Arianna Lopez toes the start line before a 1500-meter race, palms sweaty, heart thumping.
The three-and-three-quarter laps event is a special kind of cruel: short enough to demand sprinting ability, long enough to ensure the slow burn of lactic acid buildup. Pondering the nearly five uncomfortable minutes that lie ahead can cause the mind to wander, so Lopez makes a point of locking eyes with her coach, Sean Graham, and listening for instructions. It’s not that she doesn’t know what to do—she simply finds calm in her coach’s guidance.
Before Lopez, CAS/BS ’20, leaves AU’s track program next spring, Graham’s goal is for her to hone her instincts as a middle-distance runner and generate that poise internally.
“It’s making sure that, whether a race goes out fast or slow, she doesn’t care,” Graham says. “She’ll have the strength to do it, or the speed. It’s reaching that final confidence level of knowing she has all the pieces.”
Maintaining her composure amid a series of unpredictable variables breeds success—whether Lopez is racing around a rubberized oval or a sterilized lab in the Beeghly Chemistry Building. Since her sophomore year, the New Jersey native has also made the latter her home, conducting research under Professor Monika Konaklieva.
A grant from AU’s chemistry and biochemistry departments and a scholarship from the NASA-affiliated DC Space Grant Consortium allowed Lopez to spend last summer in the lab, developing chemical compounds intended to limit the brain plaque buildup associated with Alzheimer’s. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 5 million Americans are living with the disease—a number that’s expected to quadruple by 2050.
“I don’t have to hold her hand anymore,” Konaklieva says of Lopez. “She overcame a lot of self-doubt and she’s a very professional woman. I’m proud of that. Now she knows if she sits down and thinks about [a research question], she can pretty much do it by herself.”
This summer, a Mathias Summer Fellowship stipend is keeping Lopez in the lab, where her research has expanded to include synthesizing compounds to combat respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which primarily affects young children and the elderly. Lopez, who is enrolled in AU’s combined chemistry bachelor’s/master’s program, plans to focus her thesis on RSV.
The pulls of sport, scholarship, and service stretch the junior biochemistry student thin. During the spring semester, her Mondays included early morning weight training, research, class, track practice, more research, and two evening hours at Capital Caring. Lopez sought out the volunteer opportunity at the DC hospice center to help her cope with the loss of her grandmother, Paula Valdes, last April.
“Our motto is: No one should ever have to die alone,” Lopez says. “We sit with patients, talk with them, hold their hand, and sometimes I’ll just play peaceful music if they don’t have the strength to talk.”
Meeting the emotional, physical, and academic demands of her schedule was initially a struggle. But diligence and the occasional reminder from those around her to exhale have made life easier.
Graham scheduled “Arianna time” at the end of the Eagles’ afternoon practice block to force Lopez to relax for a few minutes. Konaklieva encourages her students to focus on their most immediate needs, including grades and mental health, before research. And Lopez has learned that it’s OK to take a break and say “no.”
With growing confidence, she embraces a mantra that applies to competing on the track, solving chemical equations, and managing life’s obligations: “Figure out that balancing act.”