BIOLOGY STUDENT WINS NIH FUNDING FOR BRAIN DEVELOPMENT RESEARCH
By Lida Tunesi
At 35, Sami Sauma (Biology) says he’s older than most of the other Ph.D. candidates in his lab. He also brings different experiences, which are now propelling him forward.
In 2021, Sauma was awarded a National Research Service Award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, part of the National Institutes of Health. The award provides over $31,000 for two years for Sauma to conduct dissertation research on how metabolism affects brain development. It also provides a plan for Sauma to reach his training goals with his mentor, Professor Patrizia Casaccia, the founding director of the Neuroscience Initiative at the Advanced Science Research Center (CUNY ASRC) at the Graduate Center and Einstein Professor of Biology at the Graduate Center.
“Sami has a tremendous passion for science,” Casaccia said, “a level of commitment that is unprecedented, and the willingness to go the extra step. I am convinced that he will excel and make important contributions to the field of developmental neurobiology.”
The Casaccia lab studies oligodendrocytes, a type of cell responsible for producing the myelin sheath, which insulates nerve fibers in the central nervous system and ensures healthy brain function. Sauma’s research looks at oligodendrocyte progenitors, which develop into mature oligodendrocytes. He asks how these precursor cells sense and respond to changes in metabolism.
Some of Sauma’s curiosity for the subject came from his time working in a laboratory as research technician. He participated in a project that addressed how metabolism affects tumor biology and whether it’s possible to put a patient on a diet that “starves” the tumor while still feeding the rest of their body.
“From that experience I have an interest in metabolism, but from my own experience also,” Sauma said. “I have followed a ketogenic diet for years, and it has really changed my perspective on what metabolism is, what it does, and how important it is for how we act and feel physically, mentally, and emotionally.”
Today, Sauma investigates how metabolic changes affect a progenitor cell’s ability to mature into an oligodendrocyte. The Casaccia lab has seen that in patients with multiple sclerosis, metabolism plays a crucial role in the progression of the disease. The link between certain metabolites and epigenetics, or how behaviors and the environment affect genes, might provide an answer.
“I’m taking these progenitor cells, growing them in a dish, and asking if I make specific alterations to the metabolic environment, for example, glucose, the culture media, how do the cells respond?” Sauma said. “What does the epigenome look like, and how does cell behavior change?”
Sauma, who experienced some setbacks early in his career, has worked to build resilience and confidence and encourages other students to do the same.
“People should not sell themselves short,” he said. “One helpful piece of advice was to frame it [on the award application] as a learning experience, something that’s propelling you. I want people to know there are fellow travelers out there who have had struggles and now find themselves in the position of talking themselves up in a very competitive application.”
Besides funding, the NRSA encourages students to carefully think about what they want from their Ph.D., Sauma explained. It requires applicants to detail the training they are seeking, including gaining new expertise and enhancing their communication skills by presenting their work at conferences and writing scientific articles. Applicants’ mentors work with the students to generate a detailed plan, and that means that communication is crucial.
“Definitely get on the same page as your PI,” Sauma said. “Whether you get the award or not, it’s an excellent template to say, this is what I’m seeking under your mentorship.”
Sauma has enjoyed working at the CUNY ASRC and appreciates the opportunities it provides beyond the Casaccia lab. The other neuroscience professors provide expertise in different parts of the field, he said, and he has collaborated with the Structural Biology Initiative to use some of their technology and facilities.
“It’s a big umbrella and a great space physically,” Sauma said. “Everybody there is excellent and it’s been a wonderful experience for me.”
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