Outstanding Graduate Akhila Narla: College of Arts & Sciences

Environmental biology pioneer has passion for service

Narla, shown here in the Elizabeth Gray Danforth Butterfly Garden, plans to use her environmental biology degree to go to medical school eventually and help alleviate poverty.
Narla, shown here in the Elizabeth Gray Danforth Butterfly Garden, plans to use her environmental biology degree to go to medical school eventually and help alleviate poverty.

A family trip to India as a child sparked such a profound desire in Akhila Narla to lessen poverty that she is delaying the pursuit of a medical degree so she can work with underprivileged teens to improve their health and education.

When she receives her degree May 18, she will be among Washington University in St. Louis’ inaugural class of environmental biology graduates.

Narla, of Chandler, Ariz., also minored in public health with plans to seek her medical degree. But first, she’ll spend two years on a Navajo reservation teaching high school students science and health through the Teach for America program.

“I’m really passionate about alleviating extreme poverty, and there are many issues Native Americans face that I learned about through the Udall scholar community,” Narla says.

For her interest in environmental issues and work in the geographic spread of tick-borne illnesses, she won a Morris K. Udall Scholarship, granted to students who focus on environmental and Native American/Alaskan health and tribal issues.

Narla’s decision to delay pursuit of a medical degree is rooted in her first visit to her parents’ homeland, India.

“I slept on the floor and cockroaches crawled across my legs,” she says. “A lady with no fingers begged me for alms in the streets. I ran back to my mom and asked for money to give her. But I felt like it wasn’t enough. I wanted to prevent her situation from even happening.”

Back home in Arizona, Narla’s mother, Aru, and father, Suba, continued to foster a spirit of service in their daughter. They would take her and her sister regularly to do service projects to help the poor in the area, such as serving food at a homeless shelter.

At WUSTL, her professors provided different opportunities to explore her interest in science, social entrepreneurism and poverty elimination.

“What impresses me most about Akhila is her can-do attitude, tremendous leadership skills and ability to really accomplish lasting and meaningful work, be it in her academics, research or social change efforts,” says her adviser Joy Kiefer, assistant dean and director of undergraduate research in the College of Arts & Sciences.

One project in particular framed her college experience, Narla says. She co-founded the nonprofit group Crafts By Youth, which contracted with young men and women in Iganga, Uganda, and now women in the village of Naigobya, to create recycled-paper bead jewelry and marketed their product to retailers.

Working with the non-governmental organization Uganda Development and Health Associates, Crafts By Youth puts money from jewelry sales back into developing the program in Naigobya and helping the craftsmakers improve their lives by being able to afford books for school, food and basic shelter.

“I learned to partner with the community and take the time to really hear what they are saying and what would make the program sustainable,” she says. “Because I’m not part of that community, the best thing I can do is invest in it.”

The volunteers’ work led to not only speaking engagements for Narla, but a $10,000 Segal Family Foundation grant and a $5,000 grant in the 2010 YouthBridge Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Competition, organized by WUSTL’s Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.

The grants moved the program forward, and Narla has been happy to see its impact on the local residents.

“It was so great to go back to Uganda last summer and see that they were able to get to advanced level schooling or get jobs,” she says. “My favorite part had been that one participant was able to purchase land; it was really encouraging to see that their hard work had paid off.”

Narla says she is especially excited about the opportunity to work on the Native American reservation in her home state. She is eager to use her knowledge to help educate people about diabetes and other health issues that plague the community and to one day serve as a primary care physician in similar areas.

“This is the work I like to do. I’m glad there are opportunities like Teach for America,” she says. “Service has always been my key attitude.”