As a rising senior working on his final chemistry project, Aseal Birir ’18 is thrilled to be using the science knowledge he’s acquired at Pomona on a medically relevant topic.
Under the guidance of Chemistry Professor Chuck Taylor, Birir, who hopes to become a doctor in the future, is focusing his research on reducing the risk of bacterial infections in hospitalized patients.
The goal is to understand the types of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released by bacteria that are known infectious agents for many hospital-acquired infections. Working with Soleil Worthy ’18 in an ongoing project led by Professor Taylor, Birir aims to use the VOCs as biomarkers in a breath test, offering a quicker way to test patients for infectious disease.
It’s substantial research for an undergraduate to pursue. And, on top of his academics, the Novato, Calif. native finds time to be a star running back for the Pomona-Pitzer football team and to volunteer as a mentor for young men at a local high school.
Birir’s scientific journey started early at Pomona after his senior year at Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, Calif. As an incoming first-year student, Birir participated in the summer High Achieving Program (HAP) for minority students interested in pursuing a career in the STEM fields.
The HAP experience in Professor EJ Crane’s biochemistry lab provided Birir the perfect introduction to scientific research. It also laid the foundation for the academic support which would be key to balance his rigorous curriculum with a full athletic schedule with the Sagehen football team.
Professor Taylor points to Birir’s perseverance in the lab and on the field.
“When experiments don't go as planned, extra work is needed reviewing the data and conditions to determine why the experiment didn't work out as expected,” says Taylor who has worked with Birir since he entered Pomona. “Some students would throw up their hands and say ‘I'm done’ but Aseal would come back and we'd work through the problem together.”
“You can't teach a person to have this kind of drive, but by getting to know them you may be able to learn what gets them excited and tap into that,” adds Taylor. “Ultimately, the drive comes from within and is a combination of intellectual curiosity and willingness to learn from one's mistakes. This is probably the trait that makes Aseal a great football player and what will make him an excellent physician.”
As an athlete, Birir made his mark right away in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) as the best running back in the conference and earned All-SCIAC and Rookie of the Year awards during his freshman year.
“Aseal’s athletic abilities and his leadership on and off the field have been instrumental in the improvement of our entire football program,” says Sagehen Football Head Coach John Walsh, who recruited him in 2013.
Voted captain by his peers as a junior, Birir will also serve as captain during his senior season, during which he has the opportunity to make Sagehen history and become the all-time leading rusher in the football program.
“I’m proud of our senior class and what we’ve accomplished as a group,” says Birir of his football teammates. Sticking together through hard work and workouts they have helped turn around morale and bring the program back to a winning record.
Setting an example off campus is also important for Birir. On Fridays, he volunteers for the program Young Men’s Circle at Pomona High School through the Pomona College student group BLOC (Building Leaders On Campus). The program involves college volunteers meeting with high school students, encouraging them to pursue their goals through either workshops or conversation.
“We try to use what we have learned about our own paths to college to help these students purse whatever goals they have; may that be college or something else,” says Birir. “Young Men’s Circle works to bridge that opportunity gap by providing the kids access to volunteers who were in similar situations to theirs not too long ago.”
Another factor in Birir’s success is the ability to forge relationships with his mentors. Two high-school coaches greatly influenced him to pursue a college football career and to follow his dream of becoming a doctor. Coach Mark Ridley put him in contact with college coaches, while Mick O’Mera was his coach and the AP chemistry teacher – and one of the reasons why Birir is a chemistry major today.
“Without him [Ridley], I probably would not have even realized that I could play football in college or even how to go about pursuing it,” says Birir. “He still keeps in contact with me and is planning on coming to Claremont this year to see me play.”
What does Birir want to accomplish in his final year as a Sagehen?
“I guarantee if you ask Aseal what is more important, his personal record or for the team to win games, he will always want team success,” says Walsh.
“Win SCIAC and beat CMS (Claremont-Mudd-Scripps),” Birir responded, as a true leader and Sagehen.