UMSL and Leadership Academy alumna Arzu Karimova poses for a "Dear World" photo last fall at the inaugural Chicago Ideas Week. Other subjects in the photo series, which involves the subject's scrawling messages on their bodies, include Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and NBA player Shane Battier. Karimova co-founded a company that is working on new form of cervical cancer screening that she hopes will replace Pap smears. (Photo by "Dear World"/

Seven years ago, Arzu Karimova wrote that one of her goals after graduating from the University of Missouri–St. Louis was to “fight for causes she believes will benefit the community.” And today, Karimova is doing just that. She is the co-founder of CerviaDX, a developer of a new screening test for cervical cancer based in Evanston, Ill., and a founding member of Global Youth Action Network, a group working to maximize the worldwide impact of youth activism through collaboration.

Karimova originally wrote her goal in a submitted bio for the 21st Century Leadership Academy, an intensive weeklong residential leadership development program overseen by UMSL’s Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life. (The institute is accepting applications through March 16 for this year’s academy, which will be May 20-25.)

Even then – as a busy UMSL student seeking a master’s degree in public policy administration – she was working to benefit her community. She mentored three girls: a seven-year-old, a 20-year-old mother of three and a 19-year-old mother of one.

A native of Azerbaijan, Karimova was an accomplished student fluent in four languages. She said her participation in the 21st Century Leadership Academy bolstered her strength and confidence to achieve her goal of fighting for the causes she believed would help her community.

“The academy promotes and encourages women to stand up and be an active member of the community,” Karimova said. “The best way you can make an impact is to become part of the process and participate.”

A highlight for Karimova, she said, was hearing a talk given by Sen. Claire McCaskill, then fresh off a failed bid to be Missouri’s first woman governor.

“She told how on a personal level it impacted her and how she dealt with losing the election,” Karimova recalled. “It was very impactful because I realized she was just like any of us. The only difference then between she and I was that she knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to go for it even though no other woman had been successful.”

As a co-founder of CerviaDX, Karimova works to get the word out about the company’s new molecular diagnostic for screening of cervical cancer, which she hopes will some day replace Pap smears as the more-common testing method. According to the Mayo Clinic, a Pap smear is a safe method for cervical cancer screening, but it’s not foolproof. CerviaDX claims their screening is more precise than a Pap smear.

Karimova got involved with CerviaDX after her concern with being misdiagnosed herself with a precancerous growth in her cervix following a Pap smear. Her initial diagnosis was later overturned, and she didn’t have to undergo a procedure that could have led to infertility or pregnancy complications.

Karimova said she got lucky. Her hope, she said, is that women won’t have to rely on luck at all.

Dayna Stock, manager of the Sue Shear Institute and director of the 21st Century Leadership Academy, said Karimova is a good example of what academy grads go on to achieve. Academy participants take part in interactive panel discussions, skill-building workshops, small-group exercises and networking opportunities. The students hone their leadership skills with elected officials, government leaders and policy advocates.

Stock said the academy exposes young women to women in public life who are doing things the students might not have otherwise considered. She echoed Karimova’s sentiment that students tend to have greater confidence and a clearer sense of their future upon leaving the academy.

The next 21st Century Leadership Academy will be from May 20 to May 25 at UMSL. Thirty-six “Shear Fellows” from nine universities will be admitted to the academy, including four students from UMSL. There is no cost for students to attend.

The Sue Shear Institute is accepting applications now through March 16. Click here to apply.

Ryan Heinz

Ryan Heinz