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Photo of Alli Abolarin
May 7, 2019

Ambitious Abolarin has designs on biotech career

Written By: Tom Ziemer

Alli Abolarin’s final semester at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has delivered a valuable lesson, though not through an influential professor, course or project.

Instead, he’s found an unexpected teacher: an excess of free time.

“Honestly, I realized this semester that I need to be busy in order to be efficient,” says the fifth-year biomedical engineering major, who’s only taking two courses as his undergraduate journey winds down.

Abolarin has certainly stayed busy since arriving in Madison from New York through UW-Madison’s Posse Program, which recruits students from historically underrepresented backgrounds, trains them as leaders, and supports them through full-tuition scholarships.

He’s worked in two research labs in the College of Engineering and spent part of a summer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology through the Amgen Scholars Program. He’s studied abroad in Denmark and Singapore and traveled to Israel with a group of multicultural students.

As a Leaders in Engineering Excellence and Diversity (LEED) Scholar, he’s volunteered to recruit and support younger engineering students. He’s been a sprinter on the UW-Madison club track and field team.

And that’s all on top of his engineering coursework, including six semesters of prototype design projects in biomedical engineering.

“It’s been a good five years. I’ve learned a lot and I’ve had some really great opportunities,” says Abolarin, who will have a large contingent of family members in the Camp Randall Stadium stands at commencement. “I think I was able to get the UW experience of being able to go out there and make an impact.”

Now, Abolarin hopes to expand his impact after graduation.

He’s still mulling his next step, but he’s got a long-term vision: He plans to return to school in a few years to earn his PhD in chemical and biological engineering and then work in the biotechnology industry.

“I really wish to be part of a project that changes the medical industry,” says Abolarin, citing the drug Humira, which treats a range of autoimmune diseases, as an example. He spent the summer of 2018 working at AbbVie, the biopharmaceutical company that makes Humira, and heard patient testimonials.

“I just want to be a part of something like that, something where I can’t even fathom the scale of the impact,” he adds.

As an undergraduate researcher, he’s studied the mechanisms behind protein aggregation in neurodegenerative diseases in the lab of Regina Murphy, the Kreuz-Bascom Professor and R. Byron Bird Department Chair of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

He’s since shifted his focus to working on soft materials for biomedical applications—such as polymer films used in drug delivery—under the direction of David Lynn, the Duane H. and Dorothy M. Bluemke Professor and Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Abolarin contributed to similar research during his summer at MIT.

He says the Department of Biomedical Engineering’s design curriculum strengthened his communication skills with both teammates and clients and instilled experience in going through an iterative design process that requires creativity and constant evaluation.

He’ll also take a wider worldview into his career, thanks to his experiences abroad. He spent semesters in two vastly different countries—cosmopolitan Singapore and the much more insular Denmark—and explored Israel as part of a UW Hillel trip designed to bring together Jewish and non-Jewish students to see the complexities of the country.

“I know in the future, whatever company I work for, it has to be a global company to make that large impact,” he says, “so one thing I knew going into college was that I had to develop my cultural competency and just be able to communicate across different cultures.”