Roksana Azad Receives an NIH Predoctoral Fellowship of Over $97,000 to Study a Protein That is Linked to Diabetes and Cancer

Roksana Azad

By Lida Tunesi

Ph.D. student Roksana Azad (Biochemistry), a student researcher in the Structural Biology Initiative at the Advanced Science Research Center at The Graduate Center, CUNY (CUNY ASRC), was awarded an F31 Predoctoral Fellowship from the National Institutes of Health. The award, of more than $97,000 over three years, will go towards Azad’s tuition and health insurance, and will provide a stipend as well as travel to scientific meetings.

But for Azad, who divides her time between structural biology research, volunteer outreach, and science communication, much of the achievement lies in having applied to the fellowship in the first place. 

“Being a first-generation and minority female student, it’s not always easy, and people will assume or make you feel that you are not good enough to make a difference,” Azad told The Graduate Center. “It was a significant milestone for me to tell myself that I tried and submitted my application.”

Azad works with Kevin Gardner, director of the Structural Biology Initiative and Einstein Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at The Graduate Center and Hunter College. She studies a human protein kinase called hPASK, which is linked to diseases like diabetes and cancer. Her research will both improve scientists’ understanding of the protein and potentially help develop new treatments.

“Roksana is an outstanding member of my group via her contributions to our research,” Gardner said, “both through what she contributes to her own project and what she brings out in others around her. Supported by this competitive fellowship, I see Roksana using structural biology approaches to help us understand how a key protein within our cells senses levels of one kind of nutrient and appropriately controls responses to changes in that nutrient, giving information useful for both understanding cellular physiology and hopefully how we might be able to control that physiology in the future.”

The question of how biological processes are altered during disease has intrigued Azad since she began doing research as an undergraduate at York College. Though she will now be a dual CUNY alum, she wasn’t very familiar with the university when her family moved to the U.S. from Bangladesh in 2011.

“Although I didn’t know much about the college system here in the beginning, after going to a CUNY school for a few semesters I knew that it was one of the best decisions of my life,” Azad said. “CUNY offers extensive support for immigrant students like me who are still learning a new language and culture while trying to get a college degree.”

After graduating from York, Azad was accepted to several Ph.D. programs but decided to return to CUNY because of her love of structural biology research and the collaborative environment of the ASRC.

These days, Azad has her plate full of science both inside and outside CUNY. She volunteers with the IlluminationSpace at the ASRC, which provides fun, interactive learning for field trips, and she visits schools to help students with science projects. Azad is also a science ambassador with the World Science Festival and the BioBus organization, facilitating activities to get kids excited about science.

“I feel very strongly about science communication,” she said, “especially to young minority students who often don’t have a scientist role model at home. I aspire to be the mentor and role model who tells them that if a Muslim immigrant daughter from a low-income family can be an accomplished academic, they can too.”

Azad also finds time to chair the ASRC-Graduate Students League, which facilitates collaboration and networking for graduate students across the five ASRC initiatives and other CUNY campuses. She has a clear vision for her plans after CUNY as well.

“My ultimate career goal is to become a principal investigator at an institute focusing on both research and teaching,” she said. “I envision myself working closely with clinical researchers to apply my research findings in biomedical settings for the benefit of humankind.”

Her advice for other students looking to get a fellowship? “Just do it.

“If you are really passionate and excited about something, you should do it regardless of what anyone says or thoughts about the outcome or rejection from the beginning,” Azad said. “You need to believe in yourself and go for it.”

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing

Submitted on: APR 27, 2021

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