has certainly made her mark on the UMB community since arriving on campus in 2018 after earning a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where she received numerous honors including the Meyerhoff and Creighton Memorial scholarships and an NCAA Division I Intercollegiate Tennis Association Scholar-Athlete Award. 

Now a fifth-year MD/PhD student in the Medical Scientist Training Program, on track to earn her PhD in 2024 and medical degree in 2026, she carries a 4.0 graduate school grade-point average and is a trainee of a National Institutes of Health T32 research training program in gastroenterology and hepatology, working under Kontrogianni for her thesis work. 

“Since joining my group, Aishu has exceeded all my expectations and deeply impressed me in many ways,” Kontrogianni said. “She has remarkable energy and diligence and shows a high degree of individual initiative and creativity. Aishu is unusually quick to pick up new concepts and understand their implications.”

The extensive research experience in biochemistry and structural biology Iyer has accumulated through her high school, undergraduate, and graduate training has enabled her to build a strong foundation in discovery and translational science, deliver presentations at numerous national and international conferences, and earn co-authorships on research papers published in Science and the Journal of Molecular Biology.

She also finds time to engage with UMB organizations and initiatives. She was secretary (2020-21) and president (2021-22) of the University Student Government Association and continues to serve on working groups under the Office of Sustainability. She has worked with University leaders to address issues with food insecurity, sustainability, safety, and COVID-19, in addition to serving on search committees for UMSOM’s dean and UMB’s provost and executive vice president.

Patty Alvarez, PhD, MS, assistant vice president, Student Affairs, has worked with Iyer on a number of initiatives including establishing the UMB Food Pantry, which Iyer hopes to see expanded “to reach more students and destigmatize food insecurity.”

Alvarez calls Iyer “a values-driven, inclusive, and selfless leader.”

“Considering her academic demands and success, what she has accomplished through formal leadership roles at UMB and the School of Medicine is even more impressive,” Alvarez said. “Aishwarya managed her academics and leadership roles so well over the past year by very intentionally lifting up other student leaders. She wanted to give her peers meaningful leadership experiences and did not feel as if she needed to do everything herself.”

Iyer also has volunteered as a UMB CURE Scholars Program mentor, engaging with middle and high school students from West Baltimore in educational activities to cultivate their interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), as well as medicine and research. She says it’s important to give back to the community and provide guidance to the next generation of scholars and scientists.

“I ultimately want to become an impactful physician-scientist who bridges basic science and clinical medicine to push the boundaries of scientific discovery, of high scientific caliber and rigor, for the purpose of improving human health,” she said. “I also see it as a responsibility to serve the community in other ways to enhance general well-being. I have been fortunate to have extremely supportive mentors who have inspired me to give back.

“I want to be in a position where I can provide guidance and opportunities that will aid students in their personal and professional development,” Iyer added. “In addition, I’d like to establish a scholarship that will allow students who are passionate about STEM, but may not have the financial means to pursue higher education, the opportunity to attain the education, mentorship, and resources they desire.”

— Lou Cortina